If there are two pieces of advice most often distributed to new writers, they’re to start your story with a bang—in the middle of the action—to pull a reader in right away. And, you’re often warned to not do an “info dump” of backstory. The question is: how do you explain who the characters are, what they want, and what the problem is without providing information? Without knowing family dynamics, a seminal tragedy, or the need for unfinished revenge—how will the reader care? The key is to balance pacing and backstory. Here are some tips on how to do it.
Show, Don’t Tell (Everything)
Pacing is paramount because modern readers generally aren’t that patient with stories that drag. Too much description (from scenery to even otherwise interesting tidbits) that doesn’t serve to advance the forward momentum of story makes the story boring. Elmore Leonard once said that writers should leave out the parts readers tend to skip. This needs to be you.
The actual way to accomplish that is through good old showing, not telling (everything). Eventually, all will be revealed, right? But that doesn’t need to happen in Chapter 2. When it comes to showing relationships, conflict, history—let your character’s response to what’s going on give the reader information. Show how they feel about what’s happening. Do they smile, grimace, burst into tears, or shout in response to a request? Those emotions tell a reader more about what’s happening than even a lengthy explanation would.
Let’s look at an example. This is from Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. The main character has been tasked with being a substitute guest lecturer for the chair of his department. This is how the character responds to such a request:
The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could have be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom.
This quote comes on the first page of the book. Do you not know a lot about the narrating character from his reaction to having to give a lecture he wasn’t prepared to give? It’s going to interfere with his bathroom cleaning…which he has scheduled to the minute.
Without giving us a full biography on this man’s first thirty-five years, we have a pretty good idea of who he is and why, just maybe, his personality might come into conflict with others. You can say so much with so little. And the advantage? It’s more fun to read.
People turn pages because they want to know what happens next. For that to happen, there needs to be conflict. The conflict occurs between characters and between them trying to get what they want despite obstacles. But it also comes from how and when the writer reveals information to the reader. In order to keep the mystery alive, and your reader flipping pages, you need to do the slow reveal. Give us enough to not be confused but not too much that we have it all figured out from the third chapter.
In the opening scene of Red Sparrow, the first of Jason Matthews’ Russia spy thriller trilogy, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash is on the dark streets of Moscow, trying to evade detection in order to meet the Agency’s most valuable asset in Russia. Page one reads like this:
Twelve hours into his SDR Nathaniel Nash was numb from the waist down. His feet and legs were wooden on the cobblestones of the Moscow side street. […] Was he black? Or was he being had by a massive team? In the nature of The Game, not seeing coverage felt worse than confirming you were covered in ticks.
The next 580 pages are about Nate getting tangled up (romantically and otherwise) with a Russian agent. Who’s trustworthy and who’s not? Who’s going to get made and who isn’t? The story wouldn’t be fun to read if the author felt the need to explain exactly who Nate was and why he got into the agency on page one. Who cares? It’s night, and he’s about to meet his asset. The man’s life is on the line. I’ll worry about Nate’s backstory when it’s pertinent.
Remember: novels are journeys, not destinations. You want to reveal backstory—indeed, you’ll need to—in order to make for rich character development, tension, and conflict. The key is to remember there’s no need to do it all at once. Put your characters in the middle of the action, have them react in a way that hints at their backstory, and reveal that backstory when the time is right. If you do these key things, you’ll be able to balance pacing and backstory well.