You worked hard polishing your manuscript, but you want it to be the best it can be, so you joined a critique group. After what seems like the longest week ever, the critiques finally come back. But instead of the praise and minor mistakes you expected to see pointed out, your pages are flooded with highlighting coloring major chunks of your chapters, with only one or two word explanations dotting the column for comments: backstory, info-dump.
Now what? After all, you’ve told your reader information he needs to understand the characters you’ve introduced. What could be wrong with that?
First off, the word “told” in the previous sentence should be a big red flag that you told something rather than showing it. That’s what backstory and information dumps are. They tell the reader things.
But don’t despair. It’s important that you, as the author, know and understand all the information you wanted to explain to the reader in your submission. But your critique partners are also correct that your readers don’t need to know it…at least, not all of it, and not all in great big chunks.
There is a place for backstory in your novel, but only in small dollops, and only if your readers will be completely lost without those pieces of information. The key is knowing which pieces are necessary and when you can slip them in as a natural part of the story.
Since the information you’ve tried to give the readers is important (even if it turns out to be important only to you, as the author), you need to keep the information. Take out of the story everything your critique partners labeled as either an info dump or backstory and save it in a different file. That way, you will have easy access to it, but it won’t bog down the story. Instead, it will be a resource for you to draw from as you continue writing the story.
Once you’ve got all the telling sections out of your first few chapters, you can concentrate on writing a hook that will grab the reader’s attention and get right to the action and/or burning question that will make readers want to keep flipping the pages. As you revise your beginning–this time with action instead of information–whenever you find yourself wanting to put back in a piece of the information you’ve taken out, ask yourself if the readers would be lost without knowing what you want to drop in at that point? If so, add it back in. Most likely, however, it won’t be needed.
When you finish rewriting what you submitted to your critique group, you will probably find that there is quite a bit of information in the file you created that you didn’t fold back into the story. You may be able to work some of the remaining information back into the story at some later point, but if you still end up with information in your file that you didn’t find a place to drop into your book, that’s okay. As a matter of fact, that’s normal. The author should know more about the characters than the readers. So just leave the information in the file you created and leave it there for your own resource.