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Sometimes Enough Is Enough

A common mistake that new writers make is over-explaining, particularly with background and backstory. I don’t know if it’s because the writers put so much into the background and feel like it has to be shared (sometimes in excruciating detail), or if they lack confidence in the reader’s ability to follow the story without that information, or some combination of the two (most likely), but there it is. New writers often put in too much stuff that isn’t story.

That was one failing I never had, though I had plenty of others. I’m a pretty minimalist writer. (No, not this kind of minimalism; my desk looks like the site of an illicit intimate encounter between a used bookstore and an electronics shop.) Not only are infodumps anathema, as they should be for all writers of fiction, but I shy away from lavish description as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with lavish description, necessarily; it’s just not my style. I sprinkle in just enough background to (hopefully) keep the reader from getting lost.

This was brought home to me a while back in an amusing way. One of my first reader’s raised some questions about my novel’s background. When I sat down to address this issue, and better explain how magic had influenced the development of technology, the question I asked myself was, “Where can I put in a line about that?”

In a 100,000 word novel, my first reflex was to use no more than a single sentence to fill in this bit of background, and that is exactly what I ended up using.

The preparation and concentration required to work magic made it better suited to the factory and laboratory than the battlefield, but it could be decisive on the battlefield too.
Not out of any sense of minimalism for its own sake, but because it was background, not essential to the plot, and–most importantly–not something that the viewpoint character would dwell on. Exposition works best when it flows naturally from the characters’ perceptions and reactions, rather than interrupting the narrative with a chunk of data.

More significant pieces of background and backstory get whole scenes, but it’s important that those scenes fill other roles as well. Even in a novel, every sentence must serve a purpose, and there should always be a drive to push the plot forward, increase tension, and draw the reader along towards the climax.

When putting in your backstory and exposition, don’t just ask yourself, “Where can I put this?” Also ask yourself, “How little of this can I get away with? Do I even need it at all?”

You might be surprised at how quickly your plot moves along once you jettison the excess baggage.