Setting the scene, without sending the reader to sleep.


Welcome back to another blog hop, with #OpenBook. Here’s this week’s prompt.


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


I try to avoid information dumping. When I’m reading for pleasure, I hate reading anything that feels like a textbook. Information dumps always remind me of ploughing through an encyclopaedia, trying to find the one fact you want in a sea of words.

If they have that effect on me, they may well do the same to a reader, which is the last thing you want.

Instead, I try to include most of my backstory as part of the present, rather than keep it separate in great chunks of exposition.

There are several ways you can do this, the idea is to keep the story flowing while providing just enough of the background necessary to explain or justify what’s going on.

For example, I might impart it as part of a conversation between characters.

Or it could be in the form of a reminiscence, even as an internal musing when there is only one person in the scene. You can do this by referencing the memory of a past event to an object or location in your present.

You can insert important information in action scenes as well, by making it a part of whatever is going on at the time.

Like this, taken from The Hitman and the Thief,



The shot rang out, concrete was chipped by my head.

“Come on,” gasped Lydia, grabbing my arm, “run!” 

I was dragged down the street, in and out of the shadows cast by the flickering lights, “keep your head down Dan,” she said.

“It’s just like on Gallix,” I managed to wheeze as, bent double; I followed her around a corner. Out of sight for a second we dodged into a dark alleyway. There were no more shots, but we could hear running feet and shouts.

“When we had to get away from Kalindra and her boys,” she finished while I tried to fill my lungs. “I had to save you then.”

“I thought that I saved you?” I replied.

“In your dreams.” We stood in the dark and tried to get our breath back, shrinking into the darkness as two men, guns held in front of them, ran past us. The blatant show of weapons reminded me that I was out of my depth here, far from my old stomping ground. They probably had the local law in their pockets, we were the outsiders.

 I was getting angrier and angrier with Fliss Bauer, back on Gallix. ‘It’ll be easy,’ she had said, ‘just get in and do this for me, it’ll wipe your slates clean’.

And we’d believed her.



Or this, a dream sequence from the Start of Ribbonworld,



I had a while to wait, so I thought that I’d just lie down for a moment on the bed. I rolled onto the thin, lumpy mattress and was almost instantly asleep.

~

I was back on my yacht, a forty-foot ceramic hulled cruiser called True Story. We were anchored off one of the Jigsaw Islands on Centra; it was a warm, cloudless day, the sun shining on a calm sea and there was laughter and wine and happiness with a crowd of people. The barbeque was producing steaks and prawns and there was a trestle table on the poop groaning with good food, served by a white-clad steward. People were jumping into the water and swimming around the hull, having a good time at my expense. But I didn’t care because I knew they were my friends.

I looked over to the stern platform and saw Gaynor climb back on board. She was as sleek as an otter, her long hair, orange this week, plastered to her face and shoulders. As she walked towards me she dripped liquid diamonds on the hardwood deck. She came and put her arm around my waist and I felt the heat beneath the damp as our hips touched. “Come on, Miles,” she whispered in my ear. “Let’s get rid of this lot.”

The scene dissolved and I was answering a knock at my door, back at my apartment. I opened it to the grim faces and uniforms saying, “Mr Goram, will you come with us.” It was raining and a small crowd watched as I was led, handcuffed, into the police car. I could hear the excited whispers as the cameras were waved in my face, flashes blinding me.

Next, I heard the words, “Guilty as charged; I sentence you to five years’ imprisonment.” They echoed around the empty courtroom, just me and the prosecutor and the guards.

“It’s a set-up!” I screamed.

“Take him away,” said the prosecutor.

Then the bare metal of the cell door slammed shut behind me and I pounded on it.

~

The door buzzer woke me with a jolt.



While there is a place for the selective dumping of information, I think that letting the characters tell you about their past is so much better than me doing it.

Check out the other blogs on this hop to see how everyone else gets the information across.



Let me know what you think about this week’s subject.

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8 Responses

  1. Jack Eason

    When I’m first mapping out a story, I have the backstory sitting at hand, to which I dip into from time to time. Preferably like both of you, I include it sparingly…

    • Richard Dee

      I write in real-time, so the backstory develops parallel to the story. Which makes it easy to fit into whatever’s going on.

    • Richard Dee

      Well, that depends. Sometimes it’s handy to have a prologue but it should never be an excuse for an info dump. When I’ve used one, it’s been constructed like a normal chapter, just in the wrong place in the running order, if you know what I mean.

  2. Roberta Eaton Cheadle

    I really enjoyed your two extract, Richard, and they are both good examples of how to share backstory naturally.

    • Richard Dee

      Thanks, I try to make the backstory as interesting and readable as possible.

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