Writerly Stuff: Thoughts on Background Information

            It is getting difficult for me to give critiques these days.  One reason is because virtually every book I look at begins with a prologue, and virtually every prologue is nothing but background information with a nebulous connection to the story itself.  There is a reason why so many agents and editors don’t like prologues.

            Background information is important for a writer to know in order to present a consistent character – to know what motivates them and know how they would react or respond under certain circumstances.  It is rarely important for the reader to know.

            Imagine if Hitchcock began Psycho with scenes of a young Mister Bates suffering under a controlling, demanding mother.  The movie would not have had the same impact it did when the mother’s corpse was revealed.  Picture a young couple gallivanting around Paris before meeting up again at Rick’s café.  A murder mystery best starts with a dead body, not the detective’s troubled childhood.  The skeletons in the romantic couple’s closets are best revealed down the line in any case.  And after all these years I have concluded that Lucas was right to start the Star Wars movies with episode IV.  Movies I-III suffered from too much background (in my opinion).

            I have found that the background inevitably belongs… in the background.  Tolkien wrote one of the greatest works of fantasy in history and never once referred to the Silmarillion, and while he did refer to the original fall of Sauron and the 3,000 year journey of the ring, it was only in context and in a small and general way.  It was not a background story before the story. 

            I truly believe it is best to start a story at the beginning of the story, or better yet, inching toward the middle of the story as far as possible.  As a reader, I want to read a story.  Ten pages of preface, prologue or background information masquerading as the beginning of a story and you have lost me.

            Generally, I have found there is nothing in the background SO important that it can’t be shown in her actions (where the reader is led to understand that aspect of a character), or a couple of sentences of dialogue (in the right place and time) where the character explains her actions, or (as a last resort) in introspection, as in: “She remembered the gut wrenching nights, the tears and her inability to sleep over those first few months after her father left her.  She was eleven, a very vulnerable age.  She knew she should not cling to the men in her life, that making demands on them tended to drive them away, but sometimes she couldn’t help it.”  There.  Six pages of background done.

            I used to write too much background, but I am getting over it.  I used to want to explain everything in great detail and did not trust the readers to figure it out.  I am getting over that, too. 

            I see this all the time when I critique the work of new writers (especially in science fiction and fantasy).  Background is important for the writer, but don’t bog down your reader.  Avoid prologues at all costs.  Start the story where the story starts.

            When the story is done, without any particular reference to the past, allow a few trusted readers to say if they were confused and might be helped by knowing something in advance.  Work that in, but in the appropriate place and only what is needed to make it clear.

            Of course, having said that background belongs in the background, let me also say that there are always exceptions to every rule…

2 thoughts on “Writerly Stuff: Thoughts on Background Information

  1. I always try to skip the prologue and head straight to Chapter 1. It seems as if prologues are getting longer and more common these days. Do you think it’s just a current trend? Do you think book publishers encourage long prologues? I just found your blog and will be reading it more often.

    • I don’t see publishers promoting the idea. By far, I find the problem among the self-published who are able to ramble with impunity (though I cannot imagine it helps their sales).

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