Monday, February 01, 2010

Talking About a Character's Past

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Maybe it's just that I'm working on the last book in a trilogy, but ways to handle back story have been popping up left and right. My newest revelation: when adding new details, don't reference stuff that happened in the other books unless it's important to the new plot, or a critical part of the world mechanics.

I've found myself mentioning things that happened in books one and two, not in a "this is what happened" way, but like private jokes between the characters. Comparisons or reminders of events past. They feel terribly natural because they do reference real things that happened, but for those who might be reading the series in non-chronological order, they won't have a clue what I'm talking about. Even those that are reading right along might not get it if it's been a while between books.

It's really easy to add these kinds of details, then on a later read, decide you need to add more exposition so readers will get it. Your instincts are right in saying "there's a problem here" but they can send you in the wrong direction. In most cases, instead of adding, it's better to subtract. Doubly so if these details are there to enhance the world building or character development. It might have had great significance in an earlier book, but without the context from that book to back it up, it doesn't always work the same way.

The spots where these little memories work well is when that memory triggers a natural way to have your protag talk about necessary back story. For example, in Blue Fire, Nya looks back and sees the Healers' League (I won't say more for those who haven't read it yet). She's instantly reminded of what happened there in book one, which gives me a great opportunity to introduce that part for new readers. And since what happened directly affects the problem she finds herself in at that moment, it advances the story as well.

But I also had a line that made a joke about something that happened in book one that had no bearing whatsoever on the plot. It was specific enough that it was clear there was more to it, but not clear enough to get it without reading the first book (provided they even remembered it). Readers would most likely feel like they were supposed to get it, but missed something. And you certainly don't want readers stopping to flip back to re-read, especially when the answer isn't there.

This is a tip mainly for sequels, but I'd imagine it has some usefulness in a first or stand alone book as well. If you find yourself feeling the need to explain an offhand comment or detail, odds are it doesn't need to be there. If that detail provides an opportunity to naturally talk about back story, it's probably fine. It can be tough to decide which is which sometimes, but if you look at what will advance the story and what won't, it should be a lot clearer.


  1. I think this has revelance in stand alone novels. One of the things I do as part of my revision process is look closely at any place I find myself explaining something. Often I find I can just eliminate the explanation.

    And your question: What will advance the story and what won't? That is also a key revision tool for me.

  2. Good point. There's a paragraph in a WiP that a few people have said strikes 'em as an infodump, so I tried removing it. But it's something that comes back later, so I'm back to poking it with a kabob stick while squinting to figure out what parts of it have to stay and what can get eaten by the DELETE button.

  3. What I'm struggling with right now is discussing backstory in a stand-alone WiP. In particular, a series of events that take place about a year before the story begins. It didn't directly affect the primary main character at the time but is the direct cause for the current chain of events that my PMC finds herself in now. Those events also dramatically affected (or were caused by) the other main characters. So hard to write about those events without having an info-dump.

  4. How many readers really do pick up a later part of a trilogy without reading the first one? (I know there must be people who do this, but I just can't put myself in their shoes...)

    The reader who hasn't read book 1 since it came out last year is almost in the same position, though....

  5. Great advice. I think especially as you get to book 3 of a series, you shouldn't have to explain the backstory. You can expect the reader will have read the books before. But that's great advice on how to weave it in--a memory that ties into the plot in the presence to move the plot along. Thanks for the tip.

  6. Carradee, sometimes a bit of infodumping is needed. The trick it to keep it in the narrator's voice, so it seems more like something they're thinking about and less like "info inserted here."

    hampshireflyer, I'm like you, I don't pick up later books in a series, but I meet a lot of folks who do. Not all books are clearly marked that they are part of a series.

    Natalie, I'm discovering there's always some explaining you need to do, be it reminders of past books, backstory or just world mechanics. This is the first time I've ever done a series, so it's been quite the learning experience.

  7. Ooo! Thanks for the tip!

  8. I don't know...

    While I see what you're saying as a writer, I'm not sure that I agree with you as a reader. One of my greatest thrills when reading a series is when a character makes a joke referencing something that happened in an earlier book. I find myself giggling along thinking, "Hee hee hee. That was like a private joke between the characters, but I totally got it because I read the last book and I'm totally in their heads. This is so cool."

    I find it really frustrating to read book four or five in a series, and never have anything that happened previously mentioned -- not in a plot way, but in a normal, human, authentic way.

    For example, let's say in book 2 your protag hooked up with someone, only to later find out the person was secretly a vampire intent on subverting the protag's goals. When the protag gets betrayed by their SO in book 5, it's perfectly natural (and kinda cool) to have them say, "Well, it could be worse. At least this one didn't have fangs." (Not a great example, but the first thing that came to mind.)

  9. Jo, If it fits and a new reader can see there's a joke and chuckle even if they don't get it, then I think it works fine. I'm talking more about the ones where it makes no sense if you don't know the history and stops the reader cold. Your fang example is a good one for that. I see the humor in it, even if I don't know anything abut it. So it works. There's enough context in the setup to get it.

    I love in jokes in books, but I've also read plenty where I felt I missed something and it pulled me out of the story. Those are the kinds to watch out for :)