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How to avoid too much backstory or exposition

Discussion in 'World Building' started by TheCrystallineEntity, Feb 6, 2017.

  1. I have had difficulty with this: either I put too much [possibly] unnecessary backstory into my books, or I pile on too much exposition at the beginning or end, typically.
    Does anyone else have this problem or know ways to alleviate it?
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Sure. Don't do it. Put it just exactly the right amount, at exactly the right time. :)

    Seriously, do worry but don't fret. That is, you will want to pay attention to this, and listen to your beta readers, but just accept it as another aspect of the writing craft you are still mastering.

    I'm a big fan of going too far in order to find the middle. Put in too much backstory. Oh, you already do this. Okay, now write with *no* backstory. It'll drive you crazy, but treat it as a writing exercise rather than First Draft or whatever. The purpose is to see what you can leave out, what must be included and, equally important but equally difficult, where in the story each piece belongs.

    I speak as one who has plenty of experience getting it wrong. How do I know it's wrong? Because my beta readers either tell me or, more often, ask me what the devil is going on here, or else tell me a stretch is boring or not needed. I can't be the initial judge of this, because all too often I am telling the story to myself, working through that backstory in context, so of course I think it's needed. It's needed *for me*. Not necessarily for the story. I like to think I'm getting better at it, but then I do like to think.

    FWIW.
     
    spectre and Michael K. Eidson like this.
  3. ^Thanks! :)
     
  4. Miseo

    Miseo Minstrel

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    I have a way...

    First, and most obviously, touch up on it when it naturally comes up in the story. One character asks an experienced wizard where magic comes from? EXPOSITION TIME. Although too much is bad.

    But I was thinking of doing something else... much of the history, magic, and religion of my world is intertwined with each other. That being said, the religious scriptures of my world would contain information that does a pretty adequate job explaining the magic and religion by detailing the history... so I was thinking of including portions of these scriptures as extra chapters at the end of a book. Kinda like an appendix. That way readers can get whatever exposition I want them to understand, and they will still have a feeling of immersion because they would be reading portions of the in-world scriptures.

    Maybe you could figure out something similar? Find a good way to include exposition extra chapters without them being just info dump chapters. An in-book book, like what I'm considering, is one way to do it.
     
  5. So far I'm handling it by adding little bits of backstory here and there at the beginning of each part as exerts from the books that a minor character writes.
     
  6. Miseo

    Miseo Minstrel

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    That's kinda similar to my idea. Good job.
     
  7. ^I got the idea from Brandon Sanderson, actually. :cool:
     
  8. Miseo

    Miseo Minstrel

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    I recognize the name. Sanderson. Someone famous?
     
  9. He is the author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Way of Kings, Path of Radiance, Elantris, the Alcatraz VS The Evil Librarians series, and many other books.
     
  10. Christopher Michael

    Christopher Michael Troubadour

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    First rule is what I call the Necessity Test: Does the reader need the backstory? If the answer is yes, find a way to make it happen. It's tricky at times, but if the reader needs it you have no choice but to include it. If the reader does not need it? Drop it like a hot rock. Don't even bother with it. It's information you, as the writer, needed. It isn't information the reader will probably even be interested in.

    Second rule is what I call the Reality Test: Is your backstory something everybody in your world knows? Something everybody has been taught about and instructed in and is general knowledge? If so, don't include it. Pieces of it will fall in throughout the story, but you don't need to bother including it because, and this is crucial, the characters know it. Using a real world example: Do you tell every single person you meet about 9/11? Of course not. Because it's part of our cultural memory (across all cultures). We don't sit there and talk about it for twenty minutes at a time, because everybody has the same knowledge. The same with your characters. They're not going to chat about the forming of the 12 Kingdoms or whatever, because everybody knows.
    If the knowledge is not commonly known, is it relevant? If it is, find a way to include it. Follow a character who discovers The Secret a piece at a time.
     
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  11. What about stuff on other races that I really want to have in the story but can't fit in? Do I just migrate them over to another book when I get the chance and use them then?
     
  12. Christopher Michael

    Christopher Michael Troubadour

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    The problem is there are a lot of things you "want to have" in the story. (Trust me. I know the pain. I have 20+ overall pages of backstory and world building for my WIP.) The question you have to answer is "Does it work in the specific story I'm telling?"

    Your alien races: Are they going to be involved in your story? Is the backstory regarding them common knowledge among the characters, especially your POV character(s)? Are they essential to the plot?
    You're considering possibly migrating them to another book. Are you thinking a series?
    The problem, and it's one I know well, is that the information is something you need to know. You need to know the backstory and all the world building elements so that you can properly inform and layer your story. But it isn't necessarily information your reader needs.

    In the final analysis: Write the story you want to tell. Edit it and rewrite it. Then give it to some beta readers you trust to be completely, even brutally, honest with you. They'll let you know if you need to layer in more detail regarding the backstory and world building. They'll also let you know if you need to cut some out.
     
  13. Miseo

    Miseo Minstrel

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    Well, if you can include members of those races, then include the members and try to have the information come up naturally. If they don't appear in the story, you can still include them in the lore but if they don't matter to the plot talking about them shouldn't be too much of a priority.
     
  14. I just have way too many ideas for one book, and I want it to stand-alone.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Thing is, Crystalline, ideas are not stories. As others have said, an idea doesn't belong in a story if the story doesn't require it. What others haven't said is that knowing what the story requires is a difficult and subtle art, and is very often beyond the reach of the author. That's why authors have editors, and why the former often curse the latter.

    I have lots of ideas. I keep them in a (Scrivener) project which I cleverly title Ideas. That's where the little beggars stay until I let one of them out of the pen. (Pun! Pen pun!) So far, I figure I will need about four lifetimes to get it all written.
     
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