Back Story vs Data Dump

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Start your story with the inciting incident.

Hook your reader with action.

Any writer familiar with writing rules knows these two points, but knowing and following them are two different things.

What trips us up?

Usually everything that's happened prior to the inciting incident and action. We start the story and think:  Wait! The readers don't know this or this or this...

So, we try to tell them what they don't know.

Backstory, everything important to the current story, becomes a data dump.

What is a data dump?

A data dump interrupts the action to tell the reader what they don't know. It's telling, not showing. For example:

Rita raced to the locker room, heart pounding at the shouts and thuds coming from behind the door. She knew Jane and Sarah hated each other, had done so since kindergarten when Sarah stole Jane's gingersnap cookie during snack time. Ever since then, the lines had been drawn. Sarah pranced around making fun of Jane and stealing everything from her she could: friends, crayons in second grade, teacher's pet in Mrs. Ally's fifth grade class, starting position on the basketball team, and now her boyfriend, Steve, who adored Jane until Sarah sank her claws into him.

Did you catch all of that? It's boring. What's happening in the locker room? I'm more interested in that, aren't you?

Ok, you say. I'll put Rita in the locker room and then share this through dialogue. Better? Maybe. It can work if you stay on track with the action:

Rita raced to the locker room, heart pounding at the shouts and thuds coming from behind the door. She shoved open the door. Jane had Sarah by her long, blond ponytail, yanking so hard that Sarah's eyebrows climbed up her forehead.

"You stole him!" Jane twisted the hair. "You stole my boyfriend, Steve. You always steal what I love." (This might work as long as you don't continue...but here's how dialogue becomes a data dump.) "Why do you steal everything? Ever since you took my cookie in kindergarten, you've had to take everything I care about. In the first grade, you invited my friends, Liz and Meredith, to the lake without me and won them over with your boat and skis and fun. Then in second grade, you took the crayons I wanted for the contest and you won, not me. You've taken... (yada, yada, yada)

How do you fix backstory data dumps?

Examine your writing. If you've slipped into telling something rather than having the reader discover it as they read the story, then you need to pull it from the narrative.

What does the reader want to know? What's happening in the locker room.

If you want to leak some of the info in through dialogue, let Jane say the first part of the example above: "You stole him!" Jane twisted the hair. "You stole my boyfriend. You always steal what I love."  Notice I didn't keep the boyfriend's name in this example. It's doubtful she'd say "my boyfriend, Steve," in the midst of this scene. The rest of their conflict, if we must know it, can trickle into the story as needed. Dialogue should feel realistic. In a fit of anger, Jane is not going to rattle off their entire history since kindergarten.

What do I do with the details that never make it into the story?

Maintain a file about the backstory of your characters. Use that file to ensure your characters act according to what's happened. Only share what the reader has to know to understand the current story. Don't get caught up in the past.

Is backstory a bad thing?

No. Backstory can be important, but it should never take over the action of the story.

How do you handle backstory?


Robert Palmer said…
Thanks. I'm a beginner, so this is good information.
Glad to help Robert! You might want to check out my posts on critique groups and editing (see labels links on the right of the screen).

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