Tuesday, December 11, 2012

When Does Backstory and Exposition Work?

by Jill Williamson

Backstory and exposition are tricky things to handle in fiction. You've all likely heard the cautions against both, but it's practically impossible to write a story without including some. Your characters' lives are complex, your plot is complex, and you want to convey that in your story. So how do you do it?

WHEN DOES BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION WORK?
1. When it's relevant to the scene
Make sure that you save your bits of backstory and exposition for just the right moment. Don't put a flashback of the time your main character almost drowned when she's in math class. Save it for when she's near a body of water.

2. When the plot demands it
As to our girl who's afraid of water, better yet, you could save the backstory and use it at a point when the plot comes to a standstill without it. Our heroine must get the golden key from the island in the middle of the lake. The story can't move forward until the key is obtained. But, uh oh. It comes out that our girl is afraid of water.

3. When you've made them curious
As Jeff Gerke has said to me, "Don't answer questions that no one is asking." I've done this all too often. I've got a bit of really cool research that I'm dying to stick into my story, or I've created this powerful childhood trauma that I feel explains a lot of how my character came to be the way he is. But if the reader isn't curious about my character's childhood trauma, if it's irrelevant to the plot, and I need to keep it out of the story. The same is true for scientific facts. Make your reader want to know, or don't bother sharing.

If you've carefully planted questions in the reader's mind, he will be anxious to learn the answers to those questions. Perhaps you've shown your character get nervous around water, but you haven't said why. When another character asks her to go to the lake for a swim, she snaps at him. When they travel over a bridge, she hesitates, grips the railing, maybe even mentions that she doesn't like lakes or rivers. But you leave it at that, saving the reveal of her fear for the perfect moment.

HOW TO DELIVER BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION
1. As a big revelation
You've made your character curious and saved the information until the best possible moment, then reveal it in a dramatic way. But you can't reveal everything in this manner or your story would become cliché.

2. Dialogue
You can reveal information in dialogue, but it must be a natural conversation. If it sounds forced, it likely is.

3. Summary
You can summarize, but be careful to make sure that it's relevant to the plot or it can quickly become sneaky telling.

4. Flashback
You can take the reader back in time and show what happened. This also needs to be done very carefully. And use this rarely, too. A book filled with flashbacks can really annoy readers.

TIPS AS YOU WRITE
-Keep it short- Especially if you're summarizing or giving the reader a flashback. The shorter, the better.

-Shards of glass- Think of your backstory and exposition as a stained glass window. Throw it on the floor until it shatters, then stick those little shards of glass into the story where they fit best. Look for places where the reader might be curious, where the information is relevant, or the plot can't move forward without the information.

-The dump puppet trick- This is what Jeff Gerke and others call it when you have some information that needs to come out, so you designate one character as the dumb puppet. In my book Captives, Mason goes to work in the Surrogacy Center. He has never seen such medical equipment and asks Ciddah many questions to learn what's what. The reader learns right along with him. Pay attention when you watch movies and TV shows. Hollywood uses the dumb puppet all the time.
Imagine that rug is a diving board!

-The Pope in the pool- This is a screenwriting trick from Blake Snyder. There was a point in a movie when some boring set-up information needed to get explained by the Pope. So rather than having the hero go to the Pope's office, he found the Pope in a swimming pool. So even though the boring, need-to-know information was coming out in dialogue, the reader was fascinated at the idea that the Pope might wear a swimsuit and swim. The oddness of the scene disguised the exposition. You can use this trick too.

-Make it realistic- Be really hard on yourself when asking if what you've written is realistic. Would people really say that?

-Make it a mystery- Whenever you can make information hard for your main character to get, you increase reader's curiosity. The bigger the mystery, the more the reader wants to know.

-Pretend the reader already knows- Whether you're writing a story that takes place in Canton, Georgia or a fantasy realm, resist the urge to include random facts about the place or your characters or magic. Write your book as if your reader already knows the facts. Then as you edit, you can insert critical details when necessary.

-Don't skip the cool stuff!- I did this in my enovella that I just finished. I had a scene where a character was injured in a life and death situation. I ended the chapter on a cliffhanger. Then at the start of the next chapter, I summarized, saying the character was fine. Bad move! I had high tension going, and the reader wanted that experience to go on. I'd built up something interesting, and I needed to follow through. Exposition to tie up this loose end was the wrong choice.

Do you have trouble with backstory and exposition? What tricks have you tried? Which ones would you like to try?


29 comments:

  1. I agree with what you have say about telling backstory if the reader wants it! Look at JK Rowling... I loved the backstory on Harry's parents, so I don't think backstory is the evil thing people sometimes act like it is.
    Now, that I think of it, I probably need to include more backstory.

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    1. Now there's something you don't hear every day. Add more backstory! LOL
      The cool think about learning all the rules of writing is when you get to the point where things start to clear. You think, "Ah haaa..." And then you can break rules on purpose because you know what you're doing, if that makes sense. :-)

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  2. I think I tend to give information that answers questions that were never asked, but for the most part I feel like I do a good job. This is a favorite of my WIP:

    I threaded the worm onto the hook, hiding the metal, avoiding ends hanging off. Grandpa had lectured me many times on how to bait a hook properly. How I despised it then. How I treasured and missed them now. It wouldn’t be long. Grinning may not have been appropriate at the thought, but I did it anyway.

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    1. Good! And that fits the scene, too, Alyson. If she were to think of Grandma and baiting while she was in line at the cafeteria, it wouldn't be as powerful.

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  3. Thank you for the wonderful post! I needed this.

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  4. Great post, Jill! I think the trickiest case of this I've found is in sequels--when you don't want the reader to be lost about what happened in book 1 if they started with book 2, but don't want to dump it all one them...and can't exactly save it as a big reveal if it's something readers of 1 already know...

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    1. That is very tricky, Roseanna. I tend to leave everything out for fear I'll add too much. But readers sometimes need a hint of a reminder too, depending on how long it's been since they read book one. Tricky stuff.

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  5. Such a cool post, Jill! I love it when readers filter backstory into a novel and you hardly notice it! The worst back-story job I've ever read was in Les Miserables when Hugo left the plot for 70 or so pages to explain how Thenardier comes into the story. It was all about the Battle of Waterloo, and the character did not come in till the very last couple of pages. *headdesk*

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    1. LOL
      Well, we'll cut him some slack. The standards were different back then. If you do this today, you will likely not get published. Unless you do it in a book after you're already a bestseller, then you can do what you want--though I don't recommend such risks. :-)

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  6. I don't think I put in lots of backstory all over the place, but when it does come, I tend to overload a little. And I totally recognize the "dumb puppet" method from other books and TV shows; it always seemed very convenient and I didn't know there was a name for it! Good post Jill!

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    1. Thanks, Katie. Yeah, Jeff calls it the dumb puppet. I've also seen stupid puppet. Don't know why it has to be a puppet! LOL

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  7. This is so perfect for me right now because at the moment, I'm having trouble revealing some of the most important things in a way that isn't weird or cheesy. Thank you!

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  8. Oh! Thank you so much Jill!!!
    I've wondered about backstory the whole time I've been writing! I've always wondered if I'm adding too much in or does it need more explanation? I find the backstory really hard to add in. I mean, I know my characters backstory and all... but how to fit it in there, that another story! =P
    Thanks!!!

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    1. You're welcome! I'm sure you're going to find the perfect balance. Keep at it!

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  9. Thanks for the post!
    This is something I'm dealing with in my WIP, where my character's past has a huge influence on how he acts and treats others. It's hard not to just dump loads of backstory on the reader.

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    1. Fight the urge. Let it be a mystery, give us hints to it, and it will create reader sympathy for him, which is good if he's being a jerk. :-)

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  10. GREAT post! I was smiling to myself the whole time I was reading it, but I lost it at the picture of the Pope on the "diving board." Oh, goodness.
    Anyway, this is something I'm trying to figure out now. My character's past influences almost everything she does, but I want the readers to figure that out without me shoving it at them.

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    1. I lost it too, Anna. Just started snuffling and snorting at myself this morning.

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    2. LOL! Sorry, guys. No disrespect toward the Pope intended. But, why can't the guy go for a swim? I'm just saying...

      Anna, my suggestion is to just keep writing that first draft. Try to be mindful of places where you've info dumped, highlight them if you have to, then you can come back later and look for places to make changes, to space the information out.

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    3. By "lost it," I mean I had an LOL moment ;)

      And thanks for the advice! I'll definitely keep that in mind as I write!

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  11. I've definitely been away too long. I'm pumped to try out the 'dumb puppet' and the Pope in the pool! Great post, Jill. Makes me want to start writing. But I'm in the composting stage. Guess I could try a short story... yes, yes I think so. Thanks for the idea. ;)

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    1. LOL! You're welcome, Emii. Hope it comes out good. And welcome back! :-)

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  12. This was so, so helpful! I'm struggling with backstory right about now, and I will definitely be using this! Thank you!

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  13. This couldn't have been posted at a better moment. I'm struggling with backstory and been in a slump, came to gtw, and there's my solution! :) Thanks

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    1. Whoo! It's awesome when that happens, Lia. Happy writing/editing!
      :-)

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  14. Great post.

    Ah, Stephanie, do you remember that desperate email I sent you once "backstory? how?" and you said, "Go to Jill." That's where I first heard the "shards of glass" deal. Love it.

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