Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sometimes it's just got to be said

In some cases the writer doesn’t care that readers are put off by backstory and exposition. They need to know stuff and the quickest way to tell them, is to just tell them. Sometimes it works for the genre. The lead robber of the bank heist will give the “Let’s go over it one more time...” speech, and it's kind of expected.

Sci-fi geeks want to know how your teleportation device is supposed to work (so they can scoff at your poor understanding of quantum physics). And if the reader is heavily invested enough they’ll even let slide the ridiculous rules to your made-up sport that makes no sense (150 points for catching a snitch? Really?) .

However, assuming you want to work in your backstory/exposition in a subtle and elegant way, there are a number of techniques available to you.

Dialogue is the simplest way, having one person tell another person what the author wants the reader to know. But being blatant about it will read clunky. One guy saying, “So, how does this thing work?” and the other one says, “Well, what happens is...”is not subtle.

Even though one character doesn’t know something, and the other one has the information, just asking and answering stuff on a whim doesn’t feel real or interesting. Same with backstory.

You have to make sure the transfer of the information is done in a way that feels like it was an integral part of the story. Often this requires some of sleight of hand.

Camouflage. Sometimes you want to add some info into the story without slowing the pace (or bringing it to a grinding halt) or you don’t want the reader to realise the relevance of a piece of information until later in the story.

The easiest way to do this is to work the information (backstory or exposition) into the action. Break it up into small pieces (big chunks tend to draw attention to themselves) and mention it  in natural ways. So, let’s say two characters are fishing and you want the reader to know one of the men spent some time in jail years ago, how long he was in there and what crime he committed.

The most important thing here is first you need to make the fishing scene interesting in and of itself. If you can’t do that with two guys fishing, change it. Forget the exposition stuff, is what’s happening interesting? Why are the characters there? What do they want from each other? Build that up first. If it isn’t a well-grounded scene it will show. Having them hanging out in a bar and they happen to reveal stuff to each other is going to look contrived.

So here’s an example of what I mean. Two guys like the same girl so have a bet. Whoever catches the biggest fish gets to ask her out. It starts good natured, but both sabotage the other’s attempts in numerous humorous and creative ways. Eventually tempers flare, one pulls a knife, the other, a tough looking son of a bitch, backs down. The guy with the knife expected more of a fight so is surprised. The tough guy says, “I ain’t going back for killing a dipshit like you.” And then he walk off. That’s just one part of the information revealed . This may seem like taking the scenic route for what could be conveyed in a few lines if you were just direct about it, to which I would say 1) A whole book could be reduced to a few lines if you were direct about it, and 2) Have you seen the size of a Stephen King novel?

A big part of the reason why it’s okay to go to such lengths is because in a scene like the one I just made up I wouldn’t just be establishing his criminal record, I would also be establishing character (through their actions), setting scene (the fishing hole would be a good way to give a sense of what part of the world they were in), establishing other characters (the girl and anyone else they mention) and setting up conflict (that I could also use later). And probably a bunch of other stuff too.  My point is, setting up a situation to serve only one function is inefficient and simplistic, and will make the story read pedestrian. You have to have more than one thing going on, and that’s why you can hide stuff in there.

Decoy. You make it look like the reason you mention something is for one reason, but really it’s for another. For example, you want the audience to know Indy is scared of snakes, so you have him escape from a group of spear throwing natives, leap into a river, get onto a moving seaplane, and then when you think he’s safe, he freaks out about the pilots pet snake in the cockpit. It shows Indy isn’t superhuman, and his fear of snakes is understandable, a pretty common fear, and it adds a little humour. As far as the audience knows it’s just a cute tag to an action sequence. But later in the movie when he’s shut in a tomb full of thousands of snakes we already know how he feels about it.

Humour. If something is funny the reader will assume that’s reason enough to mention it and won’t twig you’re actually using it to provide backstory or planting information for later. As mentioned above, humour

Contrast. If things seem out of place or odd, then you can get away with having a character relay quite dry information. If the hitman is an actual nun, then her explaining who wants the MC dead, what she did to track him down, and why she’s doing the job, is going to be of interest.

Reverse Engineering. This is probably the best way to get the information to the reader, although not always possible. You tell them nothing. If you have the thing you want to explain happen first, it creates the need to know in the reader (assuming it’s interesting enough) and allows you to put the information (often backstory) later in the story.

If the thief grabs his wife’s hairspray on his way out, breaks into the museum, sneaks past the guards, takes out the hairspray... and sprays it in the air to show the laser beams protecting the thing he’s going to steal, you don’t need a scene earlier where he explains what the security system is and how hairspray will help overcome it, you can just show it.

If the reader really wants to know the information it makes your work a lot easier. Once they WANT to know, then it is no longer backstory or exposition, it’s an essential part of the narrative. But don’t assume they’ll want to know just because. They need a reason.

If you found this post useful please remember to retweet it. Cheers. 


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Oh subtlety. Sigh. Thank you for reminding me of these rules and posting them here Moody. I write sci-fi and sometimes it's hard trying to get the information on the page. Is it bad to have the character ruminate them over in his head? Or deliver it piecemeal through snips of conversation. Oy. The dreaded infodump. Subtlety subtlety subtlety.

Christa Desir said...

This is excellent and nicely written. I find your blog so informative and thoughtful. Keep at it. Please.

Theresa Milstein said...

I love the decoy example. Your example was such a funny part of the movie.

JK Rowling uses Harry Potter's lack of knowledge of the wizarding world as a great way to introduce backstory.

Sarah McCabe said...

Your opening statement assumes that all readers dislike backstory and exposition. This is far from true. I, for example, love backstory and enjoy exposition. I know many other readers who are the same.

Emily R. King said...

I like a well-written backstory, and you give some fair examples of how to weave it in. Sometimes it takes a bit of editing to make it flow and not feel so obvious, but if you keep working on it, the information will be there without feeling forced. It's all about keeping the flow!

JJ Roa Rodriguez said...

Very good. You are making me more eager to do some writings myself.

Well done...


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Reverse engineering is difficult, but not impossible. I like short snippets of exchange between characters best.
Although I still never explain exactly how a teleporter works!

mooderino said...

@Michael - the thing is many writers just get it out of the way however they can, and most readers just plough through. It's not like a couple of paragraphs of backstory is going to make soemone throw the book across the room. This is more about finessing it if that's what pleases you, as it does me.

@Christa - thank you.

@Theresa - movies tend to be much more efficient at this sort of thing.

@Sarah-I did originally qualify my approach here (matter of taste etc.) but the post was getting so long I cut it. I think the third paragraph makes it clear who this is post is aimed at.

@ER-and it's also about where you place it. Too many writers try to stick up front when it isn't appropriate there.

@JJ-glad to hear it.

@Alex-what about a time machine?

Samantha said...

You hit it right on the nose! I mean nothing is more annoying than having characters randomly burst in with a speech explaining their entire back story. Thanks for the post!

Botanist said...

Great post, and good advice. I am still struggling with this. The most important thing about the subtle approach(es) is to make it seem natural that the information should come out in that way at that time.

BTW, I write sci-fi, and one thing I flatly refuse to do is explain how anything works. How often in real life have you stopped to explain how a cellphone works? In my stories, the tech is simply part of the furniture. More important is how it interacts with people's lives.

Bringing essential history into the story, though, that's another matter altogether...

Rebecca Bradley said...

I really like this post. It has given me lots of things to think about. I was obviously already aware of not dropping huge chunks of backstory (you'd have to be a blind blogger not to know that now) but the great thing with this post is you gave some great ideas for dropping information in.

Thanks moody!

Jen said...

This is a great post, Mood. Backstory has become such a dirty word! I love your examples of decoy and camouflage - these are my favourite ways to get backstory in.

And I agree with Botanist: I skip all the explanations in sci-fi, because I agree that most people don't know and don't care how technology works, as long as it works! If I'm honest, i don't even know how my car works!

Ellie Garratt said...

I agree with Botanist - we don't need to explain anything in sci-fi, just make it part of the world the characters inhabit. Anything more is what I call info-dumping, and will bore the reader!

Another thought-provoking post. Thank you!

Ellie Garratt

Creepy Query Girl said...

all really great tips- and I agree the most important thing is to make it feel natural and mesh with the action in a natural way. Nothing is worse than contrived information-giving

Lydia Kang said...

The showing-not-telling thing is a big obstacle for most writers (including myself). It's making it all seamless that's so hard.

mooderino said...

@Samantha-I think it can work fine if it's an interesting backstory, but usually it isn't.

@Botanist-my point was that sci-fi is a genre where you can get away with it, not that it's a requirement. Although I do enjoy a novel idea for an impossible concept.

@Rebecca-you're welcome.

@Jen-I had no idea modern sci-fi writers were so against info-dumping. The ones i used to read as a kid loved it.

@Ellie-and another one. What is this revolution in sci-fi I seemed to have missed?

@CQG-I think contrived is always a bad thing. I think that's when it clearly goes from a matter of taste to bad writing.

@Lydia-very true.

Cheers for all the comments.

Arlee Bird said...

Good examples of ways to uncover back story in a graceful manner. I also like the old technique of a news report on TV or radio that reveals back story, or an newspaper clipping that's read. I once used a character reading aloud an encyclopedia entry that provided some history that explained a motivation for the story to come.

Tossing It Out

Stina said...

This is an awesome post, and will make into my next links post.

Blake Synder has a cool technique mentioned in Save the Cat. The idea is that one person is telling the boring background information, but something is going on that is distracting the mc. For example (in the book), there's one movie (sorry, I'm too lazy to look it up) in which a character is revealing the boring but necessary backstory. Now the two bumbling idiots (it was a comedy) really want to take a leak, but while they're half listening to the boring speech, they're distracted by all things water related. You know, like the little boy statue peeing in the pond.

Dawn M. Hamsher said...

Hi Moody,
I enjoyed this post. You have a lot of good advice in there. I do some of those things in my writing to get information across and I try to make sure whatever goes in is meaningful and needed. As I begin to edit, I'll keep my eyes open for anything that appears "clunky". That word says a lot!

The Write Soil

Cindy said...

This post has a lot of good advice. One method I sometimes use is having my character search for information, so it comes across as both character and reader discovering things at the same time. The most important thing is to keep it interesting..rather than a telling of boring facts.

Michael Di Gesu said...

With backstory often needed to inform the reader, these are excellent ways to introduce backstory in a fun and intriguing way.

Excellent Mood.

Your post always impress me.

Anonymous said...

'My point is, setting up a situation to serve only one function is inefficient and simplistic, and will make the story read pedestrian. You have to have more than one thing going on...'

That's really helpful, Moody :)

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Back story is tricky, but you listed some good tricks.

Unknown said...

That's such a funny way of saying it but you got your point across. I try to use these techniques but it's still a work in progress.

Anonymous said...

This post has really sound advice for new writers and is so well explained. Many new writers do not see the importance of dialogue as a multilayered device, although some new writers find dialogue beyond them. Perhaps a future post could be centred on this writing device and its uses.

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