How Do You Give Readers Background Information?
All my books seem to have a character like Teach, my learned con man from ‘Daughter Am I,’ who tends to be a lecturer. The hardest part of editing that particular book was to take out everything that wasn’t essential to understanding the story.
I worry that Teach’s talk about the history of gold is a bit much, but there is no way to understand why the gold was buried without understanding the history of the era. I did try to space the information to add a bit of suspense at times or to offer a respite from the action at other times.
For Light Bringer, I had to present various conspiracy theories, and instead of having a character like Teach to “teach” the theories, I created a discussion group, each member of which believed a different theory and vociferously defended it while denigrating what the others believed. It was a fun way to present the information without an extended information dump.
Here are some responses from other authors about giving readers the background information they need. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .
From an interview with Donna Galanti, Author of “A Human Element”
I try to tease them with only a few descriptive details of backstory and setting as I go along. Give them only what they need at the time. Readers want to feel smart.
They like to fill in the blanks, as long as there aren’t too many blanks. I try and look at all backstory and gauge if it serves the story. If it doesn’t out it goes. By introducing questions early on with giving just enough information to keep the story going, we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense. Hopefully!
From an interview with Sam Lopez, author of “Dead Sea”
Disputes between characters can provide helpful information but if there is no conflict, then sometimes you just have to spell out what needs saying.
What about you? How do you deal with exposition and give readers the background information they need?
Backstory without preaching is always a challenge. There is also the related issue of providing information when writing a series. You want the reader to know what has happened in earlier stories, without wanting to repeat the whole plot, needed for those readers who only read one of the series out of sequence, or for readers that have had a delay between the books. At the same time, you don’t want to annoy the reader who has recently read the previous editions and still has all the detail in their minds.
Although a prologue or ‘what has gone before’ type entry can be useful, these synopsis can be very dry. I prefer to intersperse the new story with snippets of information from the old, where relevant. And it is that last word, relevance, that is important.
As for back story in a standalone story, yes, having the characters share the information is a good tool. You can also use the omniscient narrator too: ‘little did he know that…’
The most important, and challenging, thing, is to do all this without the reader noticing the craft. That’s what makes the difference between writers and good writers, in my opinion.
Thank you Pat, and thank you Paula.
Reading your articles always makes me realize I’ve still so much to learn.
Please keep on with these articles, as I really devour them. Hopefully some time soon I’ll be able to put it all into practice.
I use this analogy a lot when speaking of writing creative fiction and it applies in this instance to adding the historical facts. Treat them as flavor to the story rather than trying to teach your reader. When you are flavoring anything, moderation is the key. Salt is to be lightly sprinkled, not dumped. Too much ruins the dish. Too much of your wonderful and interesting research will spoil your story. One author friend was saying she takes her research that didn’t make it into the book and puts it on her website/blog with the links where she got it so her readers can go as deep as they wish. Isn’t that a great idea?