Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction


Nothing slows down a novel quite like large mounds of exposition and backstory. Expositionis material the author puts on the page to explain context. Backstory is story material that happened in the past but for some authorial reason is dropped in the present. When this kind of material appears in the middle of a scene it can slow the pace, sort of like a Mastodon trying to escape a hungry caveman by way of the tar pits. 
Now, let me be clear that not all exposition and backstory is bad. In fact, properly handled, it’s tremendously helpful for bonding reader with character. But if it’s plopped down in large doses, and without a strategy in mind, it becomes a pool of hot goo where the story gets pitifully stuck.
Here is how to handle exposition and backstory, especially at the beginning.
First, ask yourself is it necessary at all? Quite often the writer has all this story info in his head and thinks the reader has to know most of it to understand what’s going on. Not so! Readers get into story by way of characters facing challenge, conflict, change or trouble. If you give them that, they will wait a LONG TIME before wanting to know more whys and wherefores.
You can do yourself a favor by highlighting the exposition and backstory in your opening chapters and then cutting all of it. Make a copy of the material. Look it over. Then dribble in only what is necessary. And I do mean necessary. Be ruthless in deciding what a reader has to know, as opposed to what you think they have to know.
Second, put a lot of this material in dialogue. Dialogue is your best friend. Make sure there is some form of tension or conflict in the dialogue, even if it is simply one character feeling fearful or nervous. Arguments are especially good for exposition and backstory. Recently I watched the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine, and nodded approvingly at an early scene between Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his ex-wife, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They’re arguing about Ginger’s sister, who calls herself Jasmine. A lot of background is revealed in this exchange:
“What’s the rush, Ginger? You got a date?”

“It’s none of your business. It happens to be Jeanette, so…”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“She’s living with me till she gets back on her feet. She’s had a bad time.”
“When she had money she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she’s broke, she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke, she’s screwed up. And it’s none of your damn business. She’s family.”
“She stole our money.”
“Understand? We coulda been set. That was our whole chance in life.”
“For the last time, Augie, he was the crook, not her, okay? What the hell did she know about finance?”
“Don’t stand there and tell me that. She’s married to a guy for years, up to his ass in phony real estate and bank fraud. She knew nothing about it? Believe me, she knew, Ginger.”
Third: Act first, explain later. Stamp this axiom on your writer’s brain. Or put it on a note and tape it where you can see it. This advice never fails.
Let’s have a look at the opening of one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, Stranger in Paradise:
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
As we will find out, Jesse Stone knows this Cromartie very well. He’s called “Crow,” and he’s a Native American hit man. There is lots of backstory between Jesse and Crow. But Parker doesn’t reveal any of yet.
What he does instead is show Jesse getting his gun ready. That’s intriguing. He knows something about this man after all, and it requires his gun being ready. Act first, explain later. The scene continues:
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said.
“Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed to a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said.
“Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said.
“And the drawer’s open,” Crow said.
We now know that this Crow is someone who notices things, especially when it comes to guns. What kind of person is that? We don’t know and Parker isn’t telling us. We only know this guy is probably dangerous. This is not friendly small talk. The air is crackling with potential trouble.
Half a page later, we get this:
“Last time I saw you was in a speedboat dashing off with a lot of money,” Jesse said.
“Long time back,” Crow said. “Longer than the statute of limitations.”
“I’d have to check,” Jesse said.
“I did,” Crow said. “Ten years.”
“Not for murder,” Jesse said.
“You got no evidence I had anything to do with murder.”
Boom. Now we get backstory information, but notice where it is. In dialogue! And that, indeed, is how Parker delivers almost all the essential information in this novel.
Of course, Parker is writing in a particular, stripped-down style. But the principles he uses will serve you as well.
It may be your choice to render some backstory in narrative form. If you do, let me give you a rule of thumb (not the same as an unbreakable rule!) that I’ve given to many students with good results: in your first ten pages you can have three sentences of backstory, used all at once or spread out. In your second ten pages you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all at once or spread out. But if you put backstory or exposition into dialogue, then you’re free to use your own discretion. Just be sure the dialogue is truly what the characters would say and doesn’t come of as a none-too-clever info dump (I explain more about this in my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.)
We place a lot of emphasis here at TKZ on sharp, intriguing openings. For good reason. That’s what editors, agents and browsing readers look at first. We don’t want to leave them in the tar pitsโ€”we want them to keep on reading!

These tips will keep you out of the goo.              

32 thoughts on “Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction

  1. Thank you. That will come in very useful when I have to refer to events in book 1 which are precursors for book 2 for people who haven’t read the first.

    • You bring up a valid issue, Roger, concerning series, where subsequent books sometimes have to fill in info from previous ones. The same principles apply and, skillfully done, will make the series seamless. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. This is all great information. Thank you. My info dumps take on the nature of travelogues. The three sentence then three paragraph idea is interesting. I’m going to take a spin through my first two chapters. I am going to tape up that bit about third act first. Great analogy with the tar pits, too.

  3. Informative and entertaining as always, Mr. B.

    As a detail person, I find the rule of thumb especially helpful and gives me something concrete to work with (since it’s not an unbreakable rule, perhaps wet concrete).

    Yet haven’t we all read books where authors use dialogue for this purpose but still don’t do it well? I’ll have to pick up your other book. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I hope you had a great trip Down Under! (Yes, I do check your News & Appearances page from time to time.) Perhaps there will be a future post on teaching Kiwis.

    Glad you’re back!

  4. Jim, thanks for another great post.

    In my current WIP, I’m struggling with whether or not to use a prologue that is loaded with action, immediately precedes the rest of the story, shows the scope of the conflict (international), but does not include the protagonist. Is that backstory? Is that prologue or chapter one? Any thoughts?

    • Great question, Steve. No, a prologue is not backstory, it’s an actual scene. Backstory is material put INTO a scene that refers to an earlier time.

      Yours sounds like a traditional prologue, which does not need to include the protag. Just make sure Chapter 1 does.

      For more thoughts on prologuse, see here.

  5. Excellent article! There is a wealth of helpful information here. Much of this depends on an author’s particular style — as you said — but these are good rules of thumb, and I love the examples you used. By the way, I am also enjoying your book Writing Your Novel from the Middle. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Info dumps were always a problem for me as an early writer. It wasn’t until my editing partner looked at the third draft of my first book and told me “Get rid of the first eleven pages, they’re all crap” that I realized how much info dumping can get in the way.

    I try and avoid it now, but one fun way to explore it is with quick flashbacks. I’ll have a character remember an event in his or her life and rather than just explain the event, I’ll play it in a half page flashback with dialogue and tension, then bring the character back to the present. Done right, it can be fun. =)

    • What a great editing partner! I have often advise dumping Ch. 1 and beginning with Ch. 2.

      What you describe I call “back flashes.” Not a full flashback scene, but a little look back. You’re right. They can work!

  7. Thanks to Mr. Gilstrap I have an aversion to backstory that borders on the phobic. And I love to use dialogue.

    Most of my structure passed the critical eye of my editor (long history of newspaper editing, he likes prose to be tight,) so I feel pretty good about it.

    I am in the opening act of book 2 and have to do the book-1-backstory hide and seek. My two characters are facing each other in a Biloxi strip club. She is the manager. He is there as part of an undercover gig. I have to call back to 300 pages of their complicated relationship without writing a 600-page novel.

    I’m planning lots of innuendo-laden snippets leading up to:


    I’d learned that the best way to break a tense moment with Ethan was to give him something to do.

    “Hey, would you turn on some music? I’d do it, but my hands are wet. Hit the button marked 5. That’s my personal channel for after-hours.”

    The mellow sound triggered the lights. A warm glow enveloped the dance floor.

    “George Strait?”

    “You can take the girl out of Texas, but . . . well, you know.”

    “Jewel, put down the towel. That shit can wait.”

    I came out from behind the bar. His hand on my waist was as light as a soap bubble.

    “Dance with me. After all we’ve been through, we’ve never been on a date.”

    “Sounds dangerous.”



    Devil’s Deal Countdown: T-30 days (max) and counting.

  8. Yay! Great post! Print this out and staple it to your forehead. Well, that’s a little drastic but it is that important to grasp this.

    The Parker example is splendid. Parker took back story out of the TELL mode and put into the high-gear SHOW mode. He used action (in this case dialogue) to convey the crucial backstory. Here is the same info handled in a different way:

    Jesse had a long history with Crow, one that went back to 1985 when Jesse had been just starting out in the PI business and Crow was a two-bit car thief just 18 months out of Levenworth. The last time Jesse had seen the towering 35-year-old Native-American hit man was back in 1989. The guy was dashing away in a speedboat that he had stolen from his ex wife, who he had once tried to kill by running her over with his Honda Civic. That day in the speedboat, Crow had taken all the cash from the Haddock Company with him. Jesse knew that the statute of limitations on embezzlement had run out years ago. From his long experience in the PI business, Jesse knew there was no statue of limitations on murder. But Jesse didn’t have any evidence that Crow had anything to do with killing Harry Haddock. But something about Crow was still definitely fishy.

    I made that up…it’s supposed to be bad.

  9. We all have eureka moments in our journey toward excellent writing. One of mine was when I read Bill Johnson’s A STORY IS A PROMISE, where he talks about Stimulus and Response.

    You mention ‘action’ and I interpret that to mean ‘stimulus,’ i.e., both backstory and information should have a stimulus in the story, or they come out of nowhere and may stop the story, no matter how short the snippet may be.

    Little dribbles of backstory, more akin to hints (i.e., don’t explain them right away), can add even more mystery to the story because the reader wonders what realy happened in the past.

    An example might be that the character is afraid of closets, but you don’t explain right away. Later on, you can dribble in more clues about the closet IF you’ve created the proper stimulus/action to allow you the luxury of filling in the backstory.

    At least, that’s the way I see it. Ten years from now, I might see it differently!

    • I see it the same way, Sheryl. You bring up “mystery,” and that’s exactly right. When a character is acting/speaking in an odd way because of something from the past that’s not revealed, reader interest shoots up. Thanks for sharing that.

  10. The analogy I used with my B&E violator clients is this:

    Imagine watching a movie that opens with ten seconds of tense, atmospheric action. Then imagine having the movie put on pause, and having a voiceover actor explain for the next ten minutes how we got there.

    I don’t want to watch a movie like that, even if the voiceover comes from Sam Elliott or Morgan Freeman. And, I’ll wager, neither do you.

  11. JSB–
    As your posts always do, today’s deals with something fundamental that is at the same time very difficult to master. That’s why it’s so valuable you clarify the idea with two extended, concrete examples. But I have a stylistic question regarding Crow’s entrance into Jesse Stone’s office. Parker has him see the holster, which we already know is empty, and then tell Stone it’s empty, then comment on the open desk drawer, which the reader also already knows about. I would like it better if Crow, who obviously knows Stone, glanced at the holster, turned and saw the open drawer and either smiled or just nodded. This isn’t much related to the subject of your post, but what do you think? Is this just a matter of authorial choice, or an instance where the wrong choice was made?

  12. Thanks for another illuminating JSB craft-of-writing post! Spot-on advice for writing compelling fiction that grabs readers and keeps them turning the pages, and told in an entertaining way, with a natural, appealing voice, a fresh analogy, and excellent concrete examples of how to do it! I’ll definitely be sharing this on social media and to my clients. Heck, I’ll just tell them to check this space every Sunday! ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Excellent tips! I love how you also adjusted for later on in the novel. I’ve seen people suggesting under five sentences total for the first five chapters, but nothing after that. I read a book a few weeks ago that did really well for the first half, and then the last half was one backstory insert after the other. It completely threw off the pacing.

    Great post!

  14. Thanks for the great examples of how to add backstory through dialogue. And “act first explain later” is a rule I must remember. I still remember your iceberg rule!

  15. You’re right, of course. I do use dialogue to convey exposition, but since my thrillers often involve a lot of history necessary for the reader to know, it can get a bit long-winded! Dan Brown uses the technique of having Robert Langdon recall the specifics of a classroom lecture to the same effect.

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