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?
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
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.
You can reveal information in dialogue, but it must be a natural conversation. If it sounds forced, it likely is.
You can summarize, but be careful to make sure that it's relevant to the plot or it can quickly become sneaky telling.
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?