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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Background - How Much is Too Much
January 14, 2002


Question:

I feel like I have a problem with revealing relevant background information in my short stories. Some of the stories have an involved history but I don't want to weigh down the story with background. Do you have any rough guidelines about how one should go about editing background information in a short story? Right now, I feel like I am going at it sort of hit and miss. I want to try to show off the world, but there is such a push for brevity and tightness in the short story genre that I don't know the point at which I sacrifice brevity for fleshing out the intricacies of the world

-- Randy Miller

OSC Replies:

We all learned how to do this from Robert Heinlein. Science fiction and fantasy have an especially heavy burden of exposition, because their reality differs from the familiar world. Historical fiction has a somewhat lighter burden, while contemporary fiction can seem to be free of it. The truth is, though, that the particulars of a place and time -- including information about events that have gone before -- can be difficult to put in without simply doing an involved summary -- one of those nightmare prologues -- to bring the reader up to speed.

How it's really done is:

1. Make sure you're beginning the story in the right place. If you immediately have to do flashbacks, etc., chances are you simply began too close to the end and you need to let us see, in correct linear time order, the events that you're flashing back to.

2. If you began at the right place, but there is information known to the characters that needs to be told to the readers, you can often lay it in, piece by piece, right where it's actually needed. That is, when the character hears or learns or sees something that has a particular meaning because of things that have gone before, simply SAY SO at the moment of revelation, as in:

"But I was in love with you then," she said, sounding surprised. "You can't have been unaware of that."

But he HAD been unaware. It hadn't crossed his mind that she ever noticed him that way. "You mean all those hours we spent with you agonizing over your failed relationships with guys who were richer and better looking and more talented and smarter than me -- that was, like, a come-on?"

She shook her head and laughed ruefully. "You see it in the movies all the time, don't you? Girl cries on boy's shoulder, boy kisses girl, romance blooms. I played that scene over and over with you, but you never got to the kissing part."

"I thought it would be taking unfair advantage."

"That's why decent, thoughtful guys miss out on romance. We need a little baboonishness now and then! Be a primate! Take advantage!"

In that scene, you get the whole previous relationship summed up EITHER in the lines "he had been unaware, it never crossed his mind," etc., OR in the dialogue between them, which is number (3), to have a plausible scene in which characters explain things to each other even though they both knew them -- but they didn't both interpret them the same way, so the conversation is not artificial.

Note that I said either-or. All that dialogue COULD have been replaced by a few more sentences of exposition, depending on how the scene needs to play out. If, in this scene, you DON'T want them to talk about the situation, you could do it all inside the guy's head:

"But I was in love with you then," she said, sounding surprised. "You can't have been unaware of that."

But he HAD been unaware. It hadn't crossed his mind that she ever noticed him that way. And now she was married and he had long since got over his feelings toward her. Besides, even if he could have resurrected them -- and heaven knows, she did show up in his randier dreams now and then -- HER feelings were gone. "I WAS in love with you," that's what she said. "In love with you THEN." All history. Missed opportunity. Thanks for letting me know now when it's too late.

"Oh, I knew that," he said. "But I thought it showed bad taste and so I ignored it."

She laughed. Moment gone. Crisis passed.

For a fleeting moment he wondered if he should simply have kissed her. What's the worst that could have happened? A slap? Not seeing her for another ten years?

Easier just to let it slide.

Different scene -- but the exposition of the past relationship was dropped in where it was needed. It was NOT needed earlier, when they bump into each other in the department store and it was not needed when they sat down and reminisced for a few moments about other high school friends. It was only needed when she made her declaration of previous love ... and at that point, it was really in his attitude. He didn't actually think, "But I WAS unaware." The narrator is simply informing us. We were given the information that this came on him as a surprise at the moment of the surprise.

The only exception to this is the "key information." That is, if there is vital information that is necessary for us to care about the story or understand ANYTHING AT ALL about it, best to put that right up front. I mean in the first paragraph, which is, as I've said elsewhere, "free." So if you have two English speaking characters meet but the department store is in Nairobi, you BETTER TELL US that they're in Nairobi because if we find it out later we (the readers) will feel fooled. If the main character is blind, then TELL US he's blind, since it is information known all along to everyone in the scene, and we feel like fools finding out later. (It's not a clever trick -- since the audience knows only what we tell them, to withhold vital information isn't clever, it's either lazy or mean.) But once we have the vital information -- which most stories don't even have! -- the rest can be laid in when we need it.

-- 14 January 2002


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