Monday, December 15, 2014

It’s All About the Back Story … Except When it Isn't

One of the first pieces of advice writers are given when they embark on a new story is about the importance of back story. We’re told to write elaborate character bios that spell out the events that shape their current personality and choices. We’re advised to create timelines so we can better picture what happened and when. Detail is important. Things that happened in the past matter.

Or not.

I’ve read several manuscripts and self-published novels lately that went overboard on the back story. With advice such as the above, this is easy to do. But writers need to remember that the novel is about the most important thing that happened in the protagonist’s life. If the most important thing happened in the back story, you’re telling the wrong story.

Back story is usually dealt with in one of three major ways:
 Referred to in dialogue or narrative;
 Through flashbacks
 With non-linear storytelling that features chapters and sections with scene work occurring in the past.

Which option is right for your story?

Many writers make the mistake in thinking that their back story is more important than it actually is. They create elaborate flashbacks that show exactly how a long-married couple first met and the issues they had building their house. It’s become important to the writer because they spent so much time writing those character bios and timelines. But it’s probably not important to the present storyline. Unless the husband has died and left the wife a cryptic clue about something buried in the walls of that first house, it’s perfectly fine to deal with this back story in conversation.

Most writers dealing in women’s fiction, romantic comedy, and other stories with straightforward narratives don’t really need much backstory beyond what can easily be explained. I recently reviewed Ann Lewis Hamilton’s novel Expecting for Chick Lit Central. The novel has a subplot about a man reconnecting with a college girlfriend on Facebook. In the hands of a less experienced writer, readers might have been forced to wade through long, elaborate flashbacks of their romance, or, God forbid, whole chapters devoted to their past relationship. Luckily Hamilton recognized that the details of the relationship were unimportant and gave the reader only what she needed to know.

Of course there are stories that call for a more detailed treatment of back story. Writers such as Jojo Meyers and Sarah Jio are well known for weaving together past and present almost seamlessly. Their stories tend to have mysteries at their core, and giving the reader that up close look at what actually happened plays an important role in the enjoyment of the story, and allowing the reader to try to solve the mystery along with the protagonist.

Some writers of literary fiction prefer non-linear narratives, oftentimes creating the feeling that past and present are closely linked. In these types of stories, character motivation is paramount, and chapters that detail the past let readers get to know the characters in ways that a few flashbacks or lines of narrative cannot deliver. Literary fiction tends to be more character-driven than plot-driven, so readers tend to fully immerse themselves in the reading experience without asking how certain scenes relate to the plot.

Every story is different, and back story will always play some role. In a blog post, it’s difficult to advise beyond generalities. But generally speaking, it’s usually not as important as most newbie writers think it is. Most histories can be dealt with in narrative description or in a conversation between characters. It’s something writers should ask their beta readers about: How much is too much? Back story is one area that is rife with babies to kill.

1 comment:

  1. Helpful post! My first drafts are always full of back story that I end up killing. At some point, I go through and highlight anything that's back story in yellow or blue, and then think long and hard about how much of it I can get rid of.