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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Yeah, primarily at the beginning of the book. As I said, "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."

I do think you should be careful about dumping it all in one go at any point in the novel, depending on the type of backstory being included. For example, Laura Lippman's To The Power of Three includes changing POV and going backward and forward in time. But the way it's done allows it to advance the larger story. (Ha, I say this as I write something that involves going back over a ten year period to understand how someone got to one point in their life... but really, it's how it's done.) When it's a police procedural and someone's been murdered at the start, I don't want a sudden detour for the trauma Kenny endured when he was forced to dress in women's clothes at the age of 8 before he goes to the scene to investigate... unless it's got something to do with the investigation. (I'm making up ludicrous examples aren't I?)
I think the problem with this post is that there's too much backstory. It starts at "From my interview with Stuart from 2005", almost like a flashback, then returns us to the action at "I don't know." I think you shuold try to weave this information into your post, especially since it occurs so soon.

But seriously ... I find I have no real input on this because you've done a great job of summing up the problem, and I agree at least half of 200%.
Ha ha! Priceless Daniel.

I guess the real question is, when we all agree, why do we still so much info dump in books?
You know, I'm totally guilty of doing this too. I rely on good feedback and the perspective of distance to trim the backstory fat in my own work. I think the writing mind and reading mind are two separate beasts, and it's tough to remember what we like as a reader when we're focussed on getting the ideas down on the page. Just like turning up to a video store and immediately forgetting all those movies we really wanted to see.

There's also the question of a lack of confidence in ourselves and the reader. When we're unsure, we feel we need to explain everything to the reader, but chances are the reader is as clued in as we think we are.
Actually, I've found that I overestimate readers. They like it plain, simple, short, and explained. Subtlety does not sell books.
Depends on the readers... but I usually find the opposite to I.J. And if they get the feeling they're being treated as dumb, look out.
Apparently, a little info-dumping about main characters early in a mystery/suspense novel is one of the things editors will let slide or--Can it be so?--actually encourage.

By the by, I'm of the opinion you should never info-dump under any circumstances whatsoever. Here's what Michael Connelly has to say on the topic of backstory: "Another thing I try to do is keep the idea that the story is moving forward and backward at any given time. It's obviously moving forward because the plot is carrying it forward. But you should always--and this takes a lot of finesse so it doesn't stop that forward movement--be dropping in things about characters that start filling out their back stories. As you're moving forward through the story, you're also learning about this person's life, so in that way you're moving backward too. That's one of the hardest things to do as a writer. You can't suddenly put in two paragraphs about how a character did something growing up, because it stops the forward movement dead."
My editor insisted on a character info dump at the beginning of my first book. I managed to keep it to three paragraphs, but it still feels like too much, like a major block in the action, and if I had to do it again, I'd figure out some other way of doing it.

But I could also see her point--the book was originally the fourth in a series, and there was a bit of assumption that the reader already knew the characters by that point. When it became the first book in the series, there was a little explaining to do. But I do think next time I'd do it differently.
I've been eyeing IN THE WOODS for a couple of weeks now, mostly because I'm absolutely in love with the cover! It's all dark and mysterious and hard to read, and the spine is covered in what appears to be black ash that leaves a mark on your fingers. Talk about verisimilitude. I also like the second person prologue.

So, worth getting hold of then?
Don't know, but I have it on my list (Margot, you'll be hell on my bank account - thanks :o)

Another book that is a study in backstory perfection (but don't try this at home, kids) is Four Corners of Night by Craig Holden. It's done in layers (a bit like Laura's latest book) and you really are propelled back in time rather than hurrying forward while learning a bit here and there. The backstory comes in big gobs, but exactly in the right order and everything is set up so that you gasp when you put this part together and then that part - it's amazing. And goes to show there is no single way to do this.
Assuming you mean Laura Lippman, haven't read the latest yet, but I understand it's formatted like To The Power of Three and the whole reason that works is because it's written as though it's unfolding, not as one big flashback/thinking about it, IMO.
This has been a great discussion but we've neglected to do something for Sandra even though she keeps reminding us. Like an unruly bunch of schoolkids we are! Sorry, Sandra - better late than never.



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