Revealing Backstory while Avoiding the Info-dump

Info-dump. Just the name of this writing misstep telegraphs that it’s something to be avoided. For purposes of this post, “info-dump” refers to a section of narration inserted into a story that explains important backstory essential to understanding the current action. Here’s an example:

“Marie!” Peter held her at arm’s length so he could look into the face he had feared he would never see again. “I can’t believe it’s you! Where have you been?”

Marie told Peter how she had been captured by the Slugs, a society of subterranean warriors. She had stumbled upon their home while spelunking in the abandoned mines north of town. The Slugs had come closer to the surface than they usually dared in search of a missing key that they believed a renegade Slug had carried to the surface. The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories. In the end they’d let her go, but only after she’d agreed to search out the Slug with the stolen key and return it to its rightful place underground. Before they let her go, though, they’d implanted a tracking device in her brain.

“See the scar?” Marie asked, pulling the hair back from behind her left ear.

An info-dump dropped right in the middle of things can hurt your story in many ways:

It stops the forward momentum. When I’m caught up in the midst of a great story, I want to be carried along toward the climax. An info-dump can interrupt that progress and slow things to a crawl.

It removes the reader from the world of the story. In the example above, the reader is pulled from the reunion scene between Marie and Peter, which, without the interruption, has the potential to be an emotionally strong scene.

It’s boring. The narrator takes over and resorts to “telling,” so instead of experiencing what happened to Marie, the reader learns it in a mini history lesson.

What can be done in a situation like this? Sometimes it’s not possible to “show” all the backstory. In this example, Peter may be the POV character, so the reader wouldn’t be able to know what was happening to Marie while she was suffering through her underground captivity. Still, this information is necessary to the story. The writer needs to find a way to share it without an info-dump.

Here are some techniques to consider:

Find ways to show some of the information, either at this point in the story or later. “The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories.” This is the kind of information that could be shown in a multitude of dynamic ways. It could be shown right here through her interactions with Peter, or it could be woven in a bit at a time, until the characters and readers come to understand what has happened to Marie. This would also work with the tracking device in Marie’s brain. A headache could introduce this information, integrating it into the current action.

Dialogue can be used to convey backstory. All the information in the info-dump paragraph above could be shared by Marie through dialogue, while the story continues. Imagine that, just as Peter encountered Marie at the start of this scene, he was hurrying to get to a meeting with a reclusive scientist, who, before his abrupt retirement a year ago, was the country’s foremost expert on subterranean societies. Peter’s need to hear Marie’s story while simultaneously needing to hurry to his meeting would add action to the scene, as he drags her to his car, blurts out a quick explanation of where they’re going, and tries to concentrate on Marie’s harrowing story while speeding through yellow stoplights and weaving through traffic to meet the professor in time.

Tell the backstory in one big chunk, but weave it into the narrative in a way that interests the characters and the reader. In this example, Marie could tell Peter and the other characters her story as they sit around a campfire at night, or as they hike through the woods toward the very same mines where she was captured. With this treatment, the backstory becomes a story-within-the-story, allowing the writer to build suspense and tension so that the backstory maintains the same level of complexity and interest as the current events that surround it. A story-within-a-story can also help with world-building, if the culture of your story has traditions in place for passing down history or sharing myths and legends, such as through sonnets or songs.

What are your thoughts on these techniques? Do you have any other methods for sharing important backstory? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

  

10 Responses to Revealing Backstory while Avoiding the Info-dump

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 19 2014 at 8:42 am #

    I often employ the story-within-a-story technique, for backstory that’s not quite so personal to the characters. In one of my books it was a bedtime story for a bunch of kids that was also a history lesson for the speaker’s apprentice.
    I was recently faced with this problem, when I was asked to write a prequel to a story I’d just finished, and I couldn’t think of any way to write it that wasn’t just one big info-dump, so I never wrote it. It wasn’t until I was in the middle of writing the sequel that I found important plot points I could put into the prequel that would come into play much later. There were still many info-dump sections, but I wrote it as a dialog among multiple people, part briefing, part confession. That way the focus was on how the characters reacted to the info being dumped rather than the dump itself.
    Similarly, I often tell that sort of stuff in a way which distracts from the dump, as in a comic scene, where the humor is the most obvious part.

    • Julie
      Julie Aug 19 2014 at 10:36 am #

      Hi Marc! I also really like using the story-within-a-story technique. (I’m in the midst of inserting some backstory into my current WIP, and that’s the method I’m going with.) Also, your idea of using humor is one I’ve never heard before – I love it. Thanks for the comment!

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 19 2014 at 10:55 am #

        The main idea is to distract from the dump by using some other story-telling technique in a more prominent position. Since the dump is mainly plot, go with character, dialog, action, or setting. I had am entire chapter of my fanfiction epic that was all backstory about how my characters got married, but I made it so silly, with frequent diversions to side-characters listening in, no one noticed or cared.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 19 2014 at 10:59 am #

        There are two methods of doing the story-in-a-stroy technique, too. One way is the campfire story, where the info-dump is simply told. Another is to turn the info-dump into an inner story and shift from the outer story into the inner. Or go back and forth, as was done in The Princess Bride.

  2. Chris Owens Aug 19 2014 at 8:49 am #

    Great post! I’m struggled with a couple of passages like this while revising my own novel. You’ve given me a few good ideas to work with. Thanks!

    • Julie
      Julie Aug 19 2014 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Chris! I’m also working to integrate some backstory into my current WIP – hence this blog post! I’m glad that this was helpful to you. Best of luck with your manuscript! 🙂

  3. Simeon Mann Aug 22 2014 at 12:06 am #

    Useful tips, thanks. I find the hardest time to integrate info is when all the characters in the scene know something, but the reader doesn’t, but now has to know that info in order to appreciate the conflict/confusion/mystery/surprise/etc… that is created by something that’s just happened. In one scene in my book, in an earlier draft, I literally wrote, as dialogue from one of the character speaking to the others, “We all know that…” It’s not as blunt in the newest draft, but I’m still trying to finesse it.

  4. Janet Long Aug 22 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    Great post, Julie. Backstory can be used to make connections among subplots or for character development, but it should never be used as quick-set plot hole filler. Frequently, an author gives more thought to a character and what the character has experienced than is necessary to tell in the story. Maybe the heroine is a bit punchy because she was bullied in fourth grade. The question is, do we need to know what happened to her to make her the way she is. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If the backstory falls outside the scope of the novel’s action, it is probably just a digression. If it is needed, how much detail is really needed? For example, it might be thrown in casually as part of the reader’s introduction to the character:

    Everything about Sue–the swing of her head, the set of her shoulders, even the way she said “hey” like a punch in the chops–was the product of a long fermenting resentment over three successive months of humiliation by a fourth grade terrorist called Bouncer Samwellington.

    Or it may be that her earlier encounter with Bouncer has repercussions later in the story:

    “I know how the poor kid feels. I been there.”
    “Yeah?”
    “Bouncer Samwellington, playground strongman. First joker I ever had to take down.”
    “Samwellington? Of the Akron Samwellingtons?”
    “Of course. Why?”
    “Sam McGee, the proprietor here at this fine Montessouri joint–his real name is Mac Samwellington. Disappeared from Akron in 1983, turned up here three years ago under a new name. What was his racket when you knew him?”
    “Lunch money and wedgies, if it’s the same guy. I don’t know his face, but if it’s him, he’ll have a scar on his collarbone where I took out his birthmark.”

    Or, if it is really an integral part of the story but outside the timeline, flashbacks and campfire stories can be used–but they had better be good. Ever been on a road trip and taken the scenic route only to regret the added hour on the road? Backstory is always a delay in the forward motion of the narrative. If there is going to be a detour, the scenery had better be worth the delay. Don’t cobble together a quickie synopsis and throw it in–if it is integral to the story, it needs to be told with the same care as the rest of the story. If it isn’t integral to the story, you need to ask whether you are just trying to find a place to insert something you happen to know about the character that nobody else needs to know.

    In all cases, the reader knows nothing until it is revealed by the narrator or a character. The author chooses the moment and circumstances of the reveal. Lets say a respectable family has lived in a house for 100 years and is now being approached by a real estate agent who wants to convert the house to a B&B. The POV is the real estate agent, and much of the novel so far has been about his attempts (futile and otherwise) to meet with members of the family, who all seem quirky and interesting and relatively nice. But they won’t sell. The family knows that there are bodies in the cellar, and when the agent hides behind the wine racks he discovers the bodies. Now he knows and the reader knows, but neither knows what the family knows. The sheriff is called but declines to come, and the family confronts the agent, who is holed up in the cellar.

    “There are bodies back there!”
    “Yes?”
    “You know about the bodies?”
    “They aren’t bodies, you know, not really. Not like what you’d put in the ground if they’d belong to you. That’s Pa’s collection.”
    “Collection?”
    “Like my butterflies,” said Little Sue.
    “They’re nice, aren’t they?” beamed Pa. “They keep fresh down here with very few chemical additives.”
    “But who are they? You don’t…?” Realtor Pete coddled his adam’s apple with both hands.
    “Oh, no. That’d be wrong,” Grandpa shook his jowls. “Sheriff brings along whatever he finds that looks like it might be a good addition. He’d tell us if it were illegal.”
    “It’s legal,” Pa asserted, giving his belt a jerk to settle his pants more authoritatively. “This is a deputized morgue. Has been since the Depression, when the regular place went dark and Sheriff needed a cool spot to park that fellow there. Then Old Mr. Crinkle got the apoplexy and came along. They took him off, though, to be buried in the cemetery, but I liked having the two of them laid out side by side, nice and even. So I asked Sheriff if we could get another one, so he put Sheriff, Jr. on it and he’s been scouting for me ever since.”
    “You’ve been storing people since the ’30s?” The Realtor was beginning to see the problem.
    “See, this is Pa’s shadowbox,” Ma spread her arms to indicate the marvelous cellar. “We can’t move without risking damage to the collection. Milk won’t sour down here. No moths, no microbes. I’ve been in other people’s cellars and I feel sorry for them. ”

    The rest of the book deals with the agent’s attempts to locate an acceptable replacement venue for the collection and other means of satisfying the various family members in order to clinch the sale, marry the sheriff, and change careers. The digression into the family secret can be set up early with references to the seemingly inherited collecting obsessions of the family members and inexplicable actions by the sheriff. An earlier mention of The Great Power Outage of 1933 may come up over juleps on the porch. In other words, the reveal should not come out of left field–there should be a few pieces already on the table ready to fall into place with the appearance of the missing piece. And it’s place in the narrative is justified by its relevance to the main storyline.

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