How Much Background Is Too Much in a Novel?

Sketch of P.C. Zick by Jae at Lit and Scribbles
Sketch of P.C. Zick by Jae at Lit and Scribbles

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I’m happily working away at the new novel these days. When I wrote the original concept back in 2006, I provided lots of background research on Florida and the Everglades. That’s the way I’ve always written, even when I was a reporter. I regurgitated all the new and old knowledge onto the page in a very rough first draft or outline of a new piece. Then I set about slicing more than half of what I’ve spewed onto the page.

Successful writing in any field or genre contains three essential elements. I call it the 3 C’s of writing. The elements are correctness, clarity, and conciseness.

Correctness – In journalism, accuracy is a key element (we hope). However, even in fiction, correctness is important. I read a book once where the author was describing a scene where the newly in love couple went kayaking – in a single kayak. He helped her in the seat and then the author wrote that the man jumped in the same seat behind his gal. Also, the couple – both experienced kayakers – were said to use “oars” rather than the “paddles” used in kayaking. I lost interest in the book at this point. Try jumping into a one-person kayak alone, let alone with another person, and remain unharmed, upright and dry, and I’ll eat an oar immediately. Correctness is essential in the details of a novel. If you chose a famous place for the setting, make sure you know that place and the names of streets and intersections. You can make up the name of hotels and restaurants, but be sure you know distances between places. Also, make sure that if you’ve set your novel in 1984 you haven’t created any anachronisms by having a character pick up a cell phone to make a call. I’m reading a book right now that I thought was set twenty years, ago but the author just mentioned Wikipedia and Craig’s List. I don’t think either of those were around then.

Clarity – Clarity goes along with conciseness in some ways. Make sure nothing in the novel confuses the reader’s understanding of the story. I don’t mean the confusion that might come from unraveling a mystery. The reader shouldn’t have to read a word, a sentence, or a paragraph repeatedly to make sense of what you’ve put on the page. I ask my Beta readers to point out any confusing areas by simply putting a question mark. Sometimes it’s as simple as a misplaced modifier, such as “Credit cards shall not be given to customers unless the manager has punched them first.” I misplace my modifiers often in the first draft, and just as often, I’m not the one to catch them.

Conciseness – Finally, I get to the reason I started writing this post. I’m struggling now with all that background information culled from reading, interviewing, or living. It’s sometimes difficult to realize that the reader doesn’t need and probably doesn’t care to know all I’ve learned before writing the novel. The reader simply wants a story to be told. I’m struggling right now as I turn that original draft/outline into a real first draft ready for Beta readers. That background information or exposition as it’s called by literary folks doesn’t all need to come at once or at all. The author decides where, when, and how much to tell. Some of it can come out in plot situations throughout the book. It’s one of the beautiful things about being an author. It’s also one of the most difficult. Beginning writers can sometimes be spotted immediately because they haven’t yet realized the importance of conciseness. I’m still learning after nearly two decades in this business. You don’t need to tell the reader everything you know. Not even close.

Here’s something I try to remember every time I write: Just because I put it down on paper, doesn’t mean I’ve carved the words in stone. That delete button is a one-finger press away. (But just to be sure I create a file for deleted passages.)

What do you think? Are these important elements in storytelling?

wood stork (Everglades)
wood stork (Everglades)

11 responses to “How Much Background Is Too Much in a Novel?”

  1. What is it Mark Twain says, something like good writing is knowing how to cross out all the wrong words. Bwahahaha, that kayak thing made me laugh! We once put 4 people in a 3 person kayak. It was lucky we didn’t all go overboard. Some readers may fall for it, but not all will. Plus word gets around fast about a writer’s cred. I think all three of these are important, but a lot more lately is a kind of conciseness. I’m getting burned out on editing other peeps stuff (for free, mind you), because I feel like they A) disregard the advice anyway, and B) don’t bother with basic rules of writing. Wrong dialogue formatting is my number one pet peeve and I see it so often. I’m not saying I’m perfect by any means, but I at least try to polish stuff up before asking someone to spend time on it.

    Okay, deep breaths, rant over.


    • I’m sure you know I agree with you 100 percent. Sometimes I feel I repeat my advice in these posts, but then again if would-be writers are still not following the rules of good writing, I’ll still write about these things. When I was a high school English teacher I spent a portion of every class repeating things I’d said the day before. I suppose this is similar. Thanks for ranting here – you’re always welcome.


      • Thanks. It’s a relief to be in good company. I think because I’ve been working with more polished writers, when I do the unpolished writers biz it’s almost like: where do I even start? I’m trying to figure out how to spend less time on the nitpicky and give overarching advice. I still want to help them, but when it seems like some advice (like proper formatting, something that is not open to suggestion, at least if they’re serious about publishing their work) goes in one ear and out the other. So frustrating.

        I appreciate your ‘repetitiveness’ because I at least feel vindicated that those with experience are saying the same thing. Maybe we’ll get through to them someday… Thanks!


  2. I’m beta-reading a self-described literary horror novel now that has nearly 129,000 words. Talk about too much background and description. I’m only half done, but am positive it would make a much better 80k novel. I’ve decided that providing editing services is a lot like how giving feedback on student papers used to be… the feedback is rarely heeded. Real revision takes hard word and too many inexperienced writers are ready to murder their little darlings. Every bit of a book needs to advance the plot or develop the characters in some way. If not, it doesn’t belong.


  3. Sorry, i’m just commenting now, but i saved this post and just re-read it. Your analysis is spot on. I’m still editing my first book (though I’ve published others) because I included too much background and too many research facts.


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