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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Ha! Thanks Barbara.
Oh, no! A flame war!
A couple weeks of antibiotic therapy should clear that up, Daniel.
Ahem. Excuse me. Too many prunes.
I am sooooo confused.
I don't understand what's going on either, but I'm rolling with it. It's fun.
Well.... see, Sandra said several times she expected to get roasted and I thought it was time someone finally did. And it was all downhill from there :o)
Here is an excellent example of good back story introduction:

This is a book from Hard Case Crime called “The Last Quarry” by Max Allan Collins. He had written five previous books with the assassin Quarry, so this could be considered a series. Almost of all the back story for this book is in this first chapter.

This worked very well for me. I felt like I had a basic understanding off what Quarry is about and how he got to where he is now. But it felt organic and natural like how Stuart did it in his book.
Sandra, you're definitely not alone on this one. This is a topic that has bugged me to death and makes me cringe whenever I submit my work for a critique. Time and again, critiquers wanted me to tell them everything about my protag from eye color to heritage in the first couple of paragraphs. Nay I say. As a reader, I like to watch the characters grow and learn new things about them as the story develops. I have to assume most other readers do too.

I had an early lesson in the value of not spelling descriptions out for the reader when I first developed the series. I used a couple of my co-workers as a test audience to see what they thought of my character. They all liked him but the interesting part was their perception of him. The younger co-workers (in their 30s-40s) thought he would like like their favorite actors who were within their age group. Yet another co-worker who is in her mid 60s had the idea that my protag would look like dashing Sean Connery in his days as 007.
What this said to me is that the writing may be based and influenced by the author's life experiences (likes/dislikes etc,), but the reader will bring into the mix the experiences that have shaped his/her life (likes/dislikes, turn-ons/offs etc.). Because I want my main character to come across as strong-willed and determined, I focus on his actions, internal dialogue, his doubts and convictions, his emotions, reactions, etc., even his sense of humor. But his physical descriptions come from the other characters
I agree completely. And the danger of being too descriptive physically is that no actor can ever match the character, and a lot of readers will analyze that to death.


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