Time for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss back story. It turns into a very public mentoring session!
Back story is that part of a character’s history that explains why they do the things they do in the present of the novel. Back story, when used properly, deepens and enriches a character and our understanding of them.
Back story can be introduced or gestured to in a variety of ways. My favourite is when the drama in the present of the novel replays a drama in the character’s past. The character got it wrong back then. They made the wrong decisions and lost something, a relationship usually, that was of enormous value to them. The present of the story is their chance to replay that ancient drama and get it right. For example, in The Killing Lessons, Saul Black’s terrific debut crime novel, Valerie Hart, San Francisco police detective, was almost destroyed by a case she was working on three years ago. This was the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage girl. Valerie was so traumatised that she ruined the relationship that mattered most to her, with Nick Blaskovitch. Three years later, another man is abducting, torturing and murdering women. In particular, he has kidnapped Claudia, an Englishwoman working illegally in the country. Valerie has the chance to replay that old drama and this time rescue the woman. In addition, Nick has come back into her life, he has forgiven her and offers her a chance to start again.
But these replays don’t go smoothly. The killer is hard to find, and someone on her team is trying to wreck any chance she has of getting back together with Nick. The important thing to note in this replay is that you don’t have to go into a lot of detail with the back story. All you need to do is give enough information for the reader to understand this is a replay drama and the present of the novel will do the rest.
Well, this is certainly a salient topic for me. I’m halfway through my new manuscript, and am dealing with the fraught issue of back story. How to introduce it? How much is too much, and how soon is too soon? I want to add in my character Taj’s history, and significant events that happened to him before the start of the book. The story behind the story, so to speak. Introducing it subtly and seamlessly is hard. Too often I’ve seen writers fall prey to the dreaded information dump. Big slabs of history slow stories and bore readers.
There are four main ways to add back story. By flashback (a worthy blog topic by itself, I think, Sydney), by dialogue, by recollections or by a narrative summary of the past. This last one is telling, not showing, but it’s the way I’m currently doing it―drip-feeding instalments of my character’s history. I’m unsure about it. The big reveal, showing the connection of past with present, will happen with dialogue―a deep and meaningful between my two main characters. But I want to lead up to it with a few short passages of exposition, scattered through previous chapters. What do you think, Sydney?
It can be tricky to know the best way to deal with a complex back story. Some writers think there are hard and fast rules about it―no flashbacks, for example. I tend to think a novel will have its own ideas about how best to introduce back story. You just have to listen to what it’s telling you.
But if the novel isn’t speaking intelligibly on the subject, the best thing to do is try out different ways of doing it and see which one works best. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
You and I have talked about Taj, Jenny. It seems to me his back story is vitally important to the reader’s understanding of this character, why he’s ended up where he has and why he has the special gift he possesses―a gift that has an enormous impact on the other main characters in the story. Since he’s isolated in the first chapters and unable to tell his back story to Kim, the main protagonist, then the story has to step in and tell it in the form of flashbacks. Yes, it is a topic all by itself. The clue to doing flashbacks well is to tell a parallel story through them, one with a protagonist who has a goal to pursue and a problem to overcome. It seems to me that you’ve got some of this with Taj. Making the flashbacks tell a story will hook the reader in. That’s what stories are meant to do. If it doesn’t, then I suggest the problem is with the hook, not with the story itself.
I think writers can get tangled up with the idea that back story happened at a time before the present of the story opens, and therefore, that it has only a tenuous link with the present. It’s true that it does take place outside the time scheme of the main plot. But if the back story is too big to be dealt with in a bit of exposition here and there, then you need to approach it in a different way.
If you think about it, when a novel has several POVs, each of those POVs tells a story. Put all these stories together and you get a complex novel. For example, The Killing Lessons uses several POVs: that of ten-year-old Nell, of Angelo, a man grieving for the loss of his wife, Valerie Hart, a detective on a serial murder case, Xander, the killer himself, and Claudia, to name most, though not all of them. The story doesn’t slow down when it shifts POV. The reader is vitally engaged with all of them. All these POVs has a story to reveal, and all are loosely connected one way or another to the main plot, the hunt for a serial killer. A big back story that can’t be summarised in a bit of exposition is like that―it’s part of the tapestry of the whole novel, it’s connected to the main plot, it involves one, sometimes, more, of the important players in the larger story.
So when a writer has a big back story to reveal, the first thing to do is think of it not as a problem but as a storyline. There might be a problem with your back story, Jenny, but the problem isn’t that it’s back story. The problem is structural. Where do you place the scenes before the big reveal?
Also, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, Jenny, try not to think you have to do a big reveal. You don’t. You can write the scenes, place them in the order you think works best, and see where that gets you. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You’re still working through the first draft. Allow yourself to experiment. If after you’ve done that you still think a big reveal is important, then you’ve got everything you need in order to bring it about. All you have to remember is that Taj’s back story must obey the rules of front stories―that is, they have to show a protagonist working on a problem in pursuit of their goal.
As a mentor, I get a lot of people telling me they don’t know how to do a thing―how to weave in different POVs, for example, how to shift time levels. The problem isn’t really of craft. The problem is that the writer tells themselves, I can’t do this. Or they tell themselves that what they want to do breaks the rules of narrative, but they know they have to do it. Putting in a lot of back story is supposed to break the rules of narrative. It doesn’t. All you have to do is change the way you think about it and you’ll find a solution.
Wow, Sydney, that is such fantastic counsel! I don’t have a problem with Taj’s back story. The way I’m weaving it in works. My problem is just as you say―I’m concerned it breaks, or at least stretches, the rules of narrative. Taj has a fabulous story to tell. Instead of second-guessing myself, it’s time to get on with telling that story the best way I know how. I’ll evaluate my method later.
Thank you so much, Sydney. I feel completely liberated by your advice. Guess that’s what good mentoring is all about. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from my own post! :)