|photo by nolnet|
Taking a Dump
It's as lovely as it sounds. Infodumping is particularly hard to avoid in sci-fi, fantasy, and any genre in which the world and its history differs from our own. But no matter how fascinating your backstory, pages of exposition just aren't all that interesting. (I have a toilet paper analogy here, but I'll spare you.)
The fix: Spread it out. (Ew!) Figure out what few details need to be pointed out up front so that the reader isn't totally lost, then break the rest up and insert pieces here and there as the story progresses. I'm going to stop there, because the dumping analogy took on a whole new level with "pieces" and I don't trust myself to continue.
The Internal Hemmorage
This backstory technique typically comes in lovely shades of purple. The main character sees a Meaningful Object, a Meaningful Person, or, heaven forfend, looks at herself in the mirror, and proceeds to treat us to endless paragraphs of internal angst over recent (or long ago) transgressions, all in Chapter One. This is like saying "I love you" on the first date. Don't Mosby the reader.
The fix: Let's get to know one another first, shall we? Our heroine can show us said Meaningful Object/Person/Reflection, but maybe we don't need to know anything right now aside from the fact that it's meaningful. Better yet, maybe introduce some action that shows us why this thing is so important to the main character. (O hai, show-don't-tell.)
Backstory in dialogue form. Characters discuss what happened, reminding each other of things they all already know. This does not good dialogue make, fellow Jedi. One character lecturing another character on past events is also a sign of Bob rearing his ugly head. (Sitcoms are notorious for using this to recap on season premieres. When a character starts a sentence by saying "I can't believe---"...you'll know. It's Bob.)
The fix: Read it aloud. Even better - recruit a friend to read your dialogue with you. If it sounds stilted and unnatural, wield that mighty axe and take aim at Bob's throat. Don't sacrifice good dialogue for backstory.
Dreams That Put the Reader to Sleep
Dreams are a part of life, but without a dang good reason, they don't have to be part of a book. Using dreams simply to show stuff that happened in the past is often just boring. It kills all the suspense, all the mystery. And let's be honest – I pretty much never dream exact scenes from my life, do you? Should our characters?
The fix: Wake his ass up. I mean, characters can (and should) sleep, but a few pages and we've got a real snooze-fest.
The Prior Prolegomenon
The prologue, the prelude, the overture filled with action and fast pace and tension and wonderful characters we love immediately and an intense situation we care about - that, a page turn later, we learn happened years (decades? centuries?) ago and are now merely a faint echo as we join the sleepy-eyed hero downing Cheerios at the kitchen table while pondering how dull his life is.
The fix: Tricky, because it's easy to say "cut the prologue," but it's really not the prologue's fault. Some - many - prologues are brilliant. But if they simply serve to show a significant past event we'll need to know about later, it's a Catch-22. If it's dull, we might close the book and never get to the real story. If it's interesting, we'll be good and ticked when we do get to the real story and it's boring by comparison. So if the prologue stays, the first chapter needs to live up.
Not Rad Retro(spection)
The fix: Ask why. Why is the character having a flashback? What is happening at this exact moment that is causing her to remember? Cracked Up to Be, by Courtney Summers, is an excellent example of seamlessly integrated flashbacks – they appear according to the main character's current emotions and situation. If the flashback is simply there because you can't move on until the reader knows that bit of backstory, it's an issue of structure. Slapping on a flashback-bandaid won't help.
Also known as "Monologuing, Incredibles-Style." In this case, the villain recounts everything we (and the main character) need to know about everything. The problem is this typically takes place at the climax, which might...um...slow things down a bit.
The fix: Nothing wrong with a few surprises springing up when it looks like the main character is about to be defeated. It's just a matter of how much. Too many and we feel cheated – why didn't we know all this before? You might also want to save some of the cigare--- erm, explanations for after the climax. Smooth, yet satisfying.
Disclaimer: Clearly, very successful and well-written books have committed one or more of these "blunders." They aren't always a bad thing - but they can be difficult to get right, and it's good to be aware of them.