I'm almost halfway into my WIP now, and I'm at a crucial scene. Two main characters are sitting before a fire, talking. One of them knows everything; the other one knows nothing. So I've been wondering, wrestling really, with how much backstory I should let slip here. How much should I give away? How much leg should I show?
It's an important question, not least because, before I wrote this book, I almost wrote a book about this book. That's how intricate and involved the backstory and world is. It's a tightly bound world, with rules and precedent, and a whole history. And I'm more than a little enamored of this world. It's just so ... exciting and big.
My impulse is to spill the beans. I can't help it. Ask my crit partners. Throughout this book, every time they get to the end of a scene, I get all excited and say, "So do you wanna know what that all means? Because it's pretty cool. That's not some accidental slip of the tongue there. There's a whole story there! See, because what's about to happen is—"
And they say, "No! No! Don't tell us!"
Then I tell them anyway.
So all day, I sat around, thinking about how much I should let go right now. And finally I decided: absolutely no more than is minimally necessary, and finally, only the stuff that makes sense to my character. She has an agenda, and even if she knows everything, she's only going to say what's important to her right at that moment.
This question—what to tell, when—has everything to do with pacing. For every question I answer, I want to raise two others. For every mystery I solve, a new one needs to replace it. The books I can't set down—even if they're poorly written—are the ones where I must know the answers to all my questions, when the author pulls me by the nose all the way through. So even though it goes against every strain of my big-mouthed writerly self, I'm hoping to keep this scene short, sweet and simple.
Perhaps at the end of the day, the same thing that makes a striptease effective also works in writing novels: only hint at the good stuff. Leave 'em wanting more.