How many times do you pick up a book, have a little teaser of an intro with something dramatic happening, and then hit that magic spot... Yes, you know the one I'm talking about. It's like someone pressed a button:

Cue backstory.

And we now have the A to Z of our protagonist, telling us their history and all things that will be relevant to the story, or at least to understanding why they're so misunderstood.

Once we've got the history of said character we resume the story. But of course, we usually find out the reason Mr. X was thinking about his dead brother's murder five years ago is because (gasp! shock! surprise!) the corpse in front of him is going to lead him to his brother's killer.

I've got a problem, and it's one that definitely impacts me as a writer. I'm bored as hell with the info dump. I believe that what happens to people reveals their character. In the same way that we don't get to know a person's whole life history first time we meet them (unless it's a very long, boring conversation where we're handcuffed to said person and can't shut them up) in a good book you'll follow the character and continue to learn more about them.

I like books, like Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite, where you follow McRae and as you go along you get to learn things about McRae without stopping the story. From my interview with Stuart from 2005:

“The punch shouldn’t have caught Logan by surprise, but it did. A fist like a breezeblock slammed into his stomach, tearing at the scar tissue, making fire rip through his innards. He opened his mouth to scream, but there was no breath left in his lungs.”

Cold Granite, page 11

Sandra: That is a brilliant paragraph because I feel like you have given me the beginning of his back-story while you're moving the plot forward. You're moving the action, not stopping to say, "Well, you know, he had this trauma" but that's nicely tucked in there. How do you do things like that?

Stuart: One of the things I really wanted to do with this book was make it not read like a first book. I wanted it to appear as if it was book three or book four in a series so the events have happened in the characters past, but I don't want to have to go in and say "This, this, this, this and this is what's happened to him." His past shouldn't need to be explicitly detailed; you the reader are almost expected to know about what's gone on before, because you've read the preceding books that have never been written. So it's just keeping everything pared down to the very bare bones.

Sandra: It seems to work very well because it makes it very pacey but at the same time informative. Is that your intent?

Stuart: Pretty much, yeah. I always hate it when a book gets to a point and it just stops and you've got this sudden two-and-a-half mile flashback three or four cases back...

I absolutely love this approach. I love the fact that I am always learning about McRae, but Stuart perfectly balances that with telling the story. After all, these are police procedurals... stuff should actually happen.

I don't know. I find myself reading some books and the narrative as a cop is standing over a body or doing some task is miles longer than the amount of time that would be allotted for it. And it makes me think they aren't very good at doing their job when they stand there for the equivalent of a half an hour thinking about why Suzie left them or whatever.

Don't over-generalize what I'm saying. Give me a new Rebus book and I'll lose two days of my life just lost in that world. Just read Lehane's Shutter Island and loved it. But I really do think that more writers could learn from Stuart's approach. How a story is told should not be reduced to the formula of how others have done it for the past ten or fifteen years. It should be appropriate for the story being told. I look at stories like Pulp Fiction and would bet money if a newish author tried to sell something like that they'd never get a deal. But more than that, if someone's going to write a series, I want them to leave room for the characters to be explored in future books. I want to know about what's relevant to the story being told, not their favourite breakfast cereal when they were 4. I guess I think some authors mistake overload of info dump with character development. Character isn't just developed through thought. It's revealed through action. Through what happens to the person in the story, what they have to face and how they deal with it I think we should learn who they are, not learn the ten things about them that will obviously connect to the case in question on page 8 and then just wait for the connections to crop up.

Am I a skeptic? Or am I right, and we're too tied in to formulas?

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I guess I'm thinking more for series. The second last paragraph I mention if someone's going to write a series, I want them to leave room for the characters to be explored in future books. I want to know about what's relevant to the story being told, not their favourite breakfast cereal when they were 4. I guess I think some authors mistake overload of info dump with character development. Character isn't just developed through thought. It's revealed through action. Through what happens to the person in the story, what they have to face...

See, for a standalone book everyone needs to be developed in order to understand their relation to the story. This is also true of series books, but in a standalone you need a complete sense of closure, I think. In a series book if you cover every aspect of a person's history in depth in book one, you don't have anywhere to really go with them.

Concerning the Stuart MacBride paragraph, you've hit it in one. You don't know about his old injury until he gets punched in the gut. I thought then (and still do) that it was genius because the story continued moving forward without being stopped for three pages while we found out about his old injury, but we got enough about the injury to understand the situation and feel like it added to our understanding of the character and his background.

I agree this isn't an easy question to answer... which is why I thought it might be interesting to discuss. Even if a book is a slow burn (which I love) I don't want to feel as though I've gotten the whole history in one go at the beginning. I find it interesting in my own reading that a book like Shutter Island will have me completely engrossed, but then I'll pick up another book and feel like it's just checking off the boxes. I guess it has to do with everything - quality of writing, the skill of the storytelling. Perhaps when those things fall down the book feels more contrived and you notice it more?

My feeling is that what you say, do and think reveals character, not just what you think. A lot of books seem to go for heavy introspection. I'm actually not a big action reader, not really in the thriller camp. I'm a police procedural junkie. But sometimes I feel as though intros are written just to manipulate an emotional connection. Her husband died of cancer. His son drowned last summer. Her brother's murder has never been solved. His sister was abducted and has never been found. As though the only reason I would care about them is because they've endured some trauma, so it must be dumped on me right at the beginning so that I'm 'hooked'. When you're reading the first few pages and find yourself thinking, Okay, so what's your life problem, honey? Should be coming along any... Ah there it is... you find yourself thinking maybe you've read too many books following an overused formula.
I question the need for backstory, unless it contains plot points. I am more interested in who the characters are now. Think about your friends - how much do you know about their backstories? But you know what they would do or say in a given situation.

When back story is necessary it can be mixed in as Stuart did. On the other hand, in SHOEDOG George Pelecanos unloaded a whole chapter of backstory right at the front of the book. That's why he's George Pelecanos and I'm not.
Like all things Graham, a great author can break the rules and make it work. Maybe that's what separates the goods from the greats?
TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure--the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character's essential nature.
--Robert Mckee

I agree with you, Sandra. I think most backstory can be safely eliminated. Like heavy description, it invites skimmage. The author should know a character's backstory, but a few telling details are all the reader usually needs. If it doesn't move the plot forward, it should get the axe. IMHO.
Okay, I expected to get roasted over this, so I'm glad I'm not alone. I love that quote Jude - it's going on my desk.
I think it's a matter of good editing. When you write a first draft, particularly when we're talking about a first book of a series, there's a tremendous temptation to put down everyting that's in your head about a character, right away. But that's not how we learn about real people (unless we happen to be interviewinmg them, of course). In normal life, information is provided in dribs and drabs over a period of time, by a natural process of conversation and exchange. And that's why you need a good editor to say, 'Hold on. Don't tell us all this at once. Spread it out a cross a lot of scenes. Make it natural.'

Well, I needed an editor to say that, anyway ... !
I agree that a good editor will make all the difference, although it seems to be harder and harder to get a good editor. I was reading on a friends blog recently that she'd gone to a publishing festival, met some editors who had promising feedback for her work and then they said, "Get it professionally edited." They told her a lot of editors see stuff they like but they don't have the time to edit it. And these were credible, known publishers. When I read that I was depressed. I dream of a good editor.
Umm, yes. Me, too. I got no editing on the first two releases, but I get some now.

I use very little back story, only enough to explain a relationship when otherwise the action would not make sense. But I'm reminded that in my next book, where the sidekick enters as an actor in the second half of the novel, I had to move a paragraph about his relationship with the protagonist to the beginning of the book, because my editor thought it belonged there. It was one of those editorial changes that weren't sufficiently upsetting to me to refuse.

It is always good to get that other view. But I have learned that I must make the book as perfect as I can because I will probably have to live with it.
And if you get a good editor then yes, you take their suggested under advisement. I'd do the same as you in that scenario. But a paragraph isn't too much either, and that's part of the equation. Not too much, not too little...
Now that's a slippery slope--relying on an editor. When I write I imagine I'm the only editor the ms is ever going to get. (I haven't been published yet but my agent used to be an editor and made some wonderful contributions before taking the ms on the market, so I know what a good editor can do.) I hope I never lose that ability at self-deception.
Probably the perfect philosophy Eric!
It depends. There are times readers get annoyed if they feel the author is being too coy, as if they're teasing. I had some readers respond that way to the narrator in On Edge because he didn't disclose stuff up front. (Chapter One: I'm in big trouble at work, I've used drugs on occasion but it's no big deal, I have a really bad temper, and some people think I'm seriously deranged, okay? Now that we're clear on that, on with the story. Unless, of course, you'd rather not hang around with a guy like me. Don't let the back cover pinch your fingers on the way out.)

And at times it's a lot of work if there is backstory but it's released in dribs and drabs. I liked Peter Temple's The Broken Shore a lot but I had to keep flipping back and forth to put the guy's story together because he's, you know, an Australian bloke. Doesn't talk about himself. Only sometimes it was relevant and I had to go hunt it down because without that information the story didn't make sense.


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