Last week we talked about the kind of infodump in which the character’s full history is dropped in one big block. Often this information—or pieces of it, anyway—does belong in the story. It just needs to be winnowed down to the minimum, and it needs to be woven organically into the story.
One of the best ways to incorporate this kind of history is through dialog. Notice how Joss Whedon slips the Hulk’s backstory into just a few lines in The Avengers:
Tony Stark: Hey, I’ve read all about your accident. That much gamma exposure should have killed you.
Bruce Banner: So you’re saying that the Hulk…the other guy…saved my life? That’s nice. It’s a nice sentiment. Save it for what?
Tony Stark: I guess we’ll find out.
Please note that quotation marks don’t magically transform an infodump into brilliant dialog. The information still needs to be reduced to a minimum and conveyed naturally. In this example, they’ve just met, so it’s natural for Stark to mention what he knows of Banner.
You can also convey backstory through the viewpoint character’s interior monologue. If something in the story reminds him of his accident, he might, for example, remember the lab and the blinding light…
One sentence. Maybe two. Then get back to the story.
The other kind of infodump we see a lot of is what I call the research report. Whether it’s history or science or cooking, whatever the topic, the story comes to a halt while the author gives a report about everything he learned while doing his research. The most famous example is in Moby-Dick, where Melville goes on forever about whaling.
Don’t do that.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a bit where a historian in a modern suit steps into the medieval setting and starts going on about King Arthur and the French and the quest for the Holy Grail—
And a knight rides into the shot and hacks him down with a sword.
If you find a research report in your first draft, think of that historian and hack it out immediately. Your research is vital to the telling of a good story. A report on it will ruin a good story.
Which isn’t to say that none of your research belongs in your book. Some of it obviously does. But you have to ensure that it’s truly relevant, and bring it in realistically. The history of tin mining in Cornwall might be relevant to the story if the protagonist is a tin miner in Cornwall. But if he emigrates to America because he doesn’t want to go down the mines—no. It all depends on the story. But necessary info still needs to be integrated naturally, not dumped in great whacking chunks.
The main thing is to ensure that when backstory is brought in, it is integral to whatever is happening in the story at that moment. In the case of my hypothetical tin miner, he might get a lecture from his mum as he leaves for his first day on the job. She moans about how many blokes died down the mine just last year, so he’d better watch himself. And then he leaves and gets to work—to the story.
Character history and your own research are essential to the novel-writing process. But in the editing phase, our job is to make sure that they don’t impede the flow of the story.