I recently completed my second draft of The Halley Branch. Before I even think about doing a third draft, I need to solve an issue. Maybe…
I have a bad habit in my books to have a huge amount of history and backstory to fill out. Sometimes backstory doesn’t need to be told, just implied, but in these stories, you have to know it to understand the present story. I also include a lot of philosophy, which often is 100% needed to understand the story. OK, so how do I get it out there?
In The Halley Branch I have four chapters that are dream like sequences where the main character has a dream or vision that tells him about the past (only one chapter is a dream). I think this works well, but it only covers a couple of percent of backstory and philosophy.
So what did I do? I have another four chapters of the main character talking to other people who tell him the history. It all makes sense in the story and gives us pictures of the characters as much as it gives history and philosophy. In other words, through the characters’ dialog I am telling you backstory, but I am also showing you vital information about the characters by their action, interaction, the words they chose, and how they chose to use them.
There are two problems, or two sides of one. A lot of people would call this information dumping, which is really frowned upon today. And people would say that it is “telling”, not “showing”, which is true. However, I do have those other 30 chapters of showing, so do these four chapters ruin it?
The most influential books/series/trilogy in my life was The Lord of the Rings. I read it at least once a year from when I was 14 until I was 30, sometimes two or even three times a year. So, yeah, I read it at least 20 times. Why am I bringing this up? Because huge sections of TLotR is centered around people sitting around telling each other history and philosophy. It is how we learn all of the back story.
It isn’t just TLotR. I’ve read a lot of books that do this. Yet every single writer’s resource I have ever seen has said this is the biggest sin you can commit in your writing and to avoid it like the plague.
In The Fireborn I did a lot of that prehistory/backstory by having the main character, who was an author, read from old manuscripts, like stories within stories. I also did a lot of it through conversation. You’ll have to tell me if it works.
But now I am working on a new book and have several more drafts to do before it is ready for publication.
My dilemma is this, do I have to figure out a way to put all of the information as narrative and action, or can I have “slow down” chapters to tell (yes, awful word) that backstory? Truthfully, I have been spending the last week trying to figure out a way to make some of it as more action, and am drawing a blank. I can do some of it in flashbacks, dream sequences and such, but not all I need. And as i said, I actually like the interaction between the characters in these data dumping sessions – it tells you a lot about them indirectly that I’d have to find other ways to bring out, and might not be able to quite as easily or as smoothly.
What do you think? Does every drop of information in a book, all of the backstory and philosophy, have to be shown to the reader in action sequences, or can we have characters sitting around, drinking ale, shooting the shi.., sorry, “shooting the breeze”, and having the backstory come out this way?
Note – I used the drawing at the top for The Halley Branch when I posted it here a little over two years ago.