Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.

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9 thoughts on “Elements of Critique: Background”

  1. I am loving this theme and want to direct my writing group to your blog all month! This is an excellent post concerning a topic we have discussed at length in many of our meetings. I am definitely going to “steal” your steak analogy. I love the “sprikle; don’t pour” thinking!!

    Thanks so much for picking such a great topic!!

    1. Awesome! It really is just the result of how much I’ve loved my critique group’s input on my work. If it helps someone write stronger or give better feedback to another writer, that’s delightful.

  2. Great post. I wholeheartedly agree. As both a reader and a writer I hate exposition with a passion. I always try to give background information as and when it’s needed and then only as much as is needed.

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