Giving Backstory WITHOUT Info Dumping?

This is the current challenge I’m facing with my WIP. I need to explain some backstory, as my protagonist’s character flaw stems from a death in her family that happened way in the past.

I know the first question I should be asking myself is “Is it really necessary information?” It is — without including it, my readers and critiquers are kind of like, “Meh, she’s just dramatic and sad.”

It’s actually a lot harder than I originally thought. I want to show and not tell, but it’s hard to “show” history. Just about every writer will tell you, “NEVER INFO DUMP. EVER!” (Imagine someone saying that you to in the same manner the Mythbusters always give their “never try this at home… EVER!” warning… hehe.)

But in my research, I’m finding that some writers say info dumping might be the only tool in certain situations. And if that’s the case, you’ve got to work to try to make this information matter to the reader now.

Some suggestions I’ve collected from various writer’s blogs on how to accomplish this include:

“The more your information dumps relate directly to a story element currently at play in your narrative, the easier it is to hold an audience’s attention.” – From Lit Reactor

“Add Tension:  Make the info dump something that causes problems for the characters.” – From Jami Gold’s Blog

“I think the key to making information entertaining is to entwine it with drama — and that means ensuring that the characters’ happiness is tied to it too.” – Ruv Draba, a moderator at Scribophile

Would anyone else care to offer their opinions, advice, or techniques for getting essential backstory to the reader without the dreaded info dump?



Make Readers Care About Your Characters

Popular Pixar protagonists we all care deeply about!

This is something I’ve struggled with in my current work in progress. In On The Surface (my working title!) my main character‘s inner conflict is the central driving force of the plot. The tough thing is that she’s supposed to go from grief-stricken and guilty/sad/depressed, have a perspective-altering experience, overcome her grief/make peace with her demons and come out being okay in the end.

But it turns out that people don’t inherently like depressed characters in their mid twenties just moping around all “Woe is me!” all the time, so my challenge is how to write this character in a better way to make readers actually feel kind of bad for her WITHOUT giving away the plot right from the start.

I’ve solicited advice from a variety of sources, including my new pals at Scribophile, and compiled some of the best tips that I found most useful.

From Ruv Draba, one of the awesome moderators at Sribophile:

Three common ways [to make them care about your MC] are:

  • To make the main character admirable;
  • To have it need something the reader needs too; or
  • To make it suffer beyond what the reader condones.

So I think for my case, I can apply at least two of the three to my MC. She’s definitely going to suffer, and perhaps some of my readers will be able to connect with her need to overcome grief. She might become memorable, but not until the end of the novel.

Another set of questions I found to ask myself about my MC comes from Janice Hardy’s blog, The Other Side of the Story. (That’s a link to the actual post, by the way.) Basically, Hardy says you yourself must up the stakes for your character so that even you as the author worry about them and their well-being. Her four questions are:

1. If the protagonist walked away, what would change?

2. If you put the second-most important character in the protagonist’s slot, what would change?

3. What does your protagonist lose if they walk away from this problem?

4. What sacrifice does your protagonist have to make for everything to turn out okay?

These questions were especially helpful for me to develop my MC’s outer conflict,

Another popular protagonist that millions care about!

which has now become another major point in the story, and at least gives the audience something to root for if they haven’t had similar experiences to my MC’s.

Hopefully these little tidbits help all you writers develop your own characters. Please feel free to throw me some bones in the comments with any other advice on how to make my main character a little more likeable!

Thanks Cover Junction for the Pixar collage!