Pub Rants

It’s Monday Partial Madness

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STATUS: A little tired today. One big problem I had to handle that really zapped a lot of energy. Not feeling my perky self. Nothing that a nice glass of wine won’t handle though.

What song is playing on the ipod right now? NIGHTINGALE by Norah Jones

It’s Monday and you know what happens on Mondays. Angie, reader extraordinaire, visits the office and reads the partial inbox all day. Usually I read with her but didn’t have any time today. I did get to spend about an hour in the afternoon looking at some partials that she had passed on to me.

We always try to have some words of wisdom for writers after a day of reading the old inbox. Actually, I should say that Angie has some words of wisdom to share. She basically took me by the arm and said, “here’s your blog topic for today” and since she had that look in her eye, I must comply.

Today’s topic: avoid incorporating your back story via your character’s dialogue.

After reading several examples aloud to me, I have say I’m in agreement. It makes for uninspiring and tepid dialogue exchanges—and the kiss of death to the partial. Basically, when writers fall into this trap, they end up stating in the dialogue something the receiving character would already know. It ends up making no sense as to why the other character would say it in the first place. The only reason would be to create the back story for the reader.

Clumsy at best.

Made up example:

Character 1: I must find the elusive stone of magic (of death, of life, insert appropriate fantasy element here).

Character 2: Yes, my Queen, it is imperative we find it but you also need to remember to collect the six other crystals/stones/talismans for without it, you will not have the power of the XYZ and will be unable to rule your domain.

Hum… If character 1 is the Queen, wouldn’t she already know that she needs the other elements in order to have complete control and world domination? Why in the world would she need her attendant to tell her so? It’s obvious that this dialogue is for the reader’s sake (to incorporate the back story) and is in no way exploring the character, plot etc.

Aren’t you glad I don’t write dialogue for a living? I’m of course attempting (successfully or not—you tell me) to exaggerate the example so the point is clear.

Back story. Dialogue. Not a match made in heaven.

16 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    And it’s unnecessary in a novel, when you can just *tell* the audience the backstory (unlike a movie)…

  2. Anonymous said:

    Amen to all of that.

    Bonus (negative) points if you reveal backstory in a fantasy novel through dialogue in a meeting/council/over dinner at a tavern. 😉

    Extra points if the one revealing the information is a) old, b) bearded, and/or c) a wizard.

    Triple points if there is a) a young farmer/common person who has a destiny that ties him to this backstory, b) a fetching barmaid, or c) a grumpy character who thinks this is all stupid.

    If there isn’t a bad fantasy novel drinking game out there already, there really should be. (…But I bet there is.)

  3. Nonny said:

    About the only way explaining backstory in dialogue works is if the tellee doesn’t have the information. (And not because the author decided to give her amnesia in the first chapter, either.)

    Otherwise, you have what’s called “As You Know Bob” in SF. 🙂

  4. Anonymous said:

    I must find the elusive stone of magic, the Queen thought, enjoying the view from the window of her bedroom high up in her castle.

    Yes, it is imperative we find it then she thinks to herself, but I also need to remember to collect the six other crystals/stones/talismans for without it, I will not have the power of the XYZ and will be unable to rule my domain.

    Sorry, Bernita! 🙂

  5. Bernita said:

    That’s how I do it.
    Except it’s more apt to be:

    Howinhell am I going to find those other frigging crystals/stones/talismans, she wondered,looking over her domain from the tower.
    Her soon-to-be-lost domain if she didn’t get her rear in gear.
    And she had to see about arranging a bedroom that didn’t have two hundred feet of steps to get to.
    “This seriously sucks,” she said she as she reached for the bell rope.

  6. Anonymous said:

    I don’t know if there’s a fantasy drinking game a la the Regency Drinking Game, but there is the 100 Things I Would Never Do if I Were an Evil Overlord list.

    Bernita, I wish more fantasy were written in your voice.

    My word verification is gnwhggvq, which is the sound Miss Snark makes when indulging too freely in the gin pail.

  7. David the Multi-tasked said:

    Try getting backstory through a 911 call (and this is NOT made up!):

    “her” drunk female , victim of domestic violence…. “me” once sympathetic emergency services dispatcher who has heard TOO many of these calls

    her “Mah husband beat me up again!”

    me: “Ma’am I have officers on the way, do you need medical help?”

    her: “No I just need him to stop beating up on me, we were doing good and he had stopped but he started to drink again and well when he does that he gets mean and I just can’t take it anymore!!!”

    me: “Are you near him now?”

    her:”no he is talking to his buddies”

    me:”please stay clear of him ’til officers are there”

    her:”WHAT? You ain’t gonna arrest him are ya?”

    me:”You said he beat you ma’am, good chance he may be arrested once officers sort it out”

    her:”But I love him! He only does it when he’s drunk!”

    me:”Ma’am according to my screen here, you are calling from XXXXX bar……….”

  8. Elektra said:

    I read an example of this a few weeks ago…it was an entire story through dialogue, and was very obviously for the reader’s benefit. Half the lines started with “But you didn’t have to *insert bit of backstory here*”

  9. cheryl said:

    I have an example of a best-selling novelist using this technique. Talk about book meeting wall! He had a long dialog section of a judge questioning the background of a person who came in to have his name changed and when I got to the end of the scene where it revealed that the judge was the petitioner’s daughter…book to wall.

  10. Anonymous said:

    I think there is an exception to this. If your going to have the ‘advisor’ give the background information, it better be part of the advisor’s character.

    “Yes, and don’t forget about…”

    “If you remind me one more time about such and such, I’m going to…”

    “But your kingdom is in the balance.”

    Kills annoying advisor!


  11. HH said:

    In many F/SF circles this is called “as you know, Bob” dialogue. It’s a universal no-no.

  12. Bruno said:

    Hhhmm. Backstory. The problem with delivering backstory in fantasy is that many fantasy topics deal with unknown pasts, histories, lost civilizations etc. In my most recent manuscript my characters are trying to piece together what happened during a dark age lasting several centuries so when they find someone who knows a legend or two they obviously milk him for as much information as possible. Likewise, as there is a disconnect between the main villain and his minions (ie. he’s not the most forthcoming chap)you have a lot of footsoldiers on the villains side trying to figure out what they’re doing in the godforsaken wilderness they happen to find themselves in. If it’s one thing I can’t stand it’s an evil henchman (or horde thereof) who won’t ask questions that pertain to his/her own self preservation. For a good laugh, check out for the evil henchman’s guide. The rest are great too. Take some of this to heart when writing villains (or heroes for that matter)