Did anyone else read The Baby-Sitters Club books? They were a series of books that were popular among preteen girls in the late 1980s/early 1990s that centered around seven junior high-age girls who loved to babysit and started a club so their clients could get a hold of them. Each book followed a certain babysitter, chronicling their adventures in babysitting and beyond.
The books were extremely predictable (but when you’re 10-years old, you don’t really care). The first chapter would introduce the main action of the story, while the second would always take place at a Baby-Sitters Club meeting, where the first-person narrator/babysitter would explain who the members of the club were, their personalities, and how the club came to be. It was as formulaic as H20, with the exceptions being what the club members were wearing at the time.
I mention all of this to illustrate a common writing mistake: the backstory/information dump.
Writing Mistake No. 2: The Backstory Dump
Think about the main character in a book you’re reading. When you started the first page, do you know everything about them? Of course not. Just like when meeting a real person for the first time, you usually only know a few things about them, primarily their name, and their general appearance.
Too many beginning authors (and I include myself in that bunch) want to let the reader know everything about the main character right off the bat: who they are, what they do for a living, what makes them angry, why they don’t like to eat broccoli (well, who does?), etc. So, those writers will commonly have what we call the “backstory” or “information dump.” They try to tell the reader everything about their character in the first few pages, rather than get on to the business at hand: telling the story.
I get it. You’ve been living with this fictional character, fleshing them out, and you want the world to know everything about them, because you want the reader to love them as much as you do. But just like when you meet a person for the first time, you don’t know their life story; you slowly get to know them, peeling back the layers of their personality and history.
In the murder mystery I’m writing, my main character, Mira, is a former cellist who, due to an accident, can no longer perform. This is an essential element to who my character is, and it’s not a secret to either the reader or the other fictional characters in her world. However, I didn’t want to dwell on the accident in the first couple of paragraphs of the story, so while I mentioned it, I didn’t go into great detail:
My left hand involuntarily curled into a half-fist. Grimacing at the tight tendons that prevented it from closing further, my fingertips brushed the thin white scar across my palm: the only physical remains of the accident three years ago. I felt the familiar mixture of sadness and anger flare up, but I tamped it down. No use dwelling on something that would never be.
As my story unfolds, the reader will learn more about the details that led to Mira’s accident, and how it affected her life. But I don’t need to write about it in the first couple of pages. I’d rather the reader wonder what happened to her, why such a small scar could change her life, and how she is moving on from it.
I recently read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time. From Jane’s first person perspective, we meet Mr. Rochester, the moody, brooding master of Thornfield Hall. As Jane and Rochester’s relationship deepens, he tells her he made mistakes in his youth, and has been desperately seeking redemption. Not all of his faults are revealed at once, but through long conversations with Jane as she (and the readers!) fall in love with him.
Reading a nearly 170-year old classic for the first time is interesting, because I knew Rochester’s big secret long before I ever read the story (thanks, pop culture!). Knowing what was going to happen slightly dampened my enjoyment of the big “Ah ha!” moment, but for an audience reading the story for the first time, it would have been shocking and unexpected.
Just think if Charlotte Bronte had made a rookie writer mistake and revealed that *spoiler!* Mr. Rochester already had a wife (albeit a crazy one) when he tried to marry Jane? We would think him a cad, and Jane foolish for falling in love with a married man. As it is written, readers have fallen in love with Mr. Rochester long before his past is revealed, making it too late to hate him for his actions. This approach made us sympathize with his plight, while we are also grieving with Jane. It also makes for one heck of a great story!
In short: don’t dump your character’s backstory all up front. Let your readers get to know them gradually, and they’ll enjoy the character that much more.
* As a note to this post, I fully understand that books that are part of a series tend to have some sort of information or backstory dump for new readers, which is common and acceptable. I intend to have Mira’s life-changing accident be mentioned up front in other subsequent novels (Lord willing!), but it won’t be the focus.