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Big Dumps, Bob, and Other Backstory Blunders

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You know all of the backstory. Your main character knows some of the backstory. Your reader knows none of the backstory. How do you work it in? It's a difficult balance for any writer to master; revealing just enough to keep readers interested, but withholding enough to build suspense and keep the pace up. Let's take a look at a few classic backstory blunders, and what to do if you find them in your current project.

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.)

The "As You Know, Bob"

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---"'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)

FLASHDANCE! Er, backs. Flashbacks can be amazing when done well. And they can feel like a Cheap Trick (and not the metal band) when done poorly.

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.

The Self-Congratulatory Monologue Told as the Hero Dangles Over a Pool of Sharks with Frickin' Laser Beams

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 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.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. Great post, thank you! For all of these points, sounds like the clue is restraint, restraint, and more restraint. (You like how I emphasized the concept of restraint by repeating it over and over? Well, as you know, Bob, repetition for the sake of humour can... I'll stop there.)

    I've been working on the Self-Congratulatory Monologue while revising (or rather, working on reducing it). My CP calls it the moustache-twirling speech -- the one where the evil villain twirls his moustache and reveals all. Mine actually has a twirly moustache, so having allowed myself that, it's back to restraint in all other areas!

  2. Great post!

    On a complete aside, at least 3 of those are perfectly normal in Japan. In real life and in the media. People talk in the most roundabout way sometimes. As a Westerner, I often think "I knew 4 minutes of the 5 minutes of info, you jsut gave me. Was that really neccessary."

    But I suppose that reinforces the point. It feels unnatural to me.

  3. I'm so guilty, guilty, guilty of all of these things, and I'm glad to have readers that call me on them.

  4. All I ask is for the sharks to have frickin laser beams!

  5. Ooooh the CSI talk!
    "Hey, Lamar, remember the time when we found this super cool box in the amusement park last year?"
    "Oh, yeah. Definitely. You were thirteen and I was sixteen and the wind was too strong and your parents had just had their divorce and you were devastated and yeah - it was pink and so cool!"


    I'm *hopefully* not guilty of any of those. I tried my best not to be.

    Awesome post!

  6. "Don't Mosby the reader!" OMG Michelle you just made my day. This post is awesome, THANK YOU!

  7. Both informative AND hilarious! :) Thanks for the tips.

  8. I can't stop laughing!
    Don't Mosby the reader=best.line.ever.
    But for reals, this post was epic.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Yes! Sarah caught the Mosby. (As did Amanda. But I knew you would, A. Did you catch Cheap Trick too?) ;)

  11. "Don't Mosby the reader" -- okay, I love it! It's a delicate balance, creating a character with a rich backstory while not letting it overwhelm the "front-story" of your novel. Thanks for this well-organized (and funny) post! - Stasia

  12. Great post - thank you! I know I've probably been guilty of all, especially of "taking a dump" (ew!).

    The "as you know, Bob" reminds me of soap operas - "remember two years ago when your evil twin, Bob II, tried to blow up the town? I was so scared when Bob II, your evil twin, came to town two years ago to do that..."

  13. I love that all these crazy writing blunders have names. My favorite of the evils is the "As you know, Bob" so prevalent in science fiction and fantasy.

    This website has a lot more fun terms. Check it out! And thanks for another great post.

  14. This post is pretty much epic.

    Made a million times better by the HIMYM references.

  15. Excellent post.

    One of the things I'm finding in the book I'm working on now, is that adding backstory is much easier in a first-person novel. It's allowing me to insert brief memories here and there without trying to give the reader the entire story at once. As my protagonist has a very snarky attitude, these memories tend to be pretty amusing too, I think.

    The trick, as you mention is to keep these backstory bits brief.

    I also have a character who has the backstory on the villains. That is more challenging. Since the protagonist has just met him, she can ask questions, so there's no "as you know, Bob." However finding opportunities for him to let these nibblets of information is harder, since I don't want to make him too longwinded.

    Naked Without a Pen

  16. I am a reformed backstory queen -- lol....I have never done the as you know bob thing -- because it is a pet peeve of mine on TV as well as in print -- hate the monologue thing --- because bad guys do not gloat before shooting you --- they just freaking shoot. However -- I will backstory you into a coma -- if allowed to roam free among the trusted patients --- insane grin -- Great post! You made it really fun -- I am still looking at the newly purchased toilet paper peeking out of the bag in the hall -- telling myself backstory visual aid --on my desk --- how often would I have to explain the TP --- would calling it blotting paper -- (because we all still write with quills) -- be easier that the real story? Lol


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Item Reviewed: Big Dumps, Bob, and Other Backstory Blunders Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman