January 4, 2011

backstory and exposition

I’m juggling a few topics today… and I’ve decided to hit you guys with the info-dump post because, well, it’s the most important one in my opinion. It’s the place most writers fail, especially when writing fantasy. I sometimes suffer from it in first drafts, but lately, I’ve gotten much better.

By definition, backstory is all the relevant information about a character’s history and background – what got them to the situation at the beginning of the story. Exposition is the art of gracefully revealing the backstory and any other pertinent information about the plot: the hero’s social class, upbringing, habits, experiences, and the prevailing social conditions and opposing forces that may affect the hero. Exposition is everything the audience needs to know to understand the hero and the story.

Backstory and exposition are among the hardest writing skills to master.

Most writers put backstory at the beginning of a story, sometimes in a prologue. This is the logical place to put backstory since it adheres to a chronological structure. Done well, the narrative at the beginning of a story conveys information to the reader without bogging them down. Done well, it doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s part of the story, and it happens to weave into the action.

Unfortunately, most of the time, especially with fantasy writers, and especially with novice writers, the concept of backstory and exposition turns into a blunt, poison-spurting hydra of incurable info-dump. The way to do backstory right is to sprinkle it throughout a story rather than all at once. It’s true that there may be a lot of history that is relevant to your story, and you may feel the need to put it all out there, especially if you’ve spent months or even years world-building. Don’t. Please, don’t. But when I say sprinkle it into a story, I don’t mean cut and paste sentences out of your info-dumps and place them elsewhere.

Here’s an example of what I mean by clumsy exposition (read: info-dump)… forgive me for this rather impromptu example:

Cecilia and Gordon climbed slowly up Giganrock Mountain, the tallest mountain in all of Hvectna. It was rumored that deranged yetis lived near its peak. Cecilia had always wanted to climb Giganrock, but she had not found anyone to climb the dangerous slope until she met Gordon, a foolish young man with a need for money. Gordon didn’t much like Cecilia, but with the pouch of gold in his pocket, he would have done anything for her. He didn’t know about the yetis, or the rumors that they were deranged, flesh-eating monsters. Cecilia did. As a zoologist specializing in rare creatures, she wanted to capture one to study. If she should succeed where her superiors failed, she would no longer be the joke of the department. She just needed someone stupid enough to help her. That’s where Gordon came in.

It reads much like a voiceover, and not a very focused voiceover. Not only do we have to absorb the action of Cecilia and Gordon, we have to absorb the nature of the mountain, the history of Cecilia the zoologist, and the relationship between her and Gordon. The narrator is trying to squeeze as much information into this paragraph as they can. It’s telling not showing.

But even when the narrative seems to be moving forward, showing instead of telling, clumsy exposition can still stop a story in its tracks.

Cecilia stumbled to catch up with Gordon, a stint in her chest from the unforgivable climb.

“Wait up,” she called, slipping a few feet down Giganrock Mountain.

Giganrock was the tallest mountain in all of Hvectna. It was rumored that deranged yetis lived near its peak.

“Come on, Cecilia. We’re almost there,” shouted Gordon, the pouch of gold jingling in his pocket as they climbed.

Hopefully, you read that third sentence and were jarred out of the story. The narrator still felt the need to explain what Giganrock Mountain was and why Cecilia and Gordon were climbing to the top. A lot of information from the first paragraph was left out of this version, but it still rings of info-dump. The exposition draws attention to itself, telling the audience what the author wants them to know. It’s usually better to put the audience right into the action and let them figure things out as the story unfolds.

The audience will feel more involved if they have to work a little to piece together the backstory from visual clues or exposition blurted out while characters are upset or on the run. Backstory can be doled out gradually or grudgingly. Much is revealed by what people don’t do or say.

Now let’s see if I can turn this terrible narrative into something at least halfway decent.

Cecilia stumbled to catch up with Gordon, a stint in her chest from the unforgivable climb.

“Wait up,” she called, slipping a few feet.

Gordon stopped and looked down at Cecilia with a furrow in his brow. She figured he ought to help her more, especially for the amount of gold she had given him. She readjusted her gear and climbed up to meet him.

“Why did you want my help anyway?” he asked.

“I didn’t pay you to ask questions. You’ll know when we get to the top.”

She climbed past him. Had she told him about the deranged, man-eating yetis that lived atop the mountain, he might not have come. It didn’t matter if she had to promise the kid twice as much gold when he found out that’s what she was after. She had to capture one. She had to prove to the others in the department that she wasn’t a coward. She would succeed where they had failed. That would show them.

Hopefully, this is an example of how exposition works. All, or most, of the information from the first example is in this scene without the oppressive objective narrator. The information is all from Cecilia’s point of view, and it flows with what is going on. It doesn’t feel like a cut and paste job (I will admit that it isn’t the best writing, but I mean, you saw what I had to work with, and I literally came up with this on the spot). That’s why they call exposition an art. It conveys information without feeling apart from the story.

Now this was a short example obviously, but some writers do this with more than just a sentence or a paragraph. Sometimes, info-dump can plague pages upon pages of writing, clogging up the narrative and leaving no room for the actual action of the story. So next time you feel the need to explain what’s going on, maybe you need to find a better way to weave it into the action.


  1. I've come across a lot of info dump stories, judging fantasy contests and reviewing short stories. It's actually quite understandable, considering, well, LotR, but you usually end up with stories that should be studied, not read. And especially for YA the pacing is so important, you just don't need infodump. (Like, ever :) )

  2. My characters spend a good 80% of my stories sitting around and thinking, so anything that's NOT exposition feels out of place...

    I'm a victim of the Modernists. I have a hard time writing any action! But yes, you are totally right about the info dump.

  3. It would be appropriate to reference. Your section on exposition is from Vogler's The Writer's Journey, page 95...