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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It's a tough call as to how much to include vs. take out. I liked Theresa Schwegel's debut "Officer Down," but one of the weaknesses (I felt) was the lack of backstory. It was nonstop action and the characterization was good, but I kept wondering why the POV character was acting and feeling the way she did.

Flash forward to my current ms. I had a lot of backstory that I ended up deleting because I felt it slowed the story down... and guess what one reader had to say about that? Yup... she wanted more backstory upfront.

I do think exposition weighs a story down. Especially of the navel-gazing introspective variety. Backstory in dialog is less offensive, like when two characters are on a date (of course one that leads to action ;) ). But even then - the author must tread carefully.
Yes, it's a delicate balance. And I think you can provide the reasoning for behaviour without weighing something down with all the intimate details. It is a delicate balance.
I don't agree about the introspective mode. "Navel-gazing" is a term that tends to trivialize developing a character fully by getting into his head and seeing the world the way he sees it. Internalizing is a method of characterization. Long back story can be dreary, but what is in the protagonist's mind is relevant to the action and to our understanding of him (or her). I am tired of protagonists like Sherlock Holmes who keep it all to themselves so that they can pull a rabbit from their hat in the final scene and make everyone look stupid.
Yes, that can be a cheat. Of course, if they're holding back things relevant to the case. Not if the naval-gazing is about why pink socks traumatize them, and pink socks have nothing to do with the case.

Balance... as I said, not mistaking dumping in irrelevant details for character development. This is where you hope a good editor will give you a slap if you've gone too far... or haven't put in enough.
Wait, don't male inmates in the Maricopa County Jail have to wear pink socks as sort of homophobic humiliation? It's got to be a clue.
Sounds like a short story in the works...
My point was that just as people generally don't sit there for long periods of time thinking in paragraphs about their lives, so characters should not. I am a very introspective person and yet I still think in terms of motivation, etc. in terms of snippets... a paragraph at most, and often I don't have time even for that.
I agree with that. And if we really wrote how people think it would be all broken up with thoughts about hot guys, the stain on the carpet and whether we can get that out, Junior's homework, whether or not you put the juice back in the fridge in the morning... Nobody writes how people really think most of the time, for obvious reasons, but I like your approach of not doing too much at a time.
In trying to write this first novel at page 140, I have about eight pages of back story in three separate sections. That will be it but I'm worried that's too much. But the character's problems stem from incidents in her childhood. How can I bring that across without giving a bit of her past? I'm not defending the eight pages because I would like to not have anything. I would like to write like Stuart MacBride, too. I think coming from the literary story-writing is handicapping me. I took a class with Ursula Hegi who basically wanted all back story ("Go deeper into your character, Patricia") and I still haven't shaken it off, I guess.
Well, I tried pleasing myself with novel #1 (a novel in stories) and it's in my bottom drawer, sad to report.
Now I want to please the wider world.
Once you've finished a first draft, then see if you can't disperse those 8 pages throughout the novel. And don't shoot for a page here and a page there, I'm talking about a paragraph here and sentence there.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying no backstory at all. It just needs to be handled in a timely way, and it should be relevant. Where I really have an issue is when you've read an opening scene and then, voila, let's get the life story. In your case, you can't tell the story without giving some backstory, and it's justified just by what you said here.

I guess I'm basically of the opinion that spending three pages talking about how the protagonist's father has alzeihmers at the beginning of the book better damn well have some bearing on the story and at least have relevance in how they'll handle the case or interfere with the case. It's when it has nothing to do with the story being told.


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