Wednesday, March 21, 2012
These Shoes Don't Belong In The Snow!
Before I get into the whole gist of this post, I have to give a big shout out to my friend Robyn Campbell. A short story of hers will be published in the anthology REAL WOMEN, REAL STORIES. For all you naysayers out there about the phenomenon of my blog breaks (you know, the one where I go on break and someone who follows me gets good news), well, this is yet more proof. If you don't already know Robyn, you should go say hello and congratulate her. She's awesome!
Okay, so now on to the gist of this post. When I left on break, I was exploring the topic of backstory. We've talked a little about where it belongs in a manuscript, but what we haven't touched on is where it doesn't belong.
One thing I've found repeated over and over again by successful authors, agents, and publishers alike, is that backstory does not belong in dialogue.
Noah Lukeman, literary agent and author of The First Five Pages, has this to say about it:
Informative dialogue is most often found in "high concept" novels, where the writer is so anxious to execute his idea that he never stops to consider the wants and needs of his characters. Dialogue of this sort is sometimes used to fill the reader in on current or future events, but is most commonly found filling the reader in on "backstory," on things that have already happened (to this end, it is commonly found toward the beginning of manuscripts).
The most common malady is use of dialogue to convey backstory. The solution is to follow this rule: Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know, that is, one character should not remind the other character of something. It is an obvious ploy, intended only for the reader.
Donald Maass, literary agent and author of several books on the craft of writing, has this to say about it in THE FIRE IN FICTION:
Info dump is deadly. Backstory bogs things down. Zipping up information to make it more frightening or relevant doesn't help. Information is still just information. It's dead weight. Many authors attempt to get around that by disguising info dump as dialogue, but unfortunately that does not automatically work. Dialogue drags unless it is infused with tension; but, as we've seen, even that will only be effective when it is a tug-of-war between talkers.
There are countless other sources on the topic which I could list here, but just do an Internet search. I'm sure you'll find the same sources on your own.
Bottom line is this, (at least in my opinion), tread lightly when it comes to using dialogue to convey backstory. It's not easy to pull off, but as both of the above named sources admit, it can be done.
So, what do you think about backstory in dialogue?
Come back on Friday for a discussion about backstory in the early pages of a manuscript.