27 August 2012

What You Need, When You Need It

We watched the film Cleanskin on DVD recently. It's a terrorist shoot 'em up, guns and bombs thriller. Yes, you've guessed right, it wasn't my turn to choose!

I won't go into the plot in any detail, but I wanted to write about one thing that surprised me.

The film started in the expected manner with a shoot out, even though we didn't yet know who the characters were, and therefore who we should want to win. I guess that having Sean Bean on one side was the clue.

In succeeding scenes we find out the reason for the shoot out, and meet some of the other characters, in particular a young man called Ash. Later he recognises a woman in a bar, and from their conversation and the meaningful looks they exchange we understand they had a serious relationship in the past, and that it didn't end well.  BUT, just to make sure we get the message, we are taken out of the current plot and go back several years to see their early relationship unfold. 

Back in the present plot we have a bit more action, and then we are taken back several years again to see how Ash became involved with the group. I didn't time this second 'flashback' but it was must have been 5-10 minutes at least. From what we see in the 'present plot' of the film we can put two and two together and do without the flashbacks.

One of the first writing 'rules' we learn is not to drop in huge chunks of backstory, and both those in the film would have been at least a chapter!

It is hard to murder your darlings, but watching this film made it so obvious why we need to do just that.

It's not a bad film, but I didn't think it required the info dumps. We can read the situation about the relationship from the body language and dialogue of the two actors, and the second we can put together ourselves.

I found this a good reminder that information we might feel is vital for the readers is not always necessary. Get your writing group or beta readers to read extracts without the backstory, if they can understand what's going on without the backstory, then you've done your job well. 

Drip-feed only what is absolutely necessary, and only when it is absolutely required.


  1. Interesting post. I've found getting backstory into my Book 1 one of the most challenging parts of the editing process. I've spent some time converting flashbacks into pieces of information which could be slotted into scenes around dialogue and thoughts. With Book 1, I think I needed to write this backstory as scenes to help me work out what the backstory was. With Book 2, I've tried to avoid doing the same-but I think that it may be the best way to work out the backstory properly.

    1. Hi Anita,

      I totally agree with you about needing to write the backstory so you, the author, know all about the characters and what makes them act and think as they do.

      Definitely a challenge while editing to decide what the reader needs, when, and how best to deliver it. I'm sure you'll be more than up to the challenge.

      All the best.