Last week, I talked about the problems with info-dumps and mentioned that one of the keys to avoiding them is to sprinkle information throughout your manuscript. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at how to do that. How can you spread background material and information throughout a story effectively?
As I mentioned last week, including information, backstory, or exposition in your manuscript can be tricky. Include too much and it becomes an info-dump; too little, and it becomes confusing for your readers. It can take a lot of adjustments in order to get the right balance of information.
Luckily, there are several different methods you can use for spreading information. Here are my tips:
- Use dialogue
This is the most common method I see for conveying information besides exposition. The benefit of using dialogue is that it can sometimes be easy to slip details or information into a conversation characters are having. However, I also see a lot of issues with this method. Sometimes it can be overused. Remember that just because the information is in dialogue tags doesn’t mean that it isn’t an info-dump; this is a technique that needs to be used sparingly. Also, make sure that the way the information is conveyed sounds natural. If it isn’t authentic to the character and the way that they speak, it will sound forced. Characters shouldn’t start spouting a two-page history lesson in the middle of a conversation, no matter how relevant or important that information is. But when used sparingly, dialogue can be an effective means of conveying certain details.
As I mentioned in my post on info-dumps, one of the keys to spreading out information is prioritizing what readers need to know and when they need to know it. Does your reader really need to know the entire history of the land all at once, for example? Probably not. Figure out what’s relevant to the scene that’s happening now, and focus on that. The rest can come later.
- Use internalization
Another way to convey important details is to have your POV character share it in their internal thoughts. This can be a great method of conveying information because it can also be used for characterization—we can learn what the character thinks about that information as well as the information itself, which both makes it more interesting and tells us something about the character. But, as with dialogue, there are pitfalls here. You can’t convey anything your character doesn’t actually know, and you also have to keep their internal thoughts consistent with their voice.
- Include a flashback
I’m reluctant to even mention flashbacks, because they’re so often misused. The problem with a flashback is that it pulls the reader out of the current action; it essentially stalls the story so that you can fill the reader in, just like info-dumps do. However, when used sparingly and with caution, flashbacks can sometimes be effective. For example, one of my favorite YA books of 2015 was Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. There’s one particular flashback in that book that reveals a character’s backstory, and it’s so haunting that I’m still thinking about it nearly a year later. So I won’t say never use flashbacks, but be aware of their potential pitfalls and be careful about using them.
What do you think? How do you include background information in your manuscripts? What are your favorite techniques? Let me know in the comments!
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