explaining things vs. aiming the story at finding out why

I read a lot of work from writers who live in fear of the reader not understanding what is happening, so they bog down the beginning of their work to explain everything before the action starts. It doesn’t trust the reader who is willing to read on and find out why things are happening the way things are.

And yet, in my writing today, I’d just given the protagonist an excellent reason to be even less trustful of a person they hardly trusted at all. Still, I felt the need to stop the plot and explain why the character especially does not like the antagonist.

And then I stopped, went back, and deleted that explanation. The character can learn it on the page as a sorry-you-didn’t-get-what-you-wanted-but-you-got-what-you-needed-instead moment that snatches victory from the upper esophageal sphincter of defeat.

I keep thinking how this is why

NO BACKSTORY FOR THE FIRST THIRTY PAGES — Donald Mass

is so important. If it’s backstory, the characters already know it, and you don’t need to tell the reader why the characters are the way they are while you’re still showing them who the character is now. But also, backstory is what is already known by the character, and it is almost always told through exposition. What the character doesn’t know, however, is what drives the story forward. The character must find out what they don’t know or pay the cost of their ignorance.

If the characters already know everything, then the only tension in the piece will they pull it off. And let’s be honest. They’re probably going to pull it off.

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