Writing Craft 101: Backstory and Info-dumping

Backstory is information about your character that has shaped who he is and why he does what he does. This includes his past, his personality, his relationships, and so on. Certain things are pivotal to your character arc, and there are certain beautiful and painful moments that simply must come to light if the reader is to understand why your character is who he is and why he does what he does.

Info-dumping is exactly what it sounds like. It’s telling your reader what you feel she needs to know about your character’s backstory in a way that is boring and inorganic to the storyline. Info-dumping is piling information, necessary or not, into your story that your reader has to wade through to get to the meat of your story. The difficulty is figuring out exactly what to put where and when.

Here are some pointers for effectively writing backstory.

  1. Don’t Info-Dump.

Backstory should be done in little bits, not pages and pages at a time.

Example: Bill and Frank walked down the alley toward the warehouse. A German Shepherd jumped against the fence, barking and growling. Bill’s heart began to race and the back of his neck broke out in a sweat. He couldn’t see a German Shepherd without having a panic attack. When Bill was seven, he got bitten by a German Shepherd. He was innocently playing in his own back yard, but there was a hole in the fence. A new neighbor had just moved in, and had a huge German Shepherd. Even though Bill did nothing to taunt the animal, it rushed through the hole in the fence and jumped on him, gnawing at his arm until its owner came and grabbed it. Bill had to get eleven stitches, and he couldn’t stand to be in the same house with a German Shepherd, despite how many years had passed.

Notice that only the first three sentences are relevant to the action with Bill and Frank walking toward the warehouse. Now look at the same scene without the info-dump.

Bill and Frank walked down the alley toward the warehouse. A German Shepherd jumped against the fence, barking and growling. Bill’s heart began to race and the back of his neck broke out in a sweat.
“You okay?” Frank asked.
Bill rubbed the scar on his arm where he’d had to get eleven stitches. “I’m not a dog person.”

I’ve conveyed the same information, but in a much more interesting way.

  1. Use dialogue to convey information.

Your reader gets to know your characters just as he would get to know a new friend, by talking to them and spending time with them. As your character interacts with other characters, your reader will see what they say and how they say it, and what they do and how they do it. This is how they will start to get a picture of the backstory.

Example: Joe admired his wife’s new dress. That color of blue reminded him of the first time they’d met at the arboretum. She’d been standing next to a patch of forget-me-nots. She looked up, saw him, and smiled, and he’d commented on how the flowers matched her eyes.

Now, contrast that with a conversation.

“How do I look?” Lisa asked.
Joe kissed her cheek. “Beautiful. I love this color on you.”
She smiled. “I know. That’s why I bought it. Just like the forget-me-nots on the day we met.”

Do you see how the dialogue conveys the same information, but keeps the reader engaged in the action of the story?

  1. Use information sparingly.

Add only as much as the reader absolutely needs to know to understand what’s going on. Treat backstory like a piece of glass. Drop it, let it shatter, and then pick up the pieces and insert them along the way in the manuscript. Don’t just insert them wherever, of course. Insert the necessary information only when and where it is absolutely necessary. If something in your character’s past is vital to something that his happening in his present, insert that when it’s happening.

Example: Indiana Jones is terrified of snakes. In the first movie, he has a moment with a snake where he flips out. At that point, we as the viewers know he’s afraid of them. There’s no explanation, no reason, just enough of the fact to know, when he later gets dropped into a tomb full of them, that this is one of the worst possible situations for him. The reason why is really inconsequential.

Eventually, in the third movie, Indy’s fear of snakes is linked to an event in his youth when he was trapped in a box full of snakes while he was being chased by bad guys. If that scene had come as a flashback near the beginning of the first movie it would’ve just been annoying. All we really needed was the one line, “Snakes. Why does it always have to be snakes?” We get it.

Which brings me to my final point:

  1. Trust your reader.

They get it. Trust that your readers are smart enough to read between the lines. You don’t have to spell everything out for them. In the first example, with the character who is afraid of dogs, they don’t need to know the whole situation to infer that Bill got bitten and is now afraid of dogs. They get it. Give them just enough information to figure it out for themselves.

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