Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writing Tip Wednesday--Backstory vs. Exposition

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In recent months, I've noticed a lot of agents and editors commenting on Twitter about submissions they've rejected because the author either opened with page after page of backstory and no action or had a great opening action scene followed by pages of backstory. Some of the contest entries I've judged have had similar issues.

How much backstory is too much? And what is exposition?

You've thought of a fantastic idea for a story, so you start getting to know your characters. If you're a Plotter, you might create a character bio, listing physical characteristics of your hero/heroine and finding the perfect celebrity to represent him/her. You know this person's history--he's the oldest of four siblings, he's overprotective of his baby sister, his dog died when he was 12, etc. Is all of this information vital to your story?

Probably not. Some of it helps define your character's GMC (goals, motivation, and conflicts), but the reader doesn't need to know much of what you know about the hero/heroine. If the hero recognizes a smell, he might be reminded of his grandmother's kitchen at Thanksgiving. It can have a positive or negative affect. Do we also need to know that when he was eight years old, his grandmother spent weeks in the hospital from gall bladder surgery complications? That's a backstory dump unless the heroine is about to undergo gall bladder surgery and he's worried she might die.

By adding small instances of past experiences here and there, we get the information we need at the right time rather than a giant info dump. That's exposition. You expose pieces of the character's history when they're influencing current actions, reactions, and behavior.

Remember that info/backstory dumps can be in narrative or dialogue. If your character has a scar, is she going to talk about the details of how it happened with someone who was there or already knows the story? Not likely. As with POV, be the character. Think about her relationship with other characters in the scene. How much would she tell a stranger? Is she self-conscious of the scar? All these things influence how much exposition you should use in dialogue, whether spoken or internal.

Backstory and exposition, like many other aspects of writing craft, are best when used in moderation. Sure, you have to take more time and care when creating your story, but your end product will be better for the effort--and your readers will love you for it!

In writing this blog, I'm wondering if backstory tends to be a bigger problem for Plotters... If you have thorough knowledge of your character's life history, are you more likely to have problems with backstory dumps??? And what about Pantsers? If you don't know your character, do you have more issues with contradictory or inconsistent behavior???

Hmm... Something to think about until next week's post on Characterization.

Thanks for stopping by!

Mellanie Szereto
Romance...With A Kick!


  1. Great post, Mellanie. I used to plot everything from start to finish before I wrote the first sentence. These days, I'm an all out pantser. I find it easier to avoid the information dump by being a pantser because I get to know my character more deeply as the story progresses just like my readers will. When something happens and a little back story is needed, it's revealed in thoughts or conversations when necessary and everything generally falls right into place.

    1. Thanks, Tonya! I'm glad you found a method that works well for you. :)