Why Bold Writers Withhold Background Info

We just had our third class in a series: “Make ’em Beg for It,” and I think this actually completes a three-class series that sets my students up to start writing with a good sense of what they’re doing. The first class was about identifying a story’s setting and action without the emotional, philosophical, and analytical context. The second class introduced students to conflict, specifically what it is and how to start your story at the initiation of the conflict. The third class taught how to include background information in your story. With these three elements in mind, writers can start writing. The next step is to look at what you’ve written and analyze it based upon these three elements and how well you were able to embody them.

Background Info, or Exposition, Doesn’t Build Suspense

In the recent class, “Make ’em Beg for it,” I explained that background info, also known as exposition, is not something to front-load into your story opening. That’s what most beginning writers do, though. They open with a few paragraphs explaining where the character is, how they got there, and what’s the situation. When you do that, your story is already boring for two reasons: Unless you open with action around the story’s central conflict, the story has no suspense, and suspense, which is what gets readers to read on to the next page. Secondly, readers enjoy figuring out the background info for themselves, from the context of the story. If you tell them too much up front, it bores them.

When I talk about background into, I’m not just talking about your character’s past and attributes, but also the emotional, philosophical, and analytical aspects of the story. You remember? Those things you wanted to talk about right in the beginning? I made you save them for later, and now is that time. However, because this is a story, not an essay, you don’t get to spew all your thoughts on the page. Why? Again, because it’s boring. It gives the reader nothing to do. Spew all your philosophy on a different page, then turn it into a list of items you want included in the story. That’s your exposition. Then, use the old “show don’t tell” trick to include this info within the mental pictures you create with your story. Here’s a good example from Into Thin Air by John Krakauer:

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China, the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.

Krakauer Shows You the Background Info with Action

That’s the first line of the book, and already you know that at the top of Mt. Everest, it’s freezing cold, windy, and there is low oxygen. Do you see how he never had to tell you these things? He let you figure it out by just watching the movie he is making play in your mind. So that’s the challenge to you, as memoir writers. The way to get across the background into is to give your character activities to do, which I call “business” that communicate the background info in a way that lets the reader guess at it and deduce it, rather than spoon-feeding it to them.

Next Steps for Students

Now that they have these three classes under their belts, my students are ready to start their stories. I prefer that they start with just an opening paragraph or two. You all know to start the story where the conflict begins and to sneak the exposition into the story’s action. You know what exposition is as opposed to dramatic action. These are the basics upon which we’ll evaluate your work In subsequent classes. When you show me a paragraph, I’m not going to surprise you in any way. I’m simply going to analyze it according to the items we have already talked about. If I feel you need to know anything else in order to improve your writing, I’ll probably turn that into a class, since you’re probably not the only one that needs to know it. For now, though, I think the challenge of writing your opening paragraph is enough. So, writers and would-be writers, let’s see what you got!

If any readers of this blog aren’t taking these classes but would like to, go ahead and get in touch via my contact form, and we’ll get you started!

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