Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 1 - Backstory

I once saw a news story about a person who had dedicated himself to long distance walking. To get the most miles per calorie, he had cut down his toothbrush handle to a nub. There are advantages to traveling light in life. Being weighed down by material goods, memories, commitments, and ideas that don't provide benefits only gets in the way of fully experiences what the world offers us.

Readers don't want to be weighed down by unnecessary verbiage. If you want to write a page turner, you need to cut, cut, cut. After having read many contest entries, I've seen lots of ways authors slow down stories. The main one is backstory, especially at the beginning. (I'll cover some of the others in future posts.)

As a reader, you know what happens when there's too much backstory:
  • The pacing slows.
  • It's difficult to prioritize and absorb all the information.
  • It delays getting to know the viewpoint character through the best tools -- action and dialogue. 
  • It distances, making emotional involvement more difficult.
  • It's boring. 
There is a big advantage providing histories of characters and their relationships, descriptions of how the world works, and details on the goals and challenges at the very beginning: clarity. No one feels disoriented. Readers understand what's going on. (The primary defense from writers who start stories this way is their readers need this information. I'll get to that.)

The information dump can be effective in some nonfiction. Long ago, I wrote instructions on how to purify biochemicals, and providing the specifics, the warnings, and the correct order for each process was essential to ensuring expensive components weren't wasted, no one got hurt, and products were available for customers. The education I'd gotten on how to write an essay was useful.

But this is not good for fiction writing. Few among us sit down to get lost in the wonders of an instruction manual. So put that kind of writing education aside when you rewrite your story. (It's okay to frontload your work with backstory in the draft -- the version no one else will ever read.)

My general rule is to cut all backstory that is not essential and to introduce it as late in the story as possible. I like readers to be hungering for these facts before I offer them. How do you do this? One approach is to mark all backstory and read the work without it. Wherever you come to a spot in the unmarked remainder where information is needed, make a note, including what, in your backstory, is required. How do you know what to add back in? Here are some guidelines that might help you know:
  • When the emotional payoff is diminished by a lack of information.
  • When the character's motivation isn't clear.
  • When there is unintentional confusion or disorientation. 
  • When a lack of information may cause a reader to put the book down.
  • When withholding information removes a setup so a plot point seems random or unfair.
The temptation to dump backstory can be strong. It often doesn't look bad to the writer (though reading the work out loud may reveal it as a problem). It can feel like it belongs. And leaving it is a lot easier than making the tough choices of what to remove and the tougher work of metering out the information in dribs and drabs in the exact right amounts, in the right places, and with the right words. 

When you cut and move things around, don't get rid of those words. On rare occasions, beta readers may tell you that they got confused, and those words may need to be added back in. Or you may need to purposely slow down the pace or direct the reader's attention elsewhere for a bigger impact. In some cases, your gut will tell you that you need those words for artistic reasons, and that's valid, too.

Most of the time, the cuts and delays will not cause problems. They'll just clear away the clutter so the reader can become immersed in your story and have a better experience.

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