Tool #9 – 5 Pointers on Exposition (What in the World do I do about Back Story?)
Back story or No Back story?
“Where do I start?” “How much of the history do I put in?” “What do I have explain before I can launch the plot?”
I hear these questions all the time. Because they are damn good questions.
As an editor and writing coach, I tend to see writers make mistakes on the extreme ends of this spectrum. On the one hand, some writers want to explain everything, which can lead to a clunky and cumbersome beginning. On the other hand, some writers want to explain nothing, which can lead to confusion (and holes in the plot and character arcs). So how does a writer solve this issue? While much of it is the author’s choice and one can argue that there is no one hard and fast rule – the best answer to this question might just be to – learn to smuggle! The authors that I have seen handle back story well tend to have practiced their craft quite a bit- and have learned to gently weave history/important past information into a strong, forward-moving narrative.
“In Ancient Greece — exposition — the information the audience needs to know about the characters and circumstances in order to become emotionally involved in the play was handles by a character named “Prologue” who would appear on stage and simply deliver this information. Since then, writer’s have become more adept at smuggling such information in without the audience knowing it.” Paul Joseph Gulino
The Pro and the Con of Back story Pro: Back story is necessary for a full and fleshed out story Con: Utilizing too much back story can bog down the beginning of your story
“Many writers make the mistake of including too much back story information. Through the use of flashbacks, voice-overs, dream sequences, they overload the script with information about the past, rather than focusing on the present.” — Linda Seger
What you want: You want your story to move. You want it to grab attention and move forward. You want to keep your reader turning pages.
What you do not want: The feeling that your beginning is to heavy, wordy, long, too much history, no forward movement. Understanding how to work the back story into the beginning is the key to this.
5 Pointers on Handling Story Exposition:
1. REMEMBER THE POWER OF MYSTERY. Do your best to limit the amount of exposition, or back story to just what is needed. Keep it a mystery. Keep the audience with you on the journey unraveling both the past and the present. Too much past can make your work feel heavy, like its dragging – and no one wants that. Some of my fellow writing coaches will tell you to keep it out of your first chapter all together. And that is not bad advice at all. The argument is that at the start of the story the reader doesn’t care what happened to them in the past – however later into the story, hopefully your reader will be so invested and that he or she will be willing to go backwards to fill in the gaps.
2. GRAB ATTENTION FIRST, THEN EXPLAIN. More and more we are a hit the ground running kind of society. We are all becoming ADHD. Short attention span, get-to-the-point kind of people. (Whether or not this is a good development as a society is a debate for another day.) Especially in the first pages – veer away from lingering explanations. You want to make sure you wow your readers as soon as they meet you.
3. TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE. Readers are savvy. They don’t need to have things explained as much as writers think they do.
4. DECIDE IF KEY HISTORY NEEDS TO BEEN SEEN IN REAL TIME (If it does, be clever about it). Sometimes back story is necessary – necessary for plot movement, insight into the character’s motivations, and/or necessary to create empathy for the hero. Try and figure out what is absolutely necessary and what they may be able to pick up on as they go along through the action and the dialogue. Now, you may have a moment you feel is particularly key in the back story. Jeffrey Hatcher calls this moment the “inciting incident”. This is the moment that caused the conflict before our story began. In the Play and TV show The Odd Couple, it is Felix’s fight with his wife. (which then causes him to move in with Oscar). In Hamlet, it is when the King gets killed. (Which causes hamlet to want to seek revenge). These moments are key moments. But do they need to be seen? Not necessarily. Remember the idea of smuggling.
If you want to show the inciting incident or another important moment of back story:
- Show it in a series of flashbacks, like a trail of bread crumbs that lead up to a larger flashback that reveals the whole scene
- Plant that the main character is avoiding dealing with the painful/troubling past and only have it come to light at the very end
- Do double duty – while the plot is moving forward – provide side information about the past (from internal thoughts or other character’s thoughts/actions)
- Have a secondary character be the transporter of information surrounding this past event, offering important information and filling in story holes
5. UTILIZE THE SECOND DRAFT AS THE TIME/PLACE TO CUT as much back story as you can. After you have completed your first draft you will undoubtedly be getting feedback. At this point your test readers will be telling you what is confusing and what is clear. If unclear – at that point you can always add more back story if necessary. If cumbersome – time to chop.
Remember that you are not doing it wrong! All you are doing is trying different methods. Use your writing group or writing coach to help you find that tricky balance. It’s often a trial and error kind of process. Be patient and playful as you find just the right recipe!
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