Getting the back story

prologue, romeo and juliet, back story One of the hardest things for writers is figuring out how to deliver back story. It’s the information you need as a reader to understand the motivation of the characters. Done well, you don’t even notice that you are getting information handed to you. Done badly, it can kick you out of the story. Or worse, it can seem like the author doesn’t trust you to ‘get’ it.

Good ones: prologue or flashback

The image is for the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, I think this is done well. Without the prologue you might not know that the two houses feuded or that they were a reflection of the woes of the world at the time.

You can still enjoy the story, but you’ll get more out of it with this knowledge.

Others that are done well include anything that can be dripped into the story. An image reminds the hero of seeing her father walk away when she was five. An emotion on someone else can echo an emotion in the hero of when the same thing happened to him.

Done well they add depth to the story.

Done poorly – info dumps

I won’t list any concrete examples because it could hurt someone’s feeling to know their prologue or flashback doesn’t work.

I mentioned this earlier, info dumps are all about telling you, the reader, why something is important. High fantasy is notorious for this. The book will open with a ten or twenty page essay on the way the world works. The author hasn’t found a way to slip the information in as people live in the world.

For me the worse approach to this problem is to assume the reader isn’t smart enough to work out something in the story. The author has to have two characters tell each other something that they wouldn’t talk about normally. Think of CSI – anywhere – it’s unlikely that they would need to tell each other why they were conducting a certain test, but the viewer does need to know why.

Is this just a ‘writer issue’?

There are many things about the craft of writing that authors agonize  over. The ‘rules of writing’ are expressed in absolutes. Never do X, always do Y. The discussions get deeply analytical, but I wonder if you as a reader ever notice the things we writers think are important?

So the question is, how do you like to get your back story or other information about the story?

Do you prefer an info dump, you can choose to skip it or you can get it over with.  Or, do you want as little as possible so you can make it up yourselves?