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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See, I love that bit you included and would trust the author to tell more if I needed to know it when the time is right. Otherwise, it's just to ground the character in who he is... but more coming in relation to this when I reply to Brian, below.
Hehe. Actually he doesn't say any of that. Other characters bring it up in due course. I hear you used drugs! You're on suspension!! You're deranged!!! (Well, that becomes fairly obvious early on...though perhaps not to Our Hero.) So as a result I was in big trouble at work, used drugs on occasion had a glass of wine now and then, got a bit cranky sometimes ...

I guess I like characters to be part of the mystery, people you get to know over time, but some readers don't like that.
That works for me, though. That's how we really learn about people -bit by bit. If I wanted to read biographies, well, I would! As much as I love slow burn stuff (note my first love has always been British police procedurals - Rankin, McDermid, etc.) I just want to feel the story is moving forward. The difference between a master and someone less experienced, I guess, is getting the feeling the story's been put on pause for it all.
Aussie blokes? What can I say?

What I mean.
On a more serious note, I didn't have that problem with THE BROKEN SHORE, but I wonder if that's something cultural? Maybe references in the novel had more meaning for me and were easier to remember because of it.

I get what you're saying, tough. I love Peter Temple's work, but he can get a bit too laconic at times.
Perfect word for it. But all is forgiven because his writing is brilliant, and laconic actually fits the main character. He's not the kind to go around spilling backstory at the slightest encouragement. Or even if a crowbar is used.
I found the sparing use of backstory very refreshing in the Broken Shore. And all those adolescent misspent hours watching "Neighbours" have finally come to some use, knowing the meaning of "shot through" etc.
Here's my hodgepodge response.

Yes I agree that Too Much Exposition (TME) is a narrative killer. Endless navel gazing kills the pace of the book and a lot of times the reader can become aware that the author is only giving you the information because its going to come into play later. Like a big thought balloon just popped up shouting REMEMBER THIS. I find that I have less tolerance for overly long expository passages now then I did years ago, I'll skim whole sections if their not holding my attention.

I think that there is a need for exposition but its certainly a case where a little goes a long way. It can be hard to find that baby bear's porridge middle ground though.

The need to know about people though is a natural one, whether we ask questions out loud or not. Years ago my oldest brother had an accident at work where he lost the index finger on his left hand. Nothings there, not even a nub. When you see his hand it looks like he has a freakishly long middle finger. People see it and they immediately want to know, some ask and some don't but they still want to know. So when you meet a character for the first time you want to know something about them.

I like Stuart's idea and its actually one that I've heard before. In the movie Once Upon a Time in Mexico the director, Robert Rodriguez, filmed a small number of scenes from a fictitious third movie, then thought of Once Upon a Time in Mexico as the fourth, with references made back to the movie that the audience never really gets to see.

To tie in with the Shutter Island reference Dennis Lehane had a great quote one time in an interview he said "...your audience does not need to know that your character doesn’t like mustard, or even why. But you need to know. " You should have the character fully developed then hold most of that information back and that's how depth is created.

Ken Bruen is a master of succinctly summarizing a situation or a character. He makes it look easy though. Here are two examples.

"He remembered when he first courted Fiona - the sheer adrenaline rush of just being in her presence. He missed two people: a) the girl she was; b) the person she'd made him feel he might have been. A deep sigh escaped him."

"A waitress in her fifties came over. She'd obviously had disappointing news in her teens and wasn’t yet recovered. Her face seemed unfinished without a tired cigarette"

Here is another interesting but extreme example. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The length of dialogue and exposition in the book is near perfect. But why? It turns out that when Eco was writing this book he built a scale model of the monastery where most of the story takes place. Then when a character(s) were talking or thinking while they were walking he would use the model to figure out how long the walk would take and time the conversation or inner dialogue accordingly.
You know, the quote from Lehane is one I can debate. I don't think you need to know everything about your character. I remember interviewing Mark Billingham, he said 'there is no dossier on Thorne.' I hear this from different authors, they like the ongoing process of discovery. In the same way you don't know a person wholly first time you've met them, you can still learn something new about a person after knowing them for ten years. Maybe it never came up before because it wasn't relevant.

But I think you should know the fundamental aspects of their character. Are they shady? Would they take a bribe? What do they value? Etc. etc.

And yes, Ken is a master. There is absolutely no denying that. He makes everything look effortless.

Honestly, though, I thought I'd be roasted here, so I'm glad I'm not alone.
Hemingway once said essentially what Lehane did, and I'll go along with them. The more you know about your character--even including details you'll never use--the more likely you'll render a vivid, consistent character.

Elmore Leonard once said getting the name right was the key thing for him in developing a character. The whole process of character building is almost mystical.
Just read Stuart's COLD GRANITE. Very nice indeed!
As for Eco's scale model, I can't say I relate to that. It may be that the model project helped him place characters throughout the novel, but that timing business still involves Math and timing one's walk. I'm happy if I can get reasonably accurate speeds for horses and ships. :)


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