Pub Rants

Beginning Writer Mistake (Take 4)

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STATUS: TGIF! Really, what more is there to say?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHEN YOU COME by Crowded House

Let’s round off this week by focusing on one more mistake Sara and I have been seeing lately. We call it the opening-chapter-back-story-info-dump.

That pretty much sums it up.

But if you want more details, this is when writers feel like they can’t begin their story until the readers know and understand the back story, or the history of the character who opens the novel, or how the world works (if this is SF or fantasy). So, the opening chapter usually has nothing to do with the direction of the rest of the novel but the writer hasn’t mastered the ability to integrate it seamlessly as the real-time story unfolds.

The writing is almost always explanation (telling instead of showing) with very little dialogue, scene action, or character development.

Auto NO response every time.

This is often why prologues don’t work.

And don’t be fooled, the chapter back story info dump is sometimes disguised by coming in chapter 2 or chapter 3 but can be characterized by many pages where the above telling versus showing happens at the expense of dialogue, plot, character, or scenes to move the story forward.

So don’t just breathe a sigh of relief if you’ve checked your opening chapters and it’s not there. The large info dump chunk can sneak in later. If the chunk comes later and the rest of the novel is decent until then, we agents will allow some wiggle room because that issue can be easily edited if it’s just a one time snafu. I find that if this problem exists though, many of the other beginning writer mistakes are present as well.

Have a happy editing weekend!

36 Responses

  1. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I do reveal a bit of my MC’s backstory in the first chapter, although I feel it is rather well-integrated and more showing than telling. I eliminated most of the straight explanation/infodump in my last round of revision. Still, in light of this post, I am going to go back and double-(triple-, quadruple-)check this, just in case.

  2. suelder said:

    I think this is what Donald Maas calls the “tea scene” in his Writing the Breakout Novel.

    Where the characters sit around talking (drinking tea) and filling everyone in. Lol – I’ve fallen into that trap.


  3. SLING WORDS aka Joan Reeves said:

    You are so right! Even when we know better, I think we writers do this. We get tunnel vision and think there’s just no way to start other than that way. Wrong! I just pulled an older manuscript from file. Love the reincarnation story. Got good responses but no sale. I completely excised pages 5-60 because I suspect that’s the problem. Will insert slivers of those scenes. Somehow.

  4. Shelley said:

    One thing I don’t remember seeing you write about is good flash back technique. I think this is different than back story info dump as it is done in many of the novels I love, and as you said, integrated seemlessly.

    One of the things I’ve read is to treat your flash backs as real time, with as much dialogue and action as you would put in the present story. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  5. Anonymous said:

    Wow. This is cool. I definitely need to clean up novel this weekend–before I submit it to you. I do have a flashback scene in chapter 4, but not only does it move the story forward, but it itself MOVES. Thanks for this info, and for the great entries this week.
    The question is, after a week like this one, how will you dazzle us next week??

  6. Anonymous said:

    Again Kristin comes through!! Funny how we always pick this up when reading and never while we are writing it.
    As I have said before, I need discipline. It is so hard to avoid falling into the easy chair and telling all these “important” details.
    Naturally, If I were a better writer I would remember to start the story at the beginning. That way, I would never have to go back and fill in the beginning later.
    As a reader, I find it frustrating when a perfectly good story stops right in the middle or the beginning – suspending time – just to let me know that the characters met in college. If that were something so important for me to know, I would have learned it already. If it doesn’t become relevant until later, then there will be an appropriate time later in the story to time shift back to college for a paragraph or ten.
    I hate to read something where the story has to stop moving to catch me up on details.
    Every novel is about 90 minutes worth of story and 10 hours of background, description, character development, observation, philosophy .. etc. The good ones make it all blend together so you don’t notice. That is what makes a rich story.

  7. Just_Me said:

    My MC doesn’t make it on stage until Chapter 2 so I feel relatively safe. The book opens with someone being rescued and no one has the time for extra chatter, so I feel safe there.

    I am concerned about what is considered no-no info-dump DL. The book is about a murder case and there are conversations where the detective has to question people. I show that on-screen. I also have the detective getting reprimanded and reminded of a case that went baddly just recently.

    Is that a terrible bad thing that I ought to edit out or is it appropriate because it’s likely to happen during the course of the investigation?

  8. K.B. said:

    I think the info dump is a particular hazard in science fiction and even more so in fantasy. When you spend all that time world building, and so much of the current action relates to the long and glorious (or blood-soaked) history of this world of yours, it’s hard not to put in long explanations to make certain that the reader, dumped into your strange land, understands as much about it as the inhabitants do.

    Prologues, prefaces, and “As you know, Bob…” scenes are all ways writers have tried to explain the world to their readers with varying degrees of success. My current WIP once had a preface AND a prologue, both of which I jettisoned, then another attempt at a prologue which was much better, but I still dumped in favor of an opening scene with the MC in action. I’ve also been hacking out long internal monologues, dream sequences, and I’m currently trimming the dialogue to take out long “talking head” scenes which are just backstory in disguise.

  9. Emily H said:

    Thanks for doing these postings about writer mistakes! They’re very helpful and kind of you to point out.

  10. Gabrielle said:

    I’m really enjoying this series of posts, Kristin!

    A good alternative to the back-story overload prologue would be (dare I say it) Paolini’s “Eragon.” His prologue plunges you into the middle of action, while revealing more about the world in which Eragon lives. Stephenie Meyer also has her thing with Bella’s “death scene” (always reoccuring) greeting the reader on the first page.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I, as a reader and a writer, HATE< HATE, HATE this. Not only does it make the reading depressing when you have pages of dumped baggage, but it assumes that the reader is dumb and won't pick up character clues along the way. Good writers use action and dialogue to shape the character, not excessive narrative. It comes off to the reader like a character sketch, not an escapist pleasure. And, after all, isn't it better to come to know a character in your own way, with your own frame, rather than to be told all about him/her? If I wanted that, I'd just rent a movie.

  12. Anonymous said:

    And yet many great novels do exactly that. In fact, that’s usually the part of the book that makes me decide whether or not to keep reading.

    Nothing is quite as tiresome as jumping into conflict too quickly (except maybe not getting to it quickly enough). Books are not screenplays.

  13. Maura Anderson said:

    This is a lesson that I’m happy to have learned early on. My first two stories definitely fell into the trap of not starting the story in the right place. I’d start it in the “normal” world of the characters intsead of at the instant where “normal” is no longer the world they live in.

    Anymore I work very hard to dribble only the necessary backstory or world in as its needed.

    Great mistake to point out and thank you for the reminder.

  14. Arovell said:

    I know what you’re talking about. Too often I read backstories that I feel I have to wade my way through to get to the good stuff, or reminiscent conversations that state what should be the obvious.

    Sometimes a little bit of backstory is necessary, though. The backstory is essential to my novel, and it is one of the first things I address. It is also complicated enough that introducing it by integrating hints would only confuse readers. Because of this, and because my book is geared toward a younger audience, do you think some first-chapter backstory is okay, as long as I keep it short, sweet, and compelling?

  15. Anonymous said:

    Just wanted to say thank you for this week of posts! They’re incredibly useful.

  16. Gwen Stewart said:

    New to your blog, Kristin. Great information here, thanks for sharing!

    If anything, I put my characters “on stage” and let them go with too little author explanation/intrusion. My work reads almost like: here are my characters, here’s their story. You figure it out. LOL

    On the downside, it gives my stories almost a whispery voice. Is this a bad thing, making my stories too “thin”? Do you read the opposite as well, not enough backstory/info dump/author explanation?

    Any and all opinions welcome. Thanks for this great site!

  17. Amy Nathan said:

    It’s a matter of propriety I think. We want the backstory in there because we invented it – and my oh my – aren’t we so clever and everyone must know right away.

    I think the key is making sure the backstory is pivotal to not only understand the character(s) but moving the story forward.

    I recently read a book by a best-selling author — and about halfway through the book there were a few pages of backstory which did explain some things about the main character. For the rest of the book I was expecting that backstory to come into play, to see those characters pop into a scene and for something to be relevant. Even when I finished the book I wondered why that part was even in there.

    I’m always glad to have something drawn out for me, like in these posts. I have substantial backstory in one of my chapters, and I’m not editing it out now, but when I go back through my entire manuscript I will be much more keenly aware if it is necessary — or if all of it is necessary.

    Thanks, Kristin. You are making our jobs harder — and no better way to make sure we turn out better books!!! 🙂

  18. Katherine said:

    One of my profs had a hilarious example line of dialogue that does a similar back-story thing. It went sort of like this:

    “So, Bill, now that you’ve finally finished your prison sentence and returned to your home town, do you think you’ll be able to avoid the temptations that landed you in jail in the first place? A lot of thieves are repeat offenders, you know.”

    I remember reading lots of first-chapter lines like this when I was into serial mysteries as a kid.

  19. Vicki said:

    This is often why prologues don’t work.

    My current novel has a prologue. It has to have it as what happened 1200 years ago is a major deal in the book, however, the prologue is written current to the time and then chapter one going forward is written current to today’s time.

    I can honestly say I hope to never need a prologue again. Since my other books haven’t had the need for one I learned while writing this one, I’m so not a big fan of them. 🙂

  20. Deb said:

    I’ve done this, just not in prologues, ’cause I’ve never written a prologue. Worse, I’ve seen it done in published work. That’s why I skip prologues if there’s one in the story. They rarely, if ever, give information that couldn’t be seamlessly integrated into chapter one, given a little planning and a lot of hard work.

    Maybe some of the pubbed authors are no longer willing to go this distance? I don’t know.

    Prologues seem to be more the thing in historical fiction, I’ve noticed. Doesn’t matter. As a reader, I skip ’em anyway.

    MC, I would suggest if your main character doesn’t come onstage ’til chapter two, you might have inadvertently written a prologue. Conventional wisdom states your mains should be in the story right from the get-go.


  21. AR said:

    I love reading some of those older novels where the introduction sets forth, in rich concise langauge, the time and setting in which the story is going to take place.

    It’s like making the perfect griddlecake. You set the ingredients in order on the counter and raise the curtain so that morning light falls on it all; you sift flour into the bowl; pour so gently the milk. Then you heft chocolate chips or pineapple pieces in your hand and find the perfect weight; you distribute them amongst the mixture. And last, there are towers of whipped egg white which you fold in with great respect to their fragility.

    But flames have been kissing the belly of the griddle all this time, and suddenly it’s sizzling. With your last reserve of discipline you pour the batter on in flawless circles. And that’s when things really get hot. (Don’t forget to finish off with some sweet, sweet syrup you’ve kept simmering on the side all this time.)

    Any procedure more hurried merely reinforces the proverbial flatness of the pancake. And if I may say it, pancakes are not the only items that tend to fall flat.

    I fear that this insistence on bathing one’s beginining in flames and trying to find time to mix the batter in hurried, unnoticed steps along the way is a symptom of the tyranny of Film. I think it’s a practice that will eventually die out. What’s truly tasteless is to disguise introductory information as something else.

  22. Kristin said:

    I have given myself the ‘rule’ that I am not allowed under any circumstances to reveal back story in the first three chapters. When you give yourself a rule like that and stick to it, it’s amazing how much more interesting your story gets right off the bat.

    In my first drafts I usually have a few info dump scenes that get excised during the edit. Sometimes I just have to let myself do that in order to move the story forward and get to the next exciting thing. It’s in my head, taking up space, and it needs to get left somewhere. But eventually it gets cut or turned into a dialogue scene or something else. The amount of background gets chopped into just a few important bits.

    I’ve read books by even the best authors who do the first chapter info dump, and I *hate* it. Wish editors would make them cut it out, no matter who they are.

  23. Anonymous said:

    Your blog this past week has been most insightful. It really is great of you to give us writers (new and old) advice on what will propel us forward.

    However, in the event that there may be a writer who, after reading your posts this past week, may feel completely lost because now they think their manuscript is guilty of all these ‘mistakes’ and will never garner an audience, I feel it necessary to say the following:

    Upon reading about all of these ‘mistakes’, I decided to read some already published works to see if they existed in any….what I found is that some bestsellers (I’m talking millions of copies here), did in fact fall into the traps you spoke of…and yet, the story still worked.

    As writers, it is always important to improve our craft, but it is equally important to stay true to the story that is in our heads. Because the most important voice to listen to is not the one telling you about all the rules you should be following, it is the voice(s) of your character(s)…the one that is weaving the story inside of you, begging you to tell it.

    This is the voice that the reader will connect to….and this is the voice that I would hope agents would try to connect to as well (despite a little telling instead of showing), for not doing so may cause them to pass on some really incredible stories.

  24. Jana Lubina said:

    This is my biggest pet-peeve with novels. Sciencefiction and fantasy are the biggest culprits.

    I don’t need to read three pages of explanations where numerous names and dates and gods and events are thrown at me because at the beginning, I just don’t care about the characters or the story. And furthermore, chances are i’ll simply forgot.

    Trust that we, the readers, are intelligent enough to figure it out as we go along!

  25. Anonymous said:

    If I have to look too hard to find out these writing ‘mistakes’, I’m not enjoying the story and I have no busy reading the book. You can make a whole bunch of ‘mistakes’ but if you are entertaining, they aren’t ‘mistakes’ to me.

  26. Anonymous said:

    The Da Vinci Code is a shining example of how to avoid info dump. I think anyone would agree that there is a LOT of info given in the book, however, it’s doled out while the characters are on the run (with a couple of exceptions). He almost never has them just sitting around discussing htings, they are solving probvlems while escaping, running, driving, flying–moving somehow.

    Everything you need to know about the characters is meted out as the story unfolds–there’s never any exposition on their background.

    IMO, reading books such as these is a much better education than trying to learn from a blog. I mean, the answer is right there in the pasges of those published best-sellers–read them!

  27. Julie Weathers said:

    “Upon reading about all of these ‘mistakes’, I decided to read some already published works to see if they existed in any….what I found is that some bestsellers (I’m talking millions of copies here), did in fact fall into the traps you spoke of…and yet, the story still worked.”

    The problem is that most of these books probably had very exciting, compelling stories and characters. The creators are skilled writers who seem to be able to weave these things in without throwing a reader out of the story. We don’t notice these things as much when we’re too busy watching something else.

    As a new writer, I’m not sure we can bank on people instantly falling in love with us enough to forgive.

    I worried a lot about something that wasn’t brought up, but is probably also a problem. I have multiple POV characters. Due to the nature of the story, the reader is getting the events from different POVs. It isn’t bad for some people, but I’m sure it will be the kiss of death to others. I just have to hope the characters and story are compelling enough to grab the reader and not let go.

    Aside from that, I am trying very hard not to cross the line with the writing.

  28. Rob said:

    In the sci-fi story I’m working on, the first chapter focuses on the main character’s mother just when she learned she’s pregnant. By the end of the second chapter she’ll die and the main character will be adopted.

    Some have told me this should be a prologue and the main character should always start the story. What’s your take?

  29. natasha said:

    So you mean to tell me that the first four chapters of my novel are useless?

    What if it’s from the narrators POV? Does this rule still apply?

  30. Anonymous said:

    I appreciate this post, after reading it I took a look at my first chapter and realized my first two graphs were basically backstory. I cut them and sent out a test query to a top agent (who doesn’t even accept unsolicited queries). The result: full manuscript requested. Thank you, Ms. Nelson.

  31. Madeleine said:

    Now, I think I can avoid this mistake… but I have a question:

    If you manage to kind of “set the scene” in one or two paragraphs in a Prologue, and to make certain that the Prologue impels the reader to move forward because you’ve managed to promise upcoming drama or simply plot, as opposed to writing a detailed a biography, can the Prologue be pulled off?

    I was considering writing an extremely brief Prologue to slyly promise future drama, but it focuses entirely on the novel. There’s nothing about the main character’s life or the rent she has to pay, it’s all rather pertinent to the book.