Monday, May 23, 2016

The More You Know, The More You'll Save: Part IV - Backstory, Info Dumps, Preaching, & Repetition

by Alycia W. Morales

As authors, we're always looking for ways to save money and time. This is the fourth post in a series that is meant to help you save both. If you'll work to improve these issues within your manuscript, your editor won't have to work so hard and you may save money by only needing a copy edit vs. needing a substantive edit.

Last week, we continued discussing character development and went over conflict, resolution, and loose ends. This week, we'll take a look at backstory, information dumps, preaching, and repetition.


Backstory is one of the key issues I find in many manuscripts I edit. Many writers don't know how to include backstory in a proper and acceptable manner. Instead of weaving it into the story through dialogue, inner thought, and the rarely used flashback, they write pages of what I call "reflection."

Back story is something that has happened in your character's past. It should only be pertinent to the present-day story if you're going to include it, and it had better move the story forward. If it is neither, leave it out.

There are three key ways to include backstory in your novel:

1. Through dialogue between characters. The past issue can come up in conversation, but it must be natural, not forced. Let the characters discuss it. Maybe your protagonist needs to process something that happened in the past that's causing the issue in her current situation. She can discuss it with a mentor, friend, someone else she trusts. Again, make sure it is pertinent.

2. Inner thought. Most editors like to see deep POV (deep point of view), where the character thinks about something, but we don't use italics or "he thought" to highlight what they're thinking. Instead, it flows right in the story line. This is another place where you can weave in backstory. Don't make it more than one, maybe two, paragraphs long. Otherwise, it's turning into an info dump and no longer serves its purpose to clue in the reader as to a motivation of the character.

3. Flashbacks. This is where the character reflects on something from their past based on what's happening in the present. The trick to writing a great flashback is knowing how to transition between the present and the past then back to the present. Something the character smells, hears, touches, tastes, or sees (the 5 senses) can trigger the flashback. Just make sure it's prevalent to the current story and that it helps move the story forward if you're going to use one. And don't use more than one per novel, please.

If you're not sure if you need backstory or not, ask yourself if the backstory serves a purpose to move the character forward in their character arc. If it doesn't, leave it out. We don't need some sweet memory of your character's grandmother if grandma has nothing to do with the story. If his father abused him and now he's facing charges of abusing his own children, then it may be important to give us a glimpse of his past.

Information Dumps

An info dump is when the author decides their reader surely can't know what x, y, or z is, so they tell them by writing it into their novel. Info dumps look like what they sound like. The author dumps a bunch of information about something on the page.

For example, you're writing about a drug or disease or military procedure or some other thing the average reader wouldn't know a lot about. Instead of showing us through the character's actions or in brief dialogues with other characters, the writer tells us in multiple sentences and paragraphs on the page. We get bored with the book and move on to something better.

Make sure you haven't given an info dump. These tend to show up in dialogue that becomes more like a lecture or, as mentioned above, paragraphs on a page about one topic with no character action or dialogue.


No one likes to be preached at. We like to be spoken with. Encouraged. Not told what to do. Understood. Not condemned.

Readers don't like to find preaching in their books, either. If your character goes off on a tangent about any particular passion, rein them back in. Kick them off their soap box.

Let their faith come out in their actions or kindness toward another character. Let them pray a brief prayer. Give them a moral decision to make and have them make the right one.

But don't preach...


This is another craft issue I find in many, many, many manuscripts. It's one of my personal pet peeves.

Your reader doesn't need to know that your character is depressed every day. If you've established he or she is dealing with depression in the first chapter, that's all your reader needs to know. Then they want to see him or her grow through it for the rest of the book. Show it. Don't tell it.

I see repetition come up in the following ways:

1. Words on the page. Make sure you're not repeating the same words throughout the page. Find another way to say it.

2. The cliche actions. Sighing. Smiling. Nodding. Watch for repetition in actions throughout the manuscript. Try to find something else for your character to do in response to something.

3. Emotions. We're not always happy. We're not always sad. We're not always smirking. Make sure your characters go through various emotions throughout their stories. Remember that they need to be overcoming their struggles, so their emotions should progress. (They may regress at times, but progress must be made by the end of the story.) And don't name them. Show them.

4. A reminder for the reader. I've often seen writers remind the reader of something they mentioned earlier in the story, as if the reader may have forgotten. Don't do this. It's annoying. It snaps your reader out of their fictional dream.

There are more, but those are the main four that I notice a lot.

Go back through your manuscript and search for these. If you find them, find a better way to convey the same information by showing it, rather than telling it. Otherwise, delete them.

I'm curious: which of these do you write most into your novel? Share with us in the comments below.


Four things to avoid putting into your manuscript via @AlyciaMorales {Click to Tweet}

Why to avoid putting backstory, info dumps, preaching, & repetition in your manuscript via @AlyciaMorales {Click to Tweet}


  1. repetition is one of my PET PEEVES when reading!! read one a while back (won't read any more by this author) that was really awful about that. a couple had broken up (long ago as i recall) and the dude kept hounding the chick to get back together. every time he approached her (and sometimes it was creepy) they argued. we as readers get that. but this author wrote the argument every.single.time! ad nauseum! i try to NOT do that in my writing!
    thanks for an informative and valuable post, Alycia!

  2. I just slogged through a book myself where the author info-dumped physical description and backstory every time a new character appeared. It was tedious.

    Personally, I'm guilty of repetition. My books have a lot of dialog but there are just some times when a nod or a shrug will do. I find myself have to work around saying he nodded/she nodded a lot without the dialog sounding contrived. I've even turned a conversation around a time or two to give someone the opportunity to respond with a negative shake of the head.


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