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Monday, May 7, 2012

Got Info Dump? Get a Paring Knife. AKA: How to Do Backstory

By Cynthia Light Brown

I submitted the first “act” of my upper middle grade urban fantasy to my critique group, looking for high-level feedback (i.e., not line edits, more story arc crit). One of my questions was whether there was any info dumping. I had some sections with some necessary backstory, and had worked to try to rid them of simply dumping information in long sections, and I wanted to know if I had achieved my aims.

I hadn’t. Or at least, not enough. My readers had issues with two of my sections. I’ve done some more trimming and tweaking, but I’m taking a hard look at how I’m doing backtory, and I’m developing a working hierarchy. My suggestions from least preferred to most preferred are below. (One caveat: Except for the first level, which is always a bad idea, all of the levels might work, depending on the story you’re writing. 
1.  Don’t Do This!  Have two people have a conversation where one character tells the another character information that is OBVIOUSLY just for the sake of the reader, because the other character either knows it already, or should know it. (Just in case you’re wondering, I at least wasn’t guilty of this.) This is NEVER a good way to impart needed information.
2.   Use a paragraph or more of exposition to explain things. This is usually not a good idea, although there are certain stories where it works.
3.  Two or more characters have a conversation where one tells the other information. If the dialogue is good, this can work, but it’s best in small doses. I used this one a lot – too much.
4.  Same as #3, but the characters are also doing some thing at the same time that is interesting. This is a method recommended in SAVE THE CAT. But that book is for screenwriting, and it’s easier to distract with fun action in a movie. In a novel, the action can just get in the way unless it’s connected to the actual conversation.
5.   Show the backstory as much as possible. So if you have a world with two species – one green humanoid and another purple insectoid, don’t tell us. Simply reveal those species. This is almost always a good method to use.
6.   Sprinkle information throughout if possible.
7.   Leave out the backstory. I thought I had pared out all of the unnecessary info (and believe me, I had pared out a lot), but in my rewrite I’m taking even more out. Take out so much that the reader is maybe just a tad confused, then back in just enough so they’re not confused anymore. EVERY story – not just fantasies – should have backstory that you never reveal to the reader. If that’s not the case, then either you have dumped too much info on your reader, or you don’t know enough about your plot and characters. The reader may not need to know what town your character was born in or what their middle name is, but you need to know.

So I’ve pared down my two info dump scenes, but I’m off to do some major surgery too. At least one scene has to be completely re-done – different setting, different set of people involved, different (more) action.

Other suggestions? Please comment if you have more thoughts – I know I’m not the only one with info dump issues.

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