Out of the Info Dumpster

This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:

From Nicole:

Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?

Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?

From Christie V Powell:

2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.

3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.

Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!

What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.

Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.

In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.

That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.

Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.

We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.

In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.

I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.

So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.

Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.

Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.

But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.

If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.

We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.

Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.

Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.

∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.

∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.

Have fun, and save what you write!

In the rearview mirror

On August 4, 2012, MNM wrote, I’ve been working on a story that is written in first person and I’m having issues with putting in the background or writing flashbacks. I can bring them into the story easily enough, but I am having trouble getting back on track without a choppy transition. Any tips?

Here’s a confession: I’ve started to put together a second writing book, this one based on the blog, and I’m about to write a chapter on flashbacks and back story, so this question is exactly on time. Thank you, MNM!

The first consideration with back story (background) and flashbacks is whether they’re needed. If not, I say leave ‘em out. No matter how smooth our transition, the reader has to quit the forward movement of our tale to journey to an earlier time and, often, a different place. When he returns he has to get immersed all over again.

Let’s go back to last week’s post about Queenie, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who specializes in shouting, “Off with his head!” Suppose Queenie’s love of execution comes from a childhood tragedy. Her father, Daddy Card, the late King of Hearts, was assassinated, stabbed in the neck, eek! The assassin was never found, but the Chief Constable and Queenie are convinced he or she is still at court. We want the reader to understand Queenie, maybe have some sympathy for her, so we decide to show what happened. There are lots of choices.

One way is a flashback. We want a smooth transition so we plan it ahead of time. Let’s say Daddy Card liked to write lengthy letters to family and friends on pale purple stationery in his distinctive spidery handwriting. In present time, Queenie is in her study when a Nine of Clubs, a servant, brings in her mail, among which is a letter in a pale purple envelope, not the exact tint Daddy Card favored, but close. Hands trembling, she picks up the tiny silver dagger she uses as a letter opener, and thinks, Ten years in a month.

That day she’d been in this room, too, opening replies to her birthday party invitations. She’d issued eighty-nine invitations, and eighty-nine children had accepted. As she was mounding the responses in a triumphant pile, feet had thudded in the corridor outside. She hardly heeded – the servants were always rushing about. Then came a soft knock, her lady-in-waiting’s shy tap, but an instant later the woman opened without permission.

We’re in. Notice that I started with had been and had dispatched, but switched to simple past in the sentence, The servants were always rushing about. That sentence marks the complete shift to the earlier time.

The flashback continues. We see the shaken maid delivering the terrible news. Whatever follows follows: weeping, rushing out of the room, going to Mommy Card, could be anything. Finally we bring Queenie back to the study and start the return transition:

She sat dully at her desk and stared without comprehension at the party replies. Oh, she’d finally remembered, the girl she used to be was going to have a celebration. For the first time, on that sad, long-ago day, she’d collected her hair in a bun at the back of her neck. Then she’d picked up another letter and had slit it open.

The mauve envelope in her hand now had nothing to do with a party. There was no party. She hated parties. Who would be stupid enough to choose this color?

And we’re back. Did you see that I repeated the tense switch on the return? Two devices make the transition smooth: the tense shift and an action that bridges the gap in time, in this case opening the mail.

But if we don’t want to interrupt the story, what are our other choices?

Suppose Queenie always touches her throat before calling for an execution. If Kingie, who thoroughly understands his wife, manages to put his arm around her quickly enough, she relaxes and doesn’t give the order. A newcomer to court can observe this and ask her uncle to explain. In a short bit of dialogue the father’s assassination can be revealed.

If we’re writing in Queenie’s POV, the revelation can come in thoughts, something like, Ten years in a month. I was nicer before the assassin. Then we go back to the action. Five pages later, she might think something else, like, Dr. Two of Spades says I lost my father at a girl’s most formative moment, no matter how he died. What a Two he is! She makes a weighing gesture with her hands. Heart attack – assassination. Heart attack – assassination. Not the same. More action. Later on she can finish the back story by thinking, I probably killed the assassin long ago, but as long as he could still be playing croquet, I’ll keep the executions coming.

If we’re writing from another character’s POV, he can be present for one of Queenie’s execution orders and think about the past in a sentence or two.

Or the reader can do without. Everyone knows Queenie orders people’s heads off. It’s one of the facts of her rule. People avoid playing croquet with her and are terrified when they have to. The history doesn’t have to come to the fore. If she’s an important character, we can show her touching her throat, loving Kingie, seeming relieved when her husband pardons people. She’ll come off as a complex character. Excellent.

I would ask the same questions about a back story as about a flashback, and if I can, I would do without.

But suppose you need to put it in and the back story is the history of this card kingdom. Let’s imagine that Alice has a mission in Wonderland and in order to have a chance she has to understand the place. She can find a tome about it in her parents’ library, and we can put a page of the book right in the story. We can have her stop in the middle to gasp or to get a glass of water, whatever. For suspense, we can have her leave the room for the water and find the book gone when she comes back. She knows part of the story and she has to find out the rest, which moves the back story into the front. She can ask the university historian, and we can include their conversation. If we break up the back story, again we haven’t suspended the forward story for very long. In the first instance, we leave the back story to get the glass of water. In the second, the historian can look at his watch and say he has to teach, and we’re out. The trick, I think, is to plant the seeds for the return from the back story in the way it begins, for example, with an action that the character can return to.

Here are four prompts:

∙ The White Rabbit is hopping ahead of Alice. From his POV write a flashback that explains his urgency. In Lewis Carroll’s story, he and Alice separate and the story follows her. Stick with him and invent what happens.

∙ Write the back story  that explains the history of the card monarchy.

∙ Let’s use a modern weather event, Hurricane Sandy or a tornado or a blizzard, and have Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz show up in it. Provide a back story to explain how she got there.

∙ After an election I always wonder how it feels to be the winner or the loser, but a prompt on the actual election seems too close to home, so let’s imagine one in the republic of Tulipe, where Mistress Prunette of the Globule Party ousted Master Rosto of the Concavities. Each has asked to be alone for a few minutes to reflect on the contest. Write a flashback for each that gives personal meaning to the outcome.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Story history

Before I start – Caitlyn posted this link early this morning, which you may miss: www.writeaboutdragons.com, which may be of interest to many of you, so I don’t want you to miss it.

On May 26, 2012, Inkling wrote, …I’ve almost kinda decided to start on my book, but I’m having issues. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic version of the southern U.S., but I’m having trouble working on the time period. I want enough time to pass (after the disaster) for everyone to forget what happened, but I still want houses standing from when the disaster happened. Then, when I try to write the beginning (which I thought I had planned out), the wording doesn’t sound right! I can’t figure out how to put the backstory in, and I’m pretty sure it needs to be told fairly early on. I would be EXTREMELY grateful for any help!!!!

In response, carpelibris wrote, Inkling, what are the houses made of? From this list, it looks like the oldest houses standing in the US are from around the 1600s: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldest_buildings_in_America

How long it takes everyone to forget will depend on if you have electronic communications, newspapers, books, widespread literacy, professional lore-keepers or storytellers, etc.

What doesn’t sound right about the wording?

And Inkling answered, I’m not really sure what the houses are made of (the thought never occurred to me!), but probably about the same as the houses today, since that’s what they look like. No electronics, whatever happened knocked everything back about 200 years from now. There’s still books, but literacy is considered useless for the most part. My MC can read, though, and has read several books she’s found. Most of the people are pretty much nomads, and just wander around to different houses. There are still some “towns” but they’re more like old west towns.

I’m trying to fit all the info about my MC’s family into the first few paragraphs since she leaves at the beginning of the book and you never actually meet them. I’m having trouble figuring out how to do this without it seeming all shoved in there.

When I followed carpelibris’s link, I noticed with pride that my house falls into the time line on Wikipedia’s list, although it certainly isn’t anywhere near the oldest continuously occupied home in the U. S. It was built in 1790, a simple wooden farmhouse, and it’s probably good for another few centuries, as long as it’s kept up. If it hadn’t been lived in and maintained, it probably would have rotted and collapsed long ago. We also still have the outhouse (just for historical value). It’s wooden too, and the effects of weather are obvious; it gets eaten away bottom up. If we don’t deal with it every few years, it will be a goner. So upkeep would be another factor for Inkling to factor in.

carpelibris suggests several areas to think about: composition of houses and other buildings, communications infrastructure, historical records, storytellers, interest in the past, education, possibly degree of civilization. I’d add that if people are nomads, you’ll probably need to know what the roads are like and how people are getting around, whether by car or mule or bicycle, whatever.

Usually I work this background info out in my notes. I don’t have to know everything at the outset, just as much as I need to get going. I can figure out the rest as I move along.

Inkling is asking several questions: how to figure out the world; how to drop in the backdrop while still moving the action along; how to find the right voice.

For the first, carpelibris and I have raised some topics to consider. More may come up as Inkling continues. But there was another part to the question. Everybody in this post-apocalyptic world has forgotten the disaster, which worries me a little.

One of my greatest challenges as a writer is my tendency to over-complicate my stories. I put in elements that strain credulity and then I have to explain them. Sometimes the explanations introduce new complexities that demand further explanation until I’ve erected such a tall, wobbly structure that it all comes crashing down, and I have to build fresh out of the rubble, and if it’s going to work, the next assemblage has to be much simpler.

An entire population forgetting the disaster that destroyed their civilization sets off alarm bells for me. How could they forget? How did they fall into general illiteracy? What happened?

The collective amnesia does tie into the question about the houses. How much time would be necessary for such forgetting to happen? Would all the artifacts of the earlier civilization have to have disappeared, been buried, been obliterated?

It’s interesting to consider. The classical world was all but forgotten, I think, in the Dark Ages and then gradually rediscovered during the Renaissance. How that happened might be worth some research.

I confess that my knowledge of events before I was born is spotty. I know only the high points that I was taught in school, those that I remember. And I’ve forgotten a lot that’s happened during my life. But many people do know. The knowledge is available.

Anyway, maybe Inkling has an answer. Whatever it is, probably simplest is best.

If Inkling hasn’t come up with an answer, I’d suggest reconsidering the forgetting. Is it necessary? And for everyone else (and me!), I warn us all of the dangers of basing our stories on a premise that’s hard to explain.

On to the second question, how to drop the info in. I’ve written posts on this, which you can find by clicking on the labels back story, backstory (sorry about that!), fantasy world introduced, and flashbacks. A Tale of Two Castles begins similarly to Inkling’s story. Elodie leaves her family and doesn’t see any of them again for the rest of the book. But she thinks about them and brings them to life for the reader with her thoughts and without interfering with the forward action. So I’d say that background can be dropped in in short bursts at quiet moments in a story, generally in thoughts and narrative, sometimes in dialogue.

For example, Kiara leaves home while her family is sleeping so she doesn’t have to say goodbye. She pauses to look down on the form of her brother Bobo in his bed. He’s an imp when he’s awake, but, oh, how sweetly he sleeps, nose to nose with his stuffed toy chipmunk. On a hook by the door hangs her mother’s blue scarf, which smells of carnations, her mother’s scent. Kiara takes it and ties it around her own neck. She’s about to slip out when she notices her father’s umbrella with the broken rib. She takes this too, even though it’s the dry season. Her father never buys anything for himself, and this will force him to get a new umbrella. The tears are flowing when she closes the door behind her. As she walks through the silent streets she thinks more about her family. Later, at important moments, if we decide to go that way, she can be guided – or misguided – by what members of her family would advise or do in her place. She can be homesick sometimes and recall a memory in her thoughts. In A Tale of Two Castles Elodie now and then spouts her mother’s sayings.

As for voice, I suggest trying different ways until you find something that pleases you. Here are a few possibilities imagining the moment when Kiara stands over her brother’s bed.

Bobo, how chilled out and all innocent you look there with your silly toy. Do you want your big sister gone, no more Miss Bossy forever? No more me always knowing your secret mischief? You going to remember to keep safe against old bad Mr. Milton?


A shaft of moonlight illumined a curl in the center of Bobo’s forehead. How could I leave that curl?  And the rest of him, that knowing look when he caught me in a lie to Father. But he never told. I mouthed the words: “Take care, Bobo. Give Mr. Milton a wide berth.”


Leave, Kiara, I told myself. Ignore Bobo and his chipmunk. Harden your heart. Think of yourself for once.

And of course there’s the choice of POV and tense, both of which will influence the voice.

This has been a long post! Time for prompts.

∙ Write Kiara’s departure as told by an omniscient third-person narrator. Keep going with the story.

∙ Write it in the voice of Kiara’s older sister, who is pretending to be asleep. Keep going.

∙ Write a page of notes about how the disaster came about that destroyed a civilization. Explain how the descendants of the survivors have lost all knowledge of what went before.

∙ Write a scene in which Kiara discovers an artifact from the past. Her curiosity is aroused. She decides to find out the meaning of her discovery, but there are forces that don’t want her to succeed. Continue with the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

New characters with history

On May 6, 2011, Monica Mari wrote, ….I spend pages introducing characters, and am trying to figure out a way around it. And I have a few events that take place before some of my characters are introduced, and so it seems to come out of nowhere. Would you have any advice?

I asked for clarification, and Monica Mari answered, ….I end up introducing semi-main characters halfway through my stories, and they end up playing large roles later on, but for things to go as planned, they must be introduced after events that occur beforehand. Friends and family have told me that they are a bit confused with the suddenly introduced characters, as they appear out of nowhere as they were not introduced beforehand, and then they became important to large points in the plot.

This sounds like two questions, one about introducing characters and the second about plot. My post of 6/29/11 relates to the first, so you may want to revisit it. I’ll add only a few new thoughts:

When we meet people in real life we don’t get the benefit of introductory material, which might come in handy. A friend, let’s call her Justine, just today told me how a friend of hers, let’s call her Irma, made it hard for Justine to get necessary dental work. Justine couldn’t understand why Irma was being unhelpful (Justine needed help) until Irma confessed a childhood dental trauma. Ah. But if they hadn’t been friends the confession might never have been made and Irma’s actions would have remained a mystery.

In fiction we usually do include the confession because we want our characters’ behavior to be believable. But generally we don’t jump in with the secret information instantly. We wait and let the characters reveal themselves just as people do, through action, dialogue, maybe appearance, and, in the case of main characters, thoughts. Lengthy introductions hold up the story.

If your characters need lengthy introductions – I’m just guessing – your plot may be over-complicated or there may be a lot of back story that you’re trying to bring in. If the back story is the problem, you may want to start your story at an earlier time and let the back story be part of the actual tale.

I tend to over-complicate. My too energetic imagination waves new ideas in front of my mind’s eye, and I start weaving them in. Often they work, but sometimes they don’t. I told one of my versions of Beloved Elodie to my husband, and his eyes rolled back in his head. I wound up starting over.

Not that you have to go back to the beginning. But you may want to think about what’s important to your story and how you can streamline. It should be possible to summarize your plot briefly. Let’s try this on a few classics. Hamlet: A just, ethical, and feeling prince suspects his mother and uncle of murdering his father and can’t decide how to act. Pride and Prejudice: A single young woman of sense and decided opinions is wooed by a wealthy young man with sense and deep feelings but an exaggerated idea of his importance. Jane Eyre: An unloved child grows into a young woman with the inner resources to fall in love and yet resist the man she adores.

You may quarrel with my thumbnail sketches and make up your own, but I’d guess yours will be short too, although each of these works is rich with detail and wide in scope. Pride and Prejudice, for example, tells us about marriage and the relation between the sexes in the first half of the nineteenth century, and it’s a great story as well.

I suspect this over-complication causes the confusion when you introduce important characters well into a story. Let’s suppose there’s a plot against King Philip the Great, who is despotic and erratic. Five conspirators, important characters in this story, meet weekly to conspire. The reader has met them all. However, there’s Sorceress Moira who cast a spell on the king fifteen years ago to make him a tyrant. The conspirators don’t know about her, but she has to come into the story later on.

That seems hard to me. I’d want to start with the sorceress, maybe show her in a prologue (although child readers often skip prologues) or introduce a legend about her to lay the groundwork. for her appearance. The characters who don’t know about her can continue not to know, but the reader has been warned. If the reader knows and the main characters don’t, you’ve got delightful tension going, and when she finally shows up, the reader won’t be confused.

Monica Mari, I’m hoping this post got at your question. If not, please ask follow-up questions.

Here are three back story prompts:

•    Let’s take the tyrannical king situation. Not only is there a sorceress lurking, one of the conspirators, Alphonso, is concealing from the others that he was once imprisoned in the king’s dungeons and would do anything to avoid another imprisonment. Another, Gretchen, hasn’t told anyone that she and the king’s nephew are in love. Write a meeting of the plotters in which the back stories of the two are revealed to the reader but not to the other members of the cabal. Write a scene in which Gretchen confesses her secret to Alphonso. How does he use this information? Write the scene that follows.

•    Romance is a great place for secret back stories. Danny is drawn to Lana, a singer, although Danny’s mother, also a singer, deserted the family when he was six. Lena writes her own songs, which she bases on her romantic experiences. Danny may be material for her next CD. He’s heard her sing about her last boyfriend but not about the one before that and the one before that. Their first date went marvelously well. Write their second date.

•    Back stories can get very psychological. This is a memory prompt. I thought I’d written about my own example here on the blog, but I can’t find it on a search. The incident appears in an anthology called Thanks and Giving edited by Marlo Thomas, and here’s a quick summary: I was sick on my third or fourth birthday, nothing serious but I was running a high fever. My grandfather, out of pity, bought me an expensive, beautiful, not at all cuddly, hard bisque doll, very old-fashioned. My parents gave it to me along with a hundred warnings about how I’d better take wonderful care of it or I’d be a very bad girl, which caused me to instantly hate it. When I got well I destroyed it, which I felt guilty about but justified with the belief that a gift was a gift and they should have given the doll to me  without all the restrictions and then I might have treated it more respectfully. I didn’t understand what was behind my parents’ warnings until many many years later when I began to write for children and was casting about for topics. I remembered this birthday, and understanding came. My grandfather was very poor and buying this doll must have forced him to scrimp in other ways. My mother would have been touched and would have wanted me to treat his gift with reverence that equaled his generosity. My father, the orphan, probably never had a toy of his own. He would have been bowled over by the magnificence of this treasure, and he would have wanted me to appreciate my good fortune. The back story became clear decades after the event. So the prompt is to think of an incident in your own life when people acted incomprehensibly based on factors you had no knowledge of, which you still may not understand. Write it down and then fictionalize it a little or a lot. If you still don’t know the back story, invent one. Write a scene or a story.

Have fun, and save what you write!