September 18, 2013

Weaving in Backstory: Part 1

I learned at WIFYR a few years ago how *not* to weave in backstory. Here's a brilliant example lifted from Tim Wynne-Jones's website (you should hop over and read the whole article):
Here's a piece of pretty bad prose: 
“I’m famished,” said Barb, turning off the computer and gathering her homework from the study room table. “How about MacDonald’s?” 
“I won’t be able to make it,” said Renata, opening her chemistry text. She was Barb’s oldest friend and played on the basketball team with her at Ridgemont High. They had been together since kindergarten and were both in the same grade but Renata was determined to get a scholarship, whereas Barb was just trying to get through her final year with a pass since she planned on working at her father’s store, anyway. “I’ve got a test tomorrow,” said Renata.
Arrrggghhhh! This reads as if the author has pushed the pause button on the action of the scene. . . .
There’s way too much information, much of which will become apparent as the story develops, if it is needed at all. Think of watching an episode of a TV series for the first time with an ardent fan who has control of the zapper and every time a character appears on the screen, your friend pushes the pause button and explains to you who this guy is. Pretty awful, eh? What I call a Pause Button Violation.
Learning about the Pause Button Violation was one of the more useful revision tidbits I've been given lately. Here are two ways to get around it:

First, if you have to drop in backstory in the middle of a conversation, give the characters something quiet to do so they are busy with some action while they are ruminating and not just standing there with the pause button on. They could be walking in silence through the snow. Or watching TV. Or knitting. Anything to give them a believable reason to space out and think about backstory.

Second, try not to drop in backstory in the middle of a conversation.

Have you ever noticed the Pause Button Violation when you read? Are you guilty of it in your work?

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