Most people my age think of Bridge as an old person’s card game. That’s true… if by old you mean someone who qualifies for the senior citizen’s discount at the grocery store. If by old you mean “not with it” or “less than capable of kicking my butt and cackling about it,” then you have the wrong game. You have the wrong group of people, in fact. The ladies at my mom’s bridge group may all be gray-haired, but every one is sharp enough to take you – and your three best friends – on in any competition of intelligence. Win. And show pictures of their grandchildren while doing it.
I was thinking about backstory this morning, and playing around with a metaphor in my head about holding your cards close to your chest. The cool metaphor, of course, is to compare fiction writing to poker. All the cool people play poker. There’s some great paintings featuring dogs and people playing poker (not the same paintings usually), and of course there’s the sexy element of danger, where people like me can end up losing all the money they brought to the game. (In my case, $5. I’m unskilled, not dumb.) But sadly, with the exception of awesome songs about the game, I don’t actually know much about it. On the other hand, I was holding bridge cards from the time I was eight.
Bridge is Spades on steroids – all the awesome back-and-forth play of four players plus this cool thing called bidding. Basically, you have to tell everyone what you have without telling everyone what you have – in a very specific, regimented way. You have to play out your cards in another specific way – and yet. It’s fascinating. All the cards that will ever be played are being held by someone. Your job, as the player, is to figure out who has what and shamelessly manipulate everyone else so that you end up taking home all the good stuff – and your opponents’ best cards get thrown away, useless. There are only 52 variables in play and you know what they all are – but every hand is a surprise. Because every hand is different.
Writing is like that. Most every movie you’ll ever seen is written to a three-act structure. Ditto for most novels. And all the fun of genre fiction is that the author has to play by a certain set of rules. If you read a romance, you’ll always know how it ends – ditto for an action movie or a thriller. You know what’s coming, right? And yet. In the hands of a master storyteller, every page is a delight – and playing brilliantly within the rules makes you love the author even more. The craft, the structure, the way the sentences are put together on the page all add up to a greater whole – but like an ice skater’s program, if the required elements don’t add up to a greater whole, you don’t cheer. You don’t want to. You don’t care.
But also like bridge, if the player lets everyone know what your cards are right away, it ruins half the fun of the game. You want to guess – and find out you guessed right, or wrong. But you also want to know what the rules are; confusion isn’t fun for anyone. Adding another, unknown card to the game will just make everyone throw out their hands and redeal. You need to know the rules starting out.
So, what’s the takeaway? Rules are good – if you can work them well. Setting up a world with definite rules quickly is essential in any fiction, but especially in science fiction where the worlds can be so big and so new. But, on the other hand, if you’re not Mary Shelley, I don’t want a multi-page exposition of your character’s backstory. I don’t want to know that he/she got bitten by a spider at age nine unless he’s going to turn into SpiderHero. I want information to come out naturally (i.e., cleverly planned and practiced until it feels natural, like that ice skater), and I don’t want to see your cards all at once.
How to let the story come out naturally? Ten ways off the top of my head:
(1) Start an argument. In a dispute, both sides bring up reasons for their point of view – reasons that can incorporate backstory easily. Plus you get the benefit of conflict, and the way they fight can tell us an awful lot about who they are as people and who they are to each other.
(2) Bring in an audience stand-in. Like Remmie in the first season of Sliders, this is an interesting individual who quite literally knows nothing and naturally asks all the questions the audience wants to know. Use this one with care – and make sure the audience stand-in serves a legitimate purpose in the story in addition to his questions.
(3) Reference a screw up. Someone in authority (or not) can make a point to reference a past screw up. (“Kill the berserker right away. Not like the last time, understand?”) This also sets up conflict and characters’ relationships to one another.
(4) Prompts from story present. If your character is stalking the bad guy and freaks out when a spider runs over her hand, bringing up a quick flash of her phobia (and/or a short reference to past trauma) will seem natural. The human brain works by making connections, and we all connect our present to our past every day. As long as it’s short, a natural connection, and not overused, this technique is one of the most powerful you have.
(5) Flashbacks. Flashing back to a previous time or scene can feel cheesy and distracting very quickly, and many beginning writers overuse the technique. However, when used intentionally, showing us a critical scene in a flashback can be far more powerful than just telling us about the events. Make sure your transitions in time and space are very clear, and that the scene you are flashing back to is truly critical.
(6) Commentary from another character. As we’re all middle schoolers at heart, asking another character about someone who is confusing can straighten you out. On the other hand, it can give you bad information. Ditto for rumor, hearsay, reputation, and gossip.
(7) Haunt your character. While I’m not against a literal ghost or Telltale Heart, bringing up a ongoing nightmare or remembered trauma can be highly effective as a method of building tension and establishing backstory. The key is to link the trauma/nightmare to either stress or a specific trigger, and only to leak information about the trauma slowly.
(8) Leave a mystery. A little information is often better than a lot, especially if it keeps your reader turning the pages. Make sure you’ve answered all the questions of the story by the time it’s over, however, or your readers will end frustrated. Also have at least two readers go behind you to make sure you’re not confusing.
(9) Manipulate the reader. Present all the important information in a way that makes it seem to mean something else – building up to the big, exciting, Sixth Sense reveal moment. This is hard to do well – but it makes for a fun experiment, and the occasional amazing story. Plus, the practice you get in leaking information carefully will come in handy in other stories.
(10) Break the rules. Once you’ve got the readers’ attention, catch them up on the pertinent information as quickly as possible. Infodumps can work – if they’re funny, interesting, or sometimes, just because they make sense for your story. But they should never come right at the beginning – I hate the fantasy history prelude – and they should be used intentionally. As with most everything else in writing, the option that makes the writer’s life easier is rarely the one that makes the story effortless to the reader.
In conclusion? Learn bridge. Respect your elders – who often have awesome stories to tell. And be careful with backstory. Hold your cards close to your chest and play each one carefully, at just the right time for your best results.