Thursday, May 7, 2009

Skip the dump

Backstory. The word alone is enough to send many writers running for cover. Why? Because it's supposedly not to be done, it's to be avoided, it's nothing but a worthless dumping, it doesn't help you--

Stop it right there!! Like T.J. has already pointed out, you need backstory. Why? Just think of who you are. You meet someone new and he/she asks, who are you? You go, I am this and that and that. How did the 'this and that and that' come about? It's been shaped by what you've experienced and been through. In short, it's your backstory.

Now imagine meeting this new character in a book. You need to root for this person, feel for her, empathize with her. For this, you need to know her, and how do you do that if you ahve absolutely no idea who she is and what she's been through?

The big question that comes up at this stage of the reflexion is - how much is too much?

Well, you can find yourself spewing 3 pages of her life story - Mary was born in Bromley in Kent on the outskirts of London on May 14, 1978 to a plumber father and a housewife mom; did her schooling at St Catherine's School for girls; got her degree at the London School of Economics with honours and went to work for Hensley and Scarbridge, the biggest investment firm in the City right after she graduated. Along the way, Mary dated Nate and then they broke up and she went out with Steve, but this too didn't work out and she tried her luck with Mike but this too failed and now she's single again in this big town.

Come on guys - backstory doesn't mean you're writing her obituary! There are ways of giving this info without needing to drone on and on and without dumping a pile of information on your reader.

A good way of adding backstory is through conversation. A good/trusted friend engages your character in a conversation when they are, say, on the way to meet a medium whom they hope will tell Mary when Mr. Right will cross her path. Using the information you have on Mary, you weave this through the dialogue. For example, her friend may go - "Drop the Catholic guilt, Mary. Going to see a medium is not a cardinal sin. For a girl who graduated from LSE with honours, you can be so daft at times!"

That's about 3 lines in your story, yet check to see how much info it has already conveyed on Mary. This can even be your opening line, and you get to know all this before Mary even makes her appearance and opens her mouth.

The key to escape the info dump with backstory is to weave it through. Whether through dialogue or through little reflections on the character's behalf along the way, you plant little seedlings of backstory that after a while, bloom into the big picture for your reader.

Avoiding the info dump is also about showing rather than telling. Consider the above example again - the first 'obituary' told you who Mary was, while second showed you who she is (the catholic guilt being mentioned - shows she is nervous and maybe having second thoughts about the trip.)

Any questions, feel free to holler!

Aasiyah Qamar - Cultural Romantic Fiction, With a Twist
Coming out October 2 - Light My World - Eirelander Publishing
Nolwynn Ardennes - The Promise of Fulfilment
Coming out in early 2010 - Storms in a Shot Glass - Eirelander Publishing

Aasiyah Qamar/Nolwynn Ardennes - Romance the world over


Chicki said...

I think everybody has trouble at one time or another with backstory. It takes a lot of practice to figure out how to let the reader know what they need to know without dumping.

Good entry!

Sandy said...

Dang, if you don't make it sound so easy. lol

Great post, Z.

Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

Lol. No, I admit it isn't easy, but the key is to know your character and then to aim at showing this knowledge as opposed to telling your reader. Think long and hard on how to show this, and you'll avoid the dump.

Thanks for the comment, ladies!