Avoiding Info Dump, Pt. 4 ~
One of the most difficult concepts to manage, especially with novice writers, is Back Story: how much, when, told by whom, to serve what purpose, etc. We craft and develop, structure and refine our characters, their world, main plots, sub-plots, and so on. To us, all of this information feels intrinsic to the story. But it’s not.
Just because it was part of your writing process, doesn’t mean it needs to part of the reading experience.
Back Story can cover a variety of things but I like to see it as any story behind the story. This could be with a focus on character or plot. One of the big imbalances that crops up is giving the reader too much too soon.
We want readers to know why the story is happening; why this series of events is worth reading about and that means explaining things out so that they’re not lost. But too much information all at once is overwhelming and slows down the pace of a book. J.R.R. Tolkien was the master of back story. His world building would go on for chapters before the main plot was even addressed. For die-hard fans this kind of detail is often still a struggle, even though we know it will help us to better understand the totally awesome story that’s coming.
Contemporary writers don’t have this luxury.
With the advent of new technology, the shift in the overall value system of 1st world countries, and less time spent reading/studying the classics, readers today generally don’t have the attention span they once did. Now, that doesn’t mean your work has to be fast-paced with limited attention to detail. No, quite to the contrary. If you move too fast and leave out the juicy details readers get upset that you’re telling and not showing the story.
So, how do we find that all important balance?
It’s a constant game of tug-of-war between writer and reader: you give just enough information to have the events of the moment make sense and then feed your readers bread crumbs – a bit here, a bit there – in small sprinkles and tiny chunks.
Hide information in dialogue (remember, little snip-its – we don’t want our characters espousing huge chunks of exposition)
Hint at concepts when you describe setting/atmosphere (lines like, The trees were never as green as they were the year before the great destruction. And then don’t mention anything else about that important bit of back story until the next page when a character talks about a related topic)
Allow character reactions to speak louder than words (A character wants to enter the old McNight Estate but his buddy backs away in horror and spiritually crosses himself with a silent prayer. Nothing more is said about the horrors of that place but readers know anyway)
Mention small chunks of information to help identify passage of time (Our characters need to get from one place to another be it by some form of modern transportation or their own locomotion. Utilize some of these moments, when it’s ideal to give the reader a sense of time lengthening, to provide insight into what is happening in the story – internal monologue or narrative exposition)
These are just a handful of techniques to help you focus your writing down to the essentials. Basically, what we need to do with our stories is assume the readers know everything we do. You will find whole chunks, maybe even pages, of back story that are not necessary. Highlight these areas for yourself. Then, reduce them to between one and five lines using the methods I’ve described above.
Above all, trust your reader.
It’s hard to do sometimes because we don’t want to lead people so far off track that they get lost, but they bring to the table valuable reading experience. Analyze your intent for including information. If you’re spoon-feeding your reader, reduce your detail. Make them look for their food and work out how things relate for themselves. Believe me, it’s a much more enjoyable meal that way 🙂