By Elizabeth Jacobson
[ in-foh-duhmp ]
noun. The part of the story where the author plops all the backstory on the page at once. Often found in an otherwise extraneous prologue or first chapter.
verb. The act of providing the reader with an overly detailed backstory behind a narrative, in one fell swoop.
Here’s the thing. Authors have a world in their head. Often, more than one world, if their stories are not interconnected.
And, in all honesty, if friendly aliens were to somehow materialize on Earth, we probably would, pretty quickly, end up sitting them down and telling them everything they needed to know to at least have a cursory understanding of Earth and humans. It would probably involve the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and would spiral from there to YouTube and memes. It would probably take several hours.
Then, after they finished Humanity 101, the aliens would, in theory, have to do the same thing for us.
This is because we would come from completely different worlds. It’s very difficult to empathize with one another if we have no understanding of one another.
Now that I’ve extended the metaphor far too long, let’s get back to authors.
Authors have worlds in their heads. Authors who write science fiction and fantasy, and even sometimes historical fiction, often have extremely different worlds from ours in their heads. And the problem is that an author cannot start their story with pages and pages of “My Fictional World 101” to get their readers up to speed. In writing slang, this is called the “infodump.”
You know the famous yellow-lettered opening crawl of the Star Wars movies? This is an example of an infodump, but it gets a pass because it’s short and it’s a movie (movies, which have visuals, get a slight infodumping pass). Infodumps in books, if done wrong, can be pages and pages in length, especially if the backstories of the world, politics, characters, etc. are complex and the reader needs to understand them in order to understand the story the author is telling.
Particularly at the beginning of a book, pages and pages of backstory that your reader has no reference for, emotional connection to, or understanding of are, at best, useless, and, at worst, a reason for your reader to put the book down and never come back to it. Why should they care? You haven’t given them a reason to, other than: “This is important! I promise!”
So, the question becomes – how do you do it? How do you tell the reader a story without bringing them up to speed on the story as it’s progressed so far?
The answer comes from your characters. Think about the person (or people) whose point of view (POV) you are inhabiting as the author.
A real person is not going to dwell on the minutiae of the history of their country and the politics behind the current civil war as soon as they wake up in the morning. And they’re especially not going to dwell on it for pages and pages worth of time. They’re also not going to walk over to their friend at lunchtime and say: “Well, as you know, Bob, we’ve been fighting the Blue Bandits for four years now, and did you know that they’re winning and that we’re all freaked out about it?”
What a real person is going to do is go about their day. But, they might hear a newscast in the background as they wait for their coffee in a cafe. “The Blue Bandits made several new incursions into Yellow Jacket territory today,” the woman on the screen might say. “This is yet another loss of territory for our military in this long and drawn-out conflict.” Maybe a hush falls over the cafe for an moment.
Do you see how much more natural and immersive this is?
It’s also worth mentioning that it’s important to decide what is actually important for the reader to know about “the story as it’s progressed so far.” Do they really need to know all the nuances of this civil war right away, in the first pages?
This can actually be made into a technique to further engage reader interest.
“The Blue Bandits can’t break through the lines,” exclaims Bob at work later that day during a meeting. “Imagine if we had a repeat of Fifteen-Mile Beach? We’d never recover!”
“I know,” says another character. “It would be the end of us all.”
Then the air-raid sirens start.
“But what happened at Fifteen-Mile Beach??” your reader is left wondering as your characters all scramble towards the cellar.
The answer, of course, you will bring up later. It could come up in another natural bit of conversation in the cellar, or perhaps your main character could ponder Bob’s words as they lay in bed that night, stiff as a board and hoping against hope that the the air-raid sirens do not wail for a second time that day.
Using these types of strategies, you can build your world a few moments at a time rather than all at once. You can lead your reader along, dropping hints and breadcrumbs and leading them deeper and deeper into your story, into your world.
Tie your world to your characters, to the way they live their lives and the conversations and interactions that they have each day. Connect your reader to your characters’ lives – let them experience what life is like for them, and you will do two things at once: you will build empathy for your characters, and you will bring your world to life before your readers’ eyes.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.