When I first sat down to write what has turned out to be my lifelong wip*, I wrote the opening scene, and then I charged ahead and wrote pages and pages of back story. Years later, I learned that, though back story is necessary—you dump it all at the beginning like that! Before I learned that, I worried a lot about that back story – i.e., would it keep people reading until they got to the “real” story, but I still assumed all the back story was necessary straight out the gate. How else could the reader understand what was happening in the “present” of the story? For a while I tried breaking up the back story, but the story still wallowed in reflections and emotions but no action. It has taken me years to adjust my thinking to using back story only as a teaser to create suspense that keeps the reader turning pages.
Last fall I decided I needed to jettison the first six months of my story and begin it, not when Sharon ran off with Tony, but when she came back widowed and pregnant. Those who encouraged me to do that said, “Oh don’t worry about what you cut—you can just weave it in as back story!” Oh, great. More back story was something I did not need.
But I went ahead and tackled the challenge. I made only brief references to what had happened six months before, and like a good girl, I left out more chunks of the original back story. Then I submitted it to the Genesis writer’ contest. In the feedback I got, one theme was repeated about things the judges didn’t understand—why does Agnes feel so compassionate towards Sharon? Why does Sharon feel this way when she’s been gone only six months? Why does she feel thus and thus about Larry? Why? Why? Why?
You know why? If they only had some of the critical elements of back story that I had to cut, they would have understood all those things. I was ready to throw up my hands. Then came the June online course of the month on Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. You know what I learned? Despite the many ways I’ve heard back story maligned since becoming involved with writers’ groups, it is not only necessary, but it has an important purpose. Isn’t that exactly what I’ve always thought?
It is, in fact, an integral part of “goals, motivation, and conflict.” The motivation for all the goals and sometimes the conflict comes from the back story! So I wasn’t that far off. But I’m also learning that using it is extremely tricky because, according to the writing styles of this day, you have to find ways to weave that back story in so subtly that the reader almost doesn’t notice it as back story. It needs to be done seamlessly enough that the reader doesn’t feel jerked out of the forward motion of the story for a trip backwards.
But I thought I had done a lot of that! I know I tried to do that. It’s clear I’m going to have to try some more. How? Besides trying to stand “outside” the story and figure out the GMC on every character and scene, I’m going to have to do an analyze of just the back story—laying out what I have in there now, figuring out what more is still needed, and finding more ways to weave it in “seamlessly.”
Can I do this? I have to have faith I can. And I have to have faith that my story is worth it. My one comfort in this discovery is that my characters have lots of powerful back story.
*Work In Progress