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.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I think if you're going to use it, you have to make it work for you. The story has to move forward and as the wise gentlemen stated, it can't bog down the MS.

~ Wendy

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

It takes me out of story if one character tells another something they clearly already know. This is one of those tricky areas that takes lots of practice for a writer to become deft at making any backstory natural to the moment and not feel like backstory at all.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Oh, oh! and I meant to say a big congratulations to Robyn. she so deserves that!

Carolyn V said...

I totally agree. It sounds too forced.
Yay for Robyn!

J.B. Chicoine said...

I think the key to placing some backstory in dialogue is as stated above: Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know, that is, one character should not remind the other character of something.

I think the strategic addition of bits of backstory can be revealed--and effectively so--in dialogue when one character (or even simply the reader) is receiving new information. Even if some information is not new to the reader, the reaction of a newly informed character my be very important to moving the plot along.

As for backstory by way of an info dump, well, I suppose that too can be done effectively, but it is far more challenging to pull off. One could show it in a backflash or memory, but so many 'authorities' have given such digressions a black eye along with backstory.

I don't know, maybe it's more of a genre thing...maybe it's what the agents and 'pros' find easiest to sell...Bottom line is, know your personal objective with telling the story.

Julie Dao said...

Wow, I'll have to go over to Robyn's blog and congratulate her! I'm ambivalent about backstory... I'm neither for nor against it. I think as long as I feel like the author isn't talking down to me or dumping a whole bunch of information on me at once, it's good to know the background of a story or a character. That's what enriches a story, after all. It's all in how it's done. Bits and pieces fed slowly can go a long way!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was a good issue to raise, because it can be a real pitfall in writing: trying to squeeze in info you want the reader to know. But, as a reader, I really am bumped by it it unless it is absolutely natural, i.e., the other party REALLY didn't know that about the speaker or the person being discussed. It has to work the way it would work in real life, or it doesn't ring true.

Name: Holly Bowne said... I'm wondering...

I knew this part: "Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know."

But now I'm not 100% sure I haven't done the thing where I've used dialogue to convey backstory. I need to go back and check that one out.

Thanks for the great backstory advice, Susan!

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think it's important to only give back story as it's necessary. Info dumps are boring, but if you keep readers guessing for too long you'll just make them angry.

Robyn Campbell said...

I missed this, cuz I was sick!!!!! I am just now getting out of the bed. Thank you, you awesome woman, for giving me a shout out! You totally rock the world lady!

Great advice. Back story is so hard. I have to run through and make double sure I have used it as sparingly as possible but just enough. I have been guilty of author intrusion. ACK! People that think writing a book is easy peasy need to have their butt kicked.

I heart you! :-)