So you’ve got a GREAT Storyworld for your novel and you can’t wait to tell your reader all about it. How and when do you do that for maximum effect?
Dre posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have a problem transferring vast amounts of information to my reader in an interesting manner, like the history and the natural laws of a Storyworld.
-Footnotes seem a cheap way to do this.
-I’ve considered excerpts from made-up chronicles or study books, but typical for such texts is that they’re not compelling.
-Simply interrupting the narratives with informative lectures gets disturbing and is a violation against the MRUs.
-And weaving the information through a dialog doesn’t always make sense.
So I’m lost. How do other writers cope with this?
Randy sez: Writers always believe that the reader is dying to know the entire life history of every character and the full history of the Storyworld and exactly how the Storyworld works in all its infinite complexity.
The reader is and she isn’t. Let’s take those in reverse order.
When you pick up a book, you’re looking for a story. Something happening here and now. Characters doing things that matter right now. If you don’t get that right away, you’re going to put the book down. You just will. And your reader is just like you.
As you get into the story, you begin to realize that these characters weren’t born yesterday and the Storyworld in which they live has a long history. Some things in the story just don’t make sense unless you have some context–some backstory or some description of the present world.
So when do you put in that context and how much do you put in?
The answer is simple: Just when you need it and no earlier. Just as much as you need to make sense of the action and no more.
You have many tools to do this:
- Exposition or Narrative summary. A block of it to fill in the past.
- Dialogue. One character explaining the past to another.
- Interior monologue. One character thinking about the past.
- Flashbacks. A scene set in the past, connected to the present.
- Diaries, chronicles, or other written texts found by a character.
- The Pensieve. Works if your name is J.K. Rowling. Works very well. Essentially a flashback.
- Description. Works best if it’s filtered through the senses of the viewpoint character.
Those are your tools. You can even use footnotes, as Stieg Larsson did in his Millennium Trilogy, although this is pretty rare for a novel.
The important thing is to not give backstory or description to your reader until she’s begging for it. She’ll be begging for it when the main story gets confusing and can be easily clarified by a few snippets of backstory or description. Give it to her then. Just enough to answer the questions, and NO MORE.
You may believe that you are the amazing exception to this rule, and that your readers will find you uniquely gifted at telling backstory or description and therefore you can heap it on and let the pace of your story go to zero.
No you can’t. No more than your brother-in-law the tax accountant is amazingly gifted at explaining arcane 19th century tax laws to his enthralled friends. He isn’t. You aren’t. Don’t do it.
Tell your story. Save the backstory until it’s screaming to be told. J.K. Rowling held off on giving her readers the full backstory of Severus Snape for thousands of pages — until that information was desperately needed late in Book 7 in order to advance the plot. Take a lesson from the master. Tell no backstory before its time. Less is more.
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