Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“How are we supposed to watch a house like this?”

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(Note: This post is the twenty-first installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 20. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Last week, I received the first batch of notes from my agent and other readers on the rough draft of Eternal Empire. This kind of detailed feedback is always essential, but this round was especially interesting, because it included comments from people who hadn’t read the first two books in the series. Overall, the response was very positive, and it pointed to a number of possible avenues for further tightening and clarification. But I was most interested in one recurring theme in the comments, which was that I ought to include additional backstory. A number of readers without previous knowledge of the series thought that I should provide a little more background on returning characters, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read The Icon Thief or City of Exiles, which is a perfectly valid point. But I also noticed something strange: in several cases, they wanted more background on characters they assumed had been more fully fleshed out in previous books—when, in fact, they were appearing here for the first time ever.

In other words, readers assumed that they were being deprived of information that had appeared somewhere in the first two installments, when it was really just a reflection of my natural tendency, as a writer, to give as little backstory as possible. I’m not going to go into my feelings on this topic again, since these have been adequately covered elsewhere on this blog. And from experience, I know that when you go out for comments, you’ll often get requests for this kind of background material—requests, I’m convinced, that you should push back against whenever possible. When readers want more backstory, it’s often a sign that things in the present tense of the story aren’t as clear as they should be, and there are ways of addressing this without cutting away from the action. A perceived lack of backstory may be a symptom of certain problems, but the solution often lies elsewhere, at least in the majority of cases. That said, there are times when backstory and exposition are genuinely necessary. And one of the greatest challenges for any writer lies in integrating this material in a way that seems natural, or at least minimally disruptive.

The best way to introduce verbal backstory and exposition is through action. This is why Dean Koontz, in his invaluable Writing Popular Fiction, notes that the long, dry summation of the mystery that we find at the end of most Agatha Christie novels would often work better in the context of a suspenseful sequence—with the protagonist, for instance, cornered by the villain, which provides an opening for our hero to explain how he figured out the evil plan. (Hence the frequently mocked monologues by the villains in the James Bond movies, which actually make perfect dramatic sense.) Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option: action scenes, if properly done, tend to be tightly structured, with only the essential number of moving parts, and can’t always handle the burden of extra information at a time when the plot should be moving forward as quickly as possible. A better solution, perhaps, is to insert exposition into a natural pause within a larger sequence of suspense. The best kind of suspense, after all, is about waiting for something to happen, and while a couple of your characters are waiting, you can have them talk about whatever you want, within reason.

The result is often something like Chapter 20 of The Icon Thief, which is a sort of portmanteau chapter in which I cover as much expository material in as little space as possible. Powell and Wolfe are on stakeout, seated in a car outside Archvadze’s mansion, at a point when I’ve already established that two other important characters are there for reasons of their own—and that a heist is unfolding even as we speak. As a result, I felt free to let Powell and Wolfe talk about a range of topics I hadn’t yet covered: the background of the case, additional developments on the murder at Brighton Beach, and, most unusually for me, Powell’s own backstory, notably the influence of his father, a former diplomat and intelligence officer now suffering from dementia. This is the kind of information I wouldn’t be able to include anywhere else, given my own rules for advancing the narrative with only the minimal amount of retrospection, but here, it’s borderline permissible, because the story has been structured in such a way as to allow for an organic pause. Moments like this, which naturally emerge from the flow of the narrative, are where backstory and exposition belong, so it’s no surprise that I try to pack in as much as possible. And fortunately for the reader, there’s a lot of action right around the corner…

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2012 at 9:53 am

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