Keep an offhand remark on hand

by Joe Moore

Quick writer tip: How can you get a ton of info across in a few short words without the infamous “info dump”? Use an offhand remark.

Example: Harry is one of the characters in your WIP. He has a history of falling from grace. He was a successful businessman with a wife a kids. The economy crumbled in 2008, he lost his job and his home. His wife divorced him and took the kids. He developed an addition to alcohol and became homeless, working at low odd jobs. Last anyone heard he was living out of his car.

You want to get this information across to the reader fast. You have a couple of choices: wordy narration, wordy dialog between a couple of characters, or an offhand remark. Instead of the first two, how about something simple. “Harry is down to his last friend—Jim Beam.”

Example: Sue is an actress who will do anything to get a part in a movie. She started out with the best of intentions and a heart full of integrity. But her popularity slipped and so did her income. Now it’s all she can do to make a living in B- and C-grade movies.

You can tell her backstory through narration or dialog, or use an offhand remark: “She performs best between the sheets.”

Here’s the point. If it takes 100 words to say something, figure out how to say it in 50. If it takes 10 words, say it in 5. If the backstory is not critical in its entirety, use an offhand remark and move on.

29 thoughts on “Keep an offhand remark on hand

  1. If I may, this is the essence of songwriting ~ especially in country music~ you’ve only got three minutes. at most, to tell your story, (unless you’re Harry Chapin or Don MacLean), so every word counts…

  2. Excellent topic! I just used one such remark, for an exchange between two detectives. Cop One is a former software-developer turned cyber cop. As they head upstairs to interview an executive at the scene of a corporate workplace shooting, Cop Two complains that the executive is being difficult, acting like a privileged a**h*le. To which the cyber cop replies, “I know the type.” Then Cop Two retorts, “You WERE the type, before you went straight and became a cop.”

  3. Great advice. A choice one liner can provide a much more vivid backstory ‘reveal’ than 100 words ever could.

  4. Love your examples – very noir, too.

    I think the same guideline can be used for walk-on or non-dramatic characters (possibly for dramatic characters, too.) I’ve seen some manuscripts where the writer goes on to describe clothing or features in great detail. Where the descriptions are fresh, fine, but mostly they make me yawn.

    I try to think about painting a picture for my walk-on characters, e.g., he had more dandruff than hair, because it really doesn’t matter to the story how they look. You give the reader just enough so that they can visualize the character. One reader might see a wiry guy wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and a pack of cigarettes stuffed in the rolled-up sleeve. Another reader might see a fat guy with stains on his tie and his gut hanging over his belt. Doesn’t matter to the story which the reader sees because you’ve created something visual with the general impression you wanted.

  5. Too much long winded back story has often been the bane of my writerly existence. You and others have mentioned it here over the years and I tried to cut, but it was not until I got into full time narration, where I couldn’t control if the books I read were bestsellers or total newbies, that I really saw the disaster such long windedness could be for the story. Having to read out loud a five minute section of that sounds like the old Radio/TV show style “In the previous episode…” spiel every couple chapters really drags. And while to an author it may seem like “Oh, this is just a paragraph to make sure they didn’t forget what happened a few chapters back” to the reader it is several minutes of repetition or over building worth skipping if it weren’t in the middle of a conversation or a place where you know there might be tidbits of other info that …. oh …. longwindedness … it’s happening again…dang.

    I’ll let Boffin sum it up for me.

  6. I think I’ve done this! I tend to be on the cheeky side anyway, so, here goes.

    Female CIA analyst was witness to a crime. She demands to talk to the FBI. Agent arrives with her hair flying and her shirt wrinkled. The two women hit it off.

    FBI thinks, ‘I like this broad. She reminds me of myself.”

    CIA says, “I was afraid they’d send a suit.”

    FBI laughs and replies, “You haven’t met my boss.”

  7. Your examples are excellent, Joe. You make this sound easy when I know it’s not. You have to exercise your mind to think like this, to strengthen your instincts and skill.

    I love this post.

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