Background information is a tricky aspect of storytelling. Background information is one or more details that don’t seem relevant or important in the moment, but as the story progresses audiences work to collect and combine the different pieces of background information, gradually developing a greater understanding of who a character is.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, Ron Weasley is quickly established as the 6th of 7 children, with 5 elder brothers and one younger sister. At first this seems like a simple piece of random information, but over the course of the series it becomes clear that Ron hungers to prove himself, and escape the shadow of his brothers’ achievements.
Where to Begin
Choosing when and how to reveal background information can be challenging. In the beginning, when audiences are still deciding whether or not to keep reading, it’s best to keep background information to a minimum. Focus on the essentials, whatever audiences absolutely must know to understand the immediate scene. Then, once they’ve decided, gradually reveal more information, expanding on what they already know.
Most stories continue to expand in scope, through background information, tapering off during the second half, with almost no new information in the last quarter of the story. This helps reinforce the rhythm and pacing of the story. The beginning is a narrow, simple narrative, which gradually expands into something much larger, before contracting back down, uniting the diverse threads into a climax and resolution.
Managing the Learning Curve
The rate at which new information is revealed is known as the learning curve. Revealing more information all at once results in a steeper learning curve. The steeper the incline, the more difficult it is for the audience. A shallow or flat learning curve often allows audiences to race through, while a steep learning curve forces audiences to slow down. A certain amount of variety is expected, and alternating between steep and shallow inclines is one way to control the pacing, but it’s important to maintain a certain amount of consistency, and not alienate the audience by swinging from one extreme to another.
Where to Use It
When trying to reveal background information, watch for lulls, sections of the story where very little is actually happening. Examples include traveling or waiting for something to be completed, times where things are slowing down, and characters have a chance to notice, reflect. Build little scenes around the background information, create a reason to make it immediately relevant, but easily forgotten.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the story creates two minor scenes which, among other things, establish that Hermoine can conjure a special kind of blue fire, which later becomes relevant during the climax.
If it’s relevant to the plot that the audience know a few things about ships, then create two minor characters who argue about the merits of ships of the past, or why some sank, or give one of the secondary characters a ship obsession. Have them tell a story about ships, build a model, draw one for fun (their dream to one day build the ship they’re drawing), or visit a shipyard during a lull.
There are many ways of weaving background information into a story, but they all involve revealing character and deepening relationships through self-contained subplots that are entertaining in the moment, but easily forgotten. Then, later in the story, something happens, and audiences experience a sudden “aha”, as they remember the innocuous little detail, and realize how it all fits together.
Writing with Length in Mind