The thing about written words is that they are a linear thread. One word at a time, one idea at a time, one sentence at a time.
The problem about it is that we don’t think that way. We think in interlinked ways and – usually – also don’t start with a blank page.
What that boils down to in storytelling is figuring out ways of scene-setting, without interrupting the plot or losing reader interest.
The way not to do it is the ‘info dump’, when noob writers drop a load of back-story into the novel after the opening paragraph. All that does is stall the plot and there’s a fair chance of losing reader interest along the way.
Some writers do it by prologue, but that’s risky too – you can fail to capture the reader anyway.
The only writer I can think of who’s really gotten away with it is Tolkien, for a whole pile of reasons that don’t have a lot to do with what writing for current twenty-first century readership is about, and quite a bit to do with being the absolute master of ‘epic’. (Don’t try this at home, folks).
The real question is whether that back-story is necessary at all. All it does is ‘tell’ the reader what is going on, whereas the better way is to ‘show’ them through the actions of the character as the plot proceeds.
If we divide the usual content of such things up they fall into two main categories: (a) what’s needed to understand the plot and setting, and (b) what’s needed to understand the protagonist. A lot of ‘back story’ often has far more than this there – frequently it reflects the writer’s own development of the story and is what the writer needs to know to write effectively. But it isn’t needed for the reader to understand story and characters.
So the first step is to winnow the intended back story down to the bare bones needed to understand character and plot.
Both are then best drip-fed – meaning a minimum of ‘telling’ and a maximum of ‘showing’. And one way of doing it is by building a dynamic into the explanation. Character X doesn’t want to go to City Y, which allows the writer to show something about the character; but it also demands something is shown about the city – why doesn’t the character want to go there? Is it something there, some feature the character doesn’t like, or fears?
Unfolding the character and back-story this way can also be a powerful tool for drawing the reader into the plot. And it gets around the info-dump problem.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015