Lasagna and InfoDumps

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Okay – I know you are saying, *What?!?* But hey – this is the last post before I head out into the wild blue yonder, or maybe, west, young man… Anyway, it’s the best I can do while packing. And it’s an analogy (or is that a metaphor?) that I’ve used in seminars for years.

 

There really are similarities between a well-made lasagna and the way a skilled author inserts back-story into current narrative. And similarities with the way an unskilled author and unskilled cook write and make anything.

 

Also, there are back-story rules (rules of thumb, not actual laws on paper, with back-story police to enforce them) for every genre. And every genre is different. Can you get away with breaking the rules? Sure. But if you want to wow an agent and editor (and the discerning reader) learning how to make back-story work like a good lasagna is a very smart idea.

 

First – terminology:

Great Lasagna – dish made with well-chopped, well cooked, well-seasoned veggies, meat, (yeah, I know, meat is optional) cheese and noodles, layered, combined, blended, and merged into a whole and baked.

 

A bad lasagna – dish made with un-chopped, uncooked, poorly-seasoned veggies, meat, (yeah, I know, meat is still optional) cheese and noodles, tossed into the pan and baked.

 

Back-story – all the info the reader *must* have for the book (plot and characters) to make sense to him.

 

InfoDump – all the info the reader *must* have for the book (plot and characters) to make sense to him dumped onto pages in one huge glob of telling and showing that brings the reader and the forward progression of the book to an abrupt stop.

 

Bad lasagna means that the onion is in one corner, the meat is in the other corner, the cheese is in a lump. The tomatoes are sitting between the meat and the cheese, and the spices are spilled into a pile. The noodles…well they get to be stacked on the bottom like lumber and the garlic is all icky and smelly off by itself. Nothing is chopped and spread out. Every bite tastes different, is a new experience and nothing is a coherent whole. Really bad food.

 

Bad info dump is where all the info you need is squished together into one big pile and dumped on the reader, stopping the story. It reads (tastes) different from the rest of the story. It stops everything. And the next time you need to tell the reader something, you do the same thing and it tastes different from either of the other tastes.

 

Are you beginning to see the picture? Back-story needs to be offered in small doses, chopped into tiny bits and scattered into the book. Let’s say you are writing a mystery series and you have told several things in previous books that you need to remind the reader (and explain to new readers) in order for this book to work:

  1. A young woman, mother of three has been murdered.
  2. There is a million dollar insurance policy at stake.
  3. The husband has an ironclad alibi because he was sleeping with the chief of police at the time.
  4. No one knows the chief is gay. (C and D are the most important parts of the back-story, and have to be handled carefully.)
  5. The main character is a police investigator.

 

There are several ways you can tell all this:

  1. Prologue scene with the chief and his lover. (Get your minds out of the gutter. Not *that* kind of scene.) This only works if you are using multiple third person POV. If first person, then it gets more difficult.
  2. Flashback and its sister the flashback prologue. (Rule of thumb in mystery: flashbacks used only in second third of book, so it would be too late.)
  3. Dialogue that reveals the affair and the controversy and the problem with the insurance.
  4. And my personal fav – break it up into little segments of dialogue, internal flashback (in the main character’s mind), and scenes scattered throughout the book. The reader who had been with you for several books knows what’s up and catches the clues and hints, and the new reader is intrigued but not overwhelmed.

 

In fantasy genre you have more leeway. Let’s say that you need the readers to know that:

  1. The king was murdered.
  2. The queen was accused of the crime and beheaded
  3. The masked head-chopper is a psychic

 

You can open any way you want, as long as it fits the POV and the story line. *But!* Yeah, you knew there was going to be one of those, didn’t you. Most long-time editors are pretty sick of the prologue scene and the flashback prologue. I know a couple of editors who say they’ll stop reading as soon as it become apparent that a new (unpublished) writer has opened a book that way. So what do you do? You give the reader (in this case that editor you so want to impress) the back-story in little bits and pieces in the story-line.

 

I make a list of things the reader needs to know, and then I make sure the info is inserted in the first 50 pages, checking off the things as I go. No one gets bored, shocked with a new tone (taste) or pulled out of the story.

 

Okay – know you know about lasagna and back-story info dumps. I hit the road on Monday, so this may be the last you hear from me for a few weeks. Or I might find that I can post on the road. Life is a constant surprise!

Happy cooking! Ahhh… Happy writing!

Faith

 

 

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6 comments to Lasagna and InfoDumps

  • “…rules of thumb, not actual rules on paper, with back-story police to enforce them…”

    I started laughing and scared the Beetle!

  • Beatriz

    “rules of thumb, not actual rules on paper, with back-story police to enforce them…”

    And I pictured police officers with thumbs on sticks, whacking the unfortunate writers over the head when they break the rules.

  • “Feet apart! Hands in the air! Thumbs up! Let me see your laptop! You have the right to remain silent….”

    “But officer. It was just a *little* back-story!”
    Faith

  • “Hands behind your back, ma’am. You’re under arrest for gratuitous info-dumping.”

    “But how else was I supposed to give the reader all that information?”

    “Sorry, ma’am, but ignorance of the rules of writing is no excuse.”

    *giggling*

  • I think you guys might be having too much lasagna, they say it warps the mind. So do you start a story in the middle of the action and then slowly reveal the backstory through dialogue/action/reaction type things? And when is enough enough, when does a writer know they’ve given the reader enough to work it out for themselves?

  • Good question, Natalie. And I doubt you’ll like my answer, becasue there isn’t one. Of course, that never stopped me…

    Understanding when enough back-story is enough is the balancing act that all writers do in the creative process. I don’t really just write a book, I build it, like building a house. As I write, I go back and make sure the foundation is strong enough to support the bricks and mortar of the story, and that there are windows and doors enough for the reader to see what is going on inside without dumping a *telling session* on him. It can be a tricky process. Some things need to be said twice, in fact, to drive the point home to new readers, but that is why I make a check-off list to keep track, and a constantly updated outline handy, much like a builder refers to his house plans.

    The writing is there. Don’t get me wrong. I *love love love* the parts that are just that wild, totally creative, can’t stop to take a breath writing, but a lot of it is more (less?) than that. It’s work.

    In series work, I try to reread the previous books before I start on a new one, and take notes. David has a different method, I think, and maybe he’ll comment on it when he gets back.

    And like I said — rules of thumbs are meant to be broken (rules, not thumbs). Catie’s book, The Queen’s Bastard, starts out with several flashback vignettes, and they worked well. But Catie didn’t have one of the old-time, crusty, outspoken, NYC editors or an aged agent like I am speaking about, and also, it wasn’t her first novel. Unpublished writers often have different standards to meet because they have a different vetting process. I say often, not always, because there are *always* exceptions. It’s what makes this business so tricky, fascinating, entertaining, and nail-biting annoying.
    Faith