How do you give readers the background information they need?

All my books seem to have a character like Teach, my learned con man from Daughter Am I, who tends to be a lecturer. The hardest part of editing that particular book was to take out everything that wasn’t essential to understanding the story. I worry that Teach’s talk about the history of gold is a bit much, but there is no way to understand why the gold was buried without understanding the history of the era. I did try to space the information to add a bit of suspense at times or to offer a respite from the action at other times.

For Light Bringer, I had to present various conspiracy theories, and instead of having a character like Teach to “teach” the theories, I created a discussion group, each member of which believed a different theory and vociferously defended it while denigrating what the others believed. It was a fun way to present the information without an extended information dump.

Here are some responses from other authors about giving readers the background information they need. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Donna Galanti, Author of “A Human Element”

I try to tease them with only a few descriptive details of backstory and setting as I go along. Give them only what they need at the time. Readers want to feel smart. They like to fill in the blanks, as long as there aren’t too many blanks. I try and look at all backstory and gauge if it serves the story. If it doesn’t out it goes. By introducing questions early on with giving just enough information to keep the story going, we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense. Hopefully!

From an interview with Sam Lopez, author of “Dead Sea”

Disputes between characters can provide helpful information but if there is no conflict, then sometimes you just have to spell out what needs saying.

What about you? How do you deal with exposition and give readers the background information they need?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

2 Responses to “How do you give readers the background information they need?”

  1. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    As a reader, I’ve never minded short paragraphs of narration that provide background information – so long as it’s timely, not too long, and not so weighted down with details that I won’t be able to hold it all in my head as I go forward. Some would call such a paragraph an “info-dump” and tell you never to do it. My only rule is: don’t do it badly. And that applies to whatever way you choose to provide your readers with the backstory.

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