Sunday, September 9, 2012

Background Noise

The history behind a story, as well as the background of the characters in that story, is an important part of determining the course of events.  When we found out that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's dad, it set a few paths in front of the plot that were only available due to that revelation.  Bruce Wayne could only become Batman thanks to the murder of his parents when he was a boy.

However, the challenge as a writer is to be able to weave these crucial events into our work without having those events take over or bore the reader.  I've found the best method this is to try and put them in gradually throughout the story.  I avoid the "info dump" that inundates the reader with so much information that they no longer care.

This requires patience, something I struggle with in daily life.  We so badly want our readers to become engrossed in the story, to understand  the weight behind what we're telling them, that our tendency is to just go ahead and tell them everything at once.  However, this method is both bad storytelling and it destroys the emotional suspense associated with gradual learning.  The best background comes in layers, with each one building on the next.
(Each layer is necessary for a satisfying experience)
I usually do this through two methods - the brief narrative reference and dialogue.  In the brief narrative reference, it comes out in the point of view of the character.  I'll have the protagonist, for example, remember a particular event that caused them to react in a certain way in the present.  I'm currently writing a new book in the series that encompasses Akeldama.  But Akeldama is very much a stand alone novel, and I want the next book to be so as well(I haven't yet found a title...I have two I'm vacillating between, and I'm sure I'll come up with more before it's ready).  In order to understand the next book, the reader is going to have to understand the events of the first one.  However, I can't just recap its events - readers would never stand for it.  Therefore, I'll throw in experiential references for the main character that shed light on why he acts the way he does.

The other way I'll bring it out is through dialogue.  Characters will have conversations that will talk about a part of the past, or how they need to avoid a certain mistake, and this can throw in context without being heavy handed about it.  It also serves as an emotional bridge if someone is acting different than they used to, for it can show how that person evolved.
("I got this chest tattoo after I killed the great white off that reef last year.")
While background is necessary, you have to be careful that it doesn't become the story, even if its depth could provide a story of its own.  The history of Jack Torrence's father and how he smacked Jack around when he was a boy is important to The Shining, but only in how it helped drive Jack's alcoholism and conflicted feelings about his upbringing.  Also, it's important to know that Jack beat up that snot nosed punk who slashed his tires, but only because it provided the reason why Jack needed a job at the Overlook.  Stephen King does a masterful job touching on these elements without getting lost in them.

History is important, but only in showing us where the future of the story lies, and it should come in small bites throughout the novel, not in a heaping pile all at once.  Such nuggets keep us strong, but too much at once will choke our story to death.

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