Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Avoid the Info Dump

Are you revealing too much of your character’s entire history up front? Then you’ve got an info dump on your hands, my friend. Nothing scares off readers faster than an info dump. Who wants to read a story that starts with the birth of the hero and follows him through his entire life? Readers want action, the stuff that matters to the story.

So how do you include backstory without resorting to the dreaded info dump? There are several acceptable ways.

You may have heard that editors don’t like prologues.  Well, I do.  If the prologue is well written.  The prologue can be set in past and give backstory by showing the exact event as it happened. If you include a prologue in your book it should have action, character interaction, and even dialogue.

Another way to include backstory in your writing is by having a character remember something. This can be done internally, or the character can relate a memory to another character through dialogue. Remember that a memory can be tinged with the character’s present mind state and feelings.

A flashback is similar to a memory, as it can relate an entire incident that happened in the past. However, while a memory is seen through the filter of the present, a flashback is the event exactly as it happened. Flashbacks only seem to work well if they occur naturally and for a reason.

A good way to avoid an info dump is to give it in small doses, or sprinkle it throughout your writing. Sprinkles of the past give information without disrupting the flow of the story. Relating something a character is doing in the present to something he did in the past, such as how he rides his horse, or what happens to his face when he lies, can easily be referred to in a sentence or two and bind the backstory and present story together.

Remember readers don’t need to know everything, just what’s necessary to move and complete the story. When you're bringing your reader into the world of your novel, you're trying to engage their senses and their emotions right away to get them involved in the story. You need to make an emotional connection with the reader as quickly as possible. The way to do that is in the here and now, the action and dialogue taking place in the present time.

Place your characters in situations, let them react, and let your reader wonder how they got there and why they reacted that way. Use pieces of backstory to slowly and carefully flesh out that character, never giving away too much, always leaving the reader guessing a little.

Work on showing the reader what you need them to know about your characters through their present day action rather than telling them about the past.

Vibrant, engaging writing is usually immediate. Backstory is not. So use this knowledge where it fits. You can get anything into your story as long as you don’t bring the whole thing to a grinding halt.


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