Dividing the Dump   4 comments

What’s your best technique for working around backstory dumps?

Info Dumping and How to Avoid it | Paid Author

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Don’t Bore Your Audience

Our characters come with histories. Shane had 27 years of living and five years of trauma and war stories before he returned to Emmaus. Peter didn’t just one day wake up a teenage alcoholic. There were 17 years of scar tissue built up before he turned that corner. And some of that history is critical to understanding what motivates the character. But to an outsider — your reading audience — a big dump at the beginning of the story is just boring.

I must have tried to read both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit two dozen times and always stopped before the end of the backstory dump that both books start with. It wasn’t until the first LOTR movie came out that I could read the book. The backstory was hardly touched on by the movie, so I actually found the information interesting because it explained so much about the characters who I had previously become familiar with. Even great writers with enormous followings make this mistake, but I try not to do things that cause me not to read a book because I figure my audience will have the same problem.

How Do I Avoid It?

My best technique for working around backstory dumps is to write them. The written backstory is for my benefit. I suspect all written backstories are for the benefit of the writer and they make it into the published book because the writer can’t separate himself from his audience. With that in mind, I drag the backstory into another file and keep it for future use. At no point do I use it as a mega dump, dropping the whole landfill on the reader in a “Hey, this is the whole story” moment. Instead, I dole it out slowly mixed in with the current story.

Even in an apocalyptic where there’s intense action most of the time, there will be times when the characters slow down and have a moment to think. In Objects in View, Shane starts the novel in a bunker waiting out the nuclear rain and he has nothing to do but think. During those pages, I throw in some elements of his backstory (liberally mixed with his current-situation thoughts in a kind of stream-of-conscious manner) because that’s when real people think about their pasts. Throughout the series, there are similar small backstory dumps — one or two sentences, a paragraph or two, sometimes stories told by another character — that inform the reader of some of the history that brought Shane to the point he is at now. In Winter’s Reckoning, readers finally learn the full story of the most traumatizing event in his life. We also learn how Shane’s father Rob became a Christian and the “dead body” of guilt he carries. It’s just that sort of book in the series – a turning point where some information needs to be shared so that the characters can turn a corner into another phase of the story. But that full story has been teased at multiple times, in comments dropped or brief thoughts or in the flashbacks that are a symptom of Shane’s PTSD. The reader knows some of it before the whole story comes out.

A salient point of Peter’s history in the “What If Wasn’t” series is that his mother sexually molested him and he has never told anyone the full story. Rather than start the book with a backstory dump, I wrote the first scene of Red Kryptonite Curve with Peter coming down off a month of drunken partying across Europe and dreaming about something that happened in the past. His mother touches his chest and … Peter wakes up from the dream and never really revisits the event again during the course of the book. I teased the reader with the backstory, allowing them to draw their own conclusions. The hope is that whenever Peter does something stupid and self-destructive they will remember there is more to the story than even Peter is willing to admit. Right up until the end of Dumpster Fire, he still hasn’t dealt with it and it has brought him to a very horrible place.

Now, I followed a totally different technique for doling out backstory with Alyse, Peter’s sister. She’s cast as something of a sympathetic villain in the first two books, but how did she get there. She was a part of what happened too and and no less touched by their mother than Peter was. In the third book, because she is dead, characters mourning her relive their memories of her life that show how she ended up where she did. Again, it’s just short little fragments that allow the reader to guess at the whole.

Take Your Time

Absolutely we need to deal with the history of our characters because it makes them more multilayered, but we don’t need to give the reader the whole landfill at the beginning of the book. Yes, it feels wonderful to write such great history, but nobody says you have to deliver it all at once. Take your time. Remember the needs of your audience should come before your needs. Yes, your characters have a great backstory, but refrane from having a Forest-Gump-on-the-bus-bench moment at the very start of your book.

Posted January 25, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

4 responses to “Dividing the Dump

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  1. I think that you have to remember that the book is written for the reader. Things that you may consider essential need not always be included, often you can suggest and let the imagination of whoever is absorbing the tale take over and fill in the gaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m going to disagree softly with Richard. I think books are written for the author as much as they are for the reader. Finding the right balance can be rough.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, taking your time and not rushing the story is very important. I made that mistake in the beginning too, as well as info dumps and telling not showing. Cringe, cringe…

    Like

  4. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and experience on this topic. Everyone’s suggestions and comments are helpful in avoiding writing pitfalls caused by info dumping.

    Like

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