Background information is a tricky aspect of storytelling. Background information is one or more details that don’t seem relevant or important in the moment, but as the story progresses audiences work to collect and combine the different pieces of background information, gradually developing a greater understanding of who a character is.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, Ron Weasley is quickly established as the 6th of 7 children, with 5 elder brothers and one younger sister. At first this seems like a simple piece of random information, but over the course of the series it becomes clear that Ron hungers to prove himself, and escape the shadow of his brothers’ achievements.
Where to Begin
Choosing when and how to reveal background information can be challenging. In the beginning, when audiences are still deciding whether or not to keep reading, it’s best to keep background information to a minimum. Focus on the essentials, whatever audiences absolutely must know to understand the immediate scene. Then, once they’ve decided, gradually reveal more information, expanding on what they already know.
Most stories continue to expand in scope, through background information, tapering off during the second half, with almost no new information in the last quarter of the story. This helps reinforce the rhythm and pacing of the story. The beginning is a narrow, simple narrative, which gradually expands into something much larger, before contracting back down, uniting the diverse threads into a climax and resolution.
Managing the Learning Curve
The rate at which new information is revealed is known as the learning curve. Revealing more information all at once results in a steeper learning curve. The steeper the incline, the more difficult it is for the audience. A shallow or flat learning curve often allows audiences to race through, while a steep learning curve forces audiences to slow down. A certain amount of variety is expected, and alternating between steep and shallow inclines is one way to control the pacing, but it’s important to maintain a certain amount of consistency, and not alienate the audience by swinging from one extreme to another.
Working it into the scene
When trying to introduce new information into the story, consider why the characters, and the audience, don’t already know this information? What’s prevented them from learning it before now? Then recognize how things have changed? New information is a consequence, a reaction. Build little scenes around the background information, create a reason to make it immediately relevant, but easily forgotten.
5 Methods for Inserting New Information
- Create a minor conflict. For example, In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the story creates two minor conflicts that are solved when Hermoine creates magical blue flames, which later become relevant to the climax.
- Give a character a hobby or personal interest in the topic. If it’s relevant to the plot that the audience know a few things about ships, then introduce two minor characters who happen to be debating the topic of ships, and insert the relevant details into their conversation. The main characters walk by and happen to overhear what they say. Another method is for a major character to quietly demonstrate their interest. Perhaps they carry around a picture of a ship, or often admire them. Another character could ask them “what are you looking at?” or “why do you always head down to the harbor whenever we reach a town?”
- Someone realizes they have a question. In the heat of the moment, events can move very fast. Whether it’s a fight, an accident, or an argument, there isn’t always time to think things through. It isn’t until characters catch their breath that they realize something doesn’t make sense. A Song of Ice & Fire is full of characters so blinded by anger or fear that they rashly leap to conclusions, realizing too late that they’ve been manipulated.
- Find a lull in the story, a moment where characters are resting, traveling, or otherwise bored. Someone asks a question, and the answer turns into a story. The question can be about names, or what some old structure is, or why another character behaves a certain way. Someone begins to answer the question, and in the process they reveal more. Fellowship of the Ring is full of stories. Audiences first learn of Moria’s in Rivendell, long before they are forced to make their way through it.
- Turn the information into a secret. Someone knew, but for some reason they didn’t want to reveal it. It could be a secret they promised to keep, part of a plan they can’t reveal (for fear of interference), a painful subject, or even something they fear to reveal. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has things they don’t like about themselves, and most try to hide them.
- Introduce a new complication, or obstacle, and one of the characters happens to know relevant information. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf and Aragorn are both fountains of information, but they only reveal what’s relevant at the time. Aragorn doesn’t go into the history of Weathertop, or the nature of the people of Rohan, until the story warrants it.
There are many ways of weaving background information into a story, but they all involve revealing character and deepening relationships. Often the best way is to create a self-contained subplot, something that’s entertaining in the moment, but easily forgotten. Then, later in the story, something happens, and audiences experience a sudden “aha”, as they remember the innocuous little detail, and realize how it all fits together.
Writing with Length in Mind