JWAM reader request no. 8: How to incorporate backstory

Natalie says:

I’m writing a fantasy novel. One of the characters has a great background story and I’m really struggling with how, or if, I should include it. I don’t want to vomit background all over a plot that’s moving forward at a good pace. I know background info can be kinda trixy. Is it better if I keep most of it to myself and only tell absolute need to know info within the text? Should I not include any at all? How do you know when to include background information and when to leave it out?

Excellent question. There are two basic approaches to this one. (Feel free to suggest others in the comments.)

1. The infodump
This is where you flat out just tell the reader everything you want them to know. It’s a major violation of the show don’t tell rule. (Which frankly is often a really stupid rule. Show me one book that doesn’t at some point tell!) But the main objection is that it’s hard to infodump well. If you stop the plot with a long flashback to the protag’s childhood, you’re apt to annoy the reader who was really wondering if that shiv rotating through the air, heading towards the protag’s throat was going to land or not. Likewise, a pause when the shiv is mere milimetres from the fine hair on the protag’s throat, to expound upon the derivation of the word “shiv” could also cause your reader to groan and skip ahead to see if the shiv misses, or, worse, close the book and read something a tad less digressive.

And, yet, I am extremely partial to Dorothy Dunnett’s infodumps. As well as Jane Austen’s, Kim Stanley Robinson’s, Samuel R. Delany’s, and Minette Waters’ to name a few. I believe there’s one James M. Cain book where he spends several pages talking about the origins of a particular gun. I have zero interest in guns, and can’t remember much about this particular infodump, but at the time I was fascinated. Now, that’s good writing.

In first person, especially, a well-done infodump can establish much about a character. Hunter Bracque in So Yesterday is pretty much all infodumps, all the time. I find him utterly charming.

Keep your infodumps honest, though. I really hate conversational infodumps. This could come from the trauma of having read WAY too many bad science fiction stories, many of which are chockfull of these kind of exchanges:

    Scientist’s daughter, Lotte Fairface: Hank, why are you throwing sand into that well? It seems to be affecting that strange contraption over there.

    Hank: Funny you should ask, Lotte, but, you see, that’s not sand, it’s magnesium calumbanate. It causes the water molecules to bind to the calumbanate to form a reinforced ectoplasmatic force field, which is emitting invisible salitrucic waves that are impacting with the Rooseveletereen engine—not a strange contraption at all, Lotte—and causing its pistons to fire.

    Lotte
    : Oh, Hank! You’re so marvellous. I’m so proud that you’ve invented something so very clever! Um, why is the Rooseveletereen engine turning red and expand—

    [They both die in the world-destroying blast. Good riddance!]

2. Slow seeding
This is what I do most often, seeing as I am not yet a mistress of the infodump. It involves slowly leaking information as the plot unfolds. I hate to turn to P&P yet again, but really Austen was quite the genius for leaking out the backstory:

    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

    Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

    “But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

    Mr. Bennet made no answer.

    “Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

    You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

    This was invitation enough.

    “Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

    “What is his name?”

    “Bingley.”

    “Is he married or single?”

    “Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

    “How so? How can it affect them?”

    “My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”

    “Is that his design in settling here?”

There’s a tonne of world-building in this little exchange: it’s a universe in which marriage is a big deal, in which people have servants, where four or five thousand [somethings] a year is considered a fortune, and where at least some of the inhabitants—Mrs Bennet and Mrs Long—like to gossip.

You also get the first hints that this is not a happy marriage. Mr Bennet clearly has no respect for his wife. He needles her throughout, while she is too stupid to notice. Much later he will warn his beloved Lizzy against entering into a loveless marriage. The reader has seen all too clearly through many such exchanges just what kind of a marriage her father is warning Lizzy against.

Mind you, Austen was not against infodumping. That first chapter concludes thus:

    Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Ah, the delicious flexibility of omni! Which allows you to jump into whoever’s head you want because you know everything about everyone. Omni’s most excellent for infodumping.

To return to your question. I think you should go for a maximal approach. You’re clearly in love with this character’s backstory so throw it all in. Try infodumping it one big clump. Or in a bunch of smaller ones. Or reveal it through two gossiping characters. Or slowly have it leak out as the story progresses. Early on you learn that the character collects shivs. Later you discover she collects only one particular kind of shiv. Still later it becomes clear she is trying to find the one specific shiv that was used to kill her mother and father and brothers and sisters so that she can turn the shiv on the evil spider-god who murdered her entire family.

The vast majority of novels do a bit of both. Some slow seeding here, some infodumping there.

You’ll probably only figure out whether all that backstory is necessary when you have a complete draft to work with. If it works keep it, if it doesn’t cut it. You may find that there needs to be more backstory. Or somewhere in the middle.

But having a well-developed sense of your characters, and a sense of their life outside the span of your novel, is a really good sign. My biggest complaint about bad fantasy is that so much of it is flat, there’s nothing beyond its narrow confines, it reads like a sound stage with a few extremely worn props (battle axes, hearty stews, parapets, a serving wench, and a drunken knight). It’s why I adore the work of, for example, Samuel R. Delany and Ursula Le Guin. There’s such a richness to their worlds. I always feel that there are many more peoples and lands and stories, just around the corner.

Good luck with it!

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

11 comments

  1. marrije on #

    you made that bit of science fiction up! i hope.

  2. Amber on #

    My favourite bad infodump ever was in a historical film at a museum in Montreal. Two characters happen upon each other in the street:

    HEAVILY-MOUSTACHED FRENCH MAN: Bonjour, Monsieur Berthelet!
    HEAVILY-MOUSTACHED FRENCH MAN 2: Bonjour Monsieur Bordeleau! How are your wife and your ten fine children?
    HMFM: Oh, we have been blessed with _eleven_ children now.
    HMFM 2: Indeed! No wonder the population of the new city of Ville-Marie has increased to over twenty thousand in just the last year.
    HMFM: Yes, but we mustn’t forget that immigration, especially from countries such as Ireland, has had its effect too.
    The AUDIENCE: We are totally fooled into thinking this is a completely normal conversation.

  3. Carrie Ryan on #

    My new rule of thumb is just not to put the information in in the first draft. If the characters know it, then they know it and might not talk about it. Since I write first person, maybe the narrator will think about it but if it isn’t natural then I don’t write it. I let the reader just try to figure it out. If I HAVE to put the information in, I just try to limit it to what the reader needs to know at that time.

    And then of course I let my editor tell me “more info please” and then I have to figure out how to incorporate it better. But at least by that time I have the frame of the story and can just layer in a few extra details here and there.

  4. rockinlibrarian on #

    I just wanted to let you know how much I have been enjoying this series. I’ve been enjoying the posts about questions I DO think I know the answers to already even as much as the posts that teach me something new. And Austen quotes always make me happy, anyway.

  5. Nicholas Waller on #

    As you know, Justine, the clunky infodump – especially when both characters in a conversation know the facts already but are talking out loud only for the benefit of the reader – is known in SF circles as “As you know, Bob.”

    As opposed to Delany and Le Guin, The Lord of the Rings is a bit thin in terms of a sense of lots of other contemporary working lands in the world – the landscape we see is unpopulated and unfarmed for the most part. But there is a sense of stories in deep time, and one of the pleasures of the book is the way the characters stop, sit down and speak about backstories – personal stories, old legends, bits of history, how and why we got here – often in straightforward meetings, as in Rivendell, or round campfires on the journey. As the characters are stopping for the night or having a formal pow-wow, it doesn’t seem too forced.

  6. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    I guess what I think of as a “simultaneous chronologies” approach might fall into your infodump category, but maybe it’s only overlapping somewhat. I’m thinking about where there’s essentially two plotlines running through the book (or a significant portion), the earlier one revealing the backstory for the later one, without being obvious about it (hopefully). Some authors do it well, some, oh so very badly. In any case, it’s a style I really enjoy it when it’s done well.

    I’m reading two novels at the moment. One that is using the simultaneous plots version of revealing fairly well. One that is completely sucking at the slow seeding approach. It’s always fun (in an “ooh, look; trainwreck!” sense) to see what works and what doesn’t.

  7. Brent on #

    This is one of my weak points. Sometimes my characters go off on so many tangents you think they must be geometry students. I just hate coming up with something cool and then NOT using it. :)

    BTW, do you have a rich sister, cousin, niece, etc. in Australia that would like a poor future author as a husband? I want to spend my winter in Australia where it’s summer. It’s supposed to get down to -25°C tonight and UP to -11°C tomorrow. I’m trying to write a scene set in late spring and I just can’t FEEL it (or my toes for that matter).

  8. Rachel on #

    You’ve just reminded me of something I hate! Isn’t it awful when an author uses diary form and nevertheless dumps in gallons of backstory? Who writes backstory in their diary, for heaven’s sake? It’s sooo unrealistic and annoying. At least in first person the character is ostensibly talking to the reader, so backstory makes sense.

  9. Kim L on #

    Great topic, and one I have just been pondering as I’m writing the conclusion to my novel. I’ve been struggling (A LOT) with how to explain some of the important revelations without complete infodump. But I didn’t even know what an infodump was… until now. Blech, I think I just have to get in there and do it and worry about the rest when I edit.

  10. Natalie on #

    Thanks so much for answering my question! Your commentary, and these awesome comments, have been so helpful. It’s nice to know other writers tango with the same frustrations I do :)

  11. Q on #

    Thank you very much for this one. I have a lot of backstory that I probably don’t need to tell for the plot’s sake in a story I’m writing, but for the sake of one of the characters I absolutely do need to tell it. I just need to remind myself to write it all out now and cut it all out later.

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