The Telling of Backstory?

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.

6 thoughts on “The Telling of Backstory?

  1. Marilyn Armstrong

    A little of this, a little of that, and a little of the other thing, too. Memories. Conversations about the past. Letters and books. And sometimes, a full author’s digression. As long as it’s interesting, i really don’t care.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      There is a little of this and a little of that, but I think I am going to start putting in a bit of the other thing. I mention books, so I might put in some random chapters of books or diaries of people from 200 or 250 years ago. Not sure. I agree, it has to be interesting.

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  2. Sarina

    It’s a dilemma, I notice in my own writing. But sincerely as a reader I really dislike an info dump, and a flashback. What helps me when I write is to remind myself that my potential future readers will be intelligent people and that the relationship between author and reader should be based on respect.

    I haven’t yet picked up the Fireborn, but will certainly leave a review. If you like I can send you an e-mail with what I did not enjoy about the book, since I never put those things in my reviews.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      That is part of my difficulty – I actually like the data dumps if they are done correctly, like in The Lord of the Rings. What I try to do is write a book that I would enjoy reading. But then I know some people do feel that talking about back story in a conversation is too much of a data-dump and see it as the author trying to lead the reader by the nose. Maybe it’s a degree of how much is done? Maybe the skill the author has on making it seem natural? I try to let the reader figure out a lot by themselves, and in The Halley Branch, I never come out and the secret behind plot, but everyone who read it has figured it out. So I do trust the reader, but I completely get what you are saying.

      I had several people beta-read it, and one said that she liked it as is, but thought some people might see these chapters astoo much telling, not enough showing. You might be one of the ones that would think I was doing data dumps in these chapters. Nobody else mentioned it. But, I very much see that one’s beta reader’s point, and your point. Hmmm. I’ll continue trying to figure out a way to get rid of these dialog chapters in this book.

      As to The Fireborn. I hope I don’t bias you too much, but going back now, I can see that the amount of data dump is an issue with it, maybe a major issue. In fact, there is about 10 times as much data dumping in The Fireborn as in The Halley Branch. Don’t ask me why it didn’t bother me in that book while it does now. That being said, I think it goes with the pace of the book. I used to compose classical music, and so a part of me thinks about large scale pacing. Or maybe I’m just trying to justify bad writing ;)

      If you do pick it up and read it, sure, drop me a note with what you didn’t like about it. And don’t worry if you don’t like a lot of things about it: I hope I’ve grown a lot as a writer in the four and half years since I originally wrote it!

      Thanks for your input.

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