Thursday, October 9, 2008

Putting Back Story in Its Place

Most people have an idea what “back story” is. In simplest terms, it is anything that happened to the people in your story before your story began. There’s nothing wrong with “back story” itself. Everyone (real as well as fictional) has back story, and many of us are guilty of boring others with tales of our past. In the same way, amateur authors tend to swamp readers with far more back story than those readers are interested in knowing.

As I stated in the right margin here when I started this blog, when I wrote my story all those years ago, the first thing I did after writing an opening scene was to plunge into a fairly thorough back story on my cast of characters. I felt it necessary because their lives were so intertwined. Nevertheless, when I got the thing out in recent times, I found myself worrying about that back story. I wish I could say I was smart enough to figure it out myself because, as I look back, I see that on my own I worried about the very things I now know are brick weights around the neck of a fiction story.

The bottom-line problem with back story is simple. Whenever the author moves to a scene of back story, the main story is stopped in its tracks and the reader’s attention diverted. Even if you make the back story an active scene, you have still stopped the main story and left the reader temporarily hanging. You can get away with snippets of that but not major blocks of it nor repeated blocks of it.

It took me a long time to make peace with what I was hearing about back story. I tried all kinds of things in efforts to make it palatable. I created new scenes with my key characters and broke up the back story among them. I cut some of it—-but I still worried about it. Wouldn’t readers get bored with all this “reflection” the other characters were doing and start wondering when the story was going to get back to Sharon and what happened to her after she skipped town with her charmer?

Of course they would! And I finally got it through my head.

The thing that bothered me most about making this change is that, by starting the story six months later, suddenly everything during that six months became—you guessed it--more back story. I wasn’t a happy camper when I heard over and over that readers don’t need to know nearly as much back story as authors thinks they do. Finally, that is another thing I have made peace with—a little reluctantly, but mostly in a sort of epiphany of understanding when I finally started getting it.

A cool thing I’ve learned in the process is how to use back story to tease the reader and stir up curiosity. Refer to bits of previous events, telling how a key character was affected by it, but don’t spell out what happened until well into the story. I got good practice doing that in those eighty pages that have gone away. For that reason, my efforts on them were not wasted. Hopefully, I am better able to handle what I have to do now because of what I’ve done before. And I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to preserve a couple of my favorite scenes by giving them to another character in a later time and scene.

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