“Too much back story slows down the pace of your narrative…”
Receiving this powerful sentence in a rejection letter set me back for weeks. How could I have got my writing so wrong? I’d read all the books on writing. I’d assumed the reader needed to know about my characters’ pasts – and perhaps they did – just not in the first chapter!
Like a lot of other valuable nuggets associated with the craft of writing, I learned about Back Story through a rejection letter. And, as with many things in this life, we learn our best lessons through our most painful mistakes.
In an earlier draft of my first novel, I had included far too much information in the opening chapters. Dropping characters’ college education into dialogue, mentioning their parents’ occupations in lengthy paragraphs and making reference to their first romance before the end of Chapter One distracted from the real storyline and lost the reader’s attention before I had truly possessed it.
Perfecting character development is a tough task and one that comes without hard and fast rules. Yet in all the text book advice, writers are told to have rounded characters, 3-dimensional people that readers can identify with. But how much information should be included? Is there a prescribed formula?
What I have learned through experience is that every novel, and indeed every piece of writing, demands something different. Building past-history into current events takes expertise and intuition. Characters present themselves in a variety of ways to writers and readers.
Some arrive on the page with a lot to say for themselves, announcing their presence as though they’re leaders of the pack and a force to be reckoned with. Strong characters generally provide their audience with surplus information, announcing it confidently as they do in real life. But this may not work in all situations, subtlety required in other scenarios.
Reading dialogue aloud helps a writer recognise authenticity of scenes. What’s being said has to be believable, has to sound natural. If you were introducing your aunt to a friend, would you say: “This is my Aunt Joan. She’s 45, grew up in London, worked in social security for ten years, has four children, fell out with Aunt Mary in 1999 and married my cousin’s brother in 2001…”? I don’t think so. Therefore, there’s no need to mention this amount of detail to readers on their first introduction to a character.
Imagine a work colleague, relation or in-law who is welcomed to the family home or workplace for the first time. The quieter ones will hang back, speak when spoken to and offer information as it’s requested, some refraining from sharing any private information at all.
The same is true for characters in a novel. Readers (and writers) will get to know shy characters over time. It’s perfectly acceptable to allow them reveal themselves at a natural pace, on a need-to-know basis. In most cases, readers are a lot more invested in what’s happening now rather than what has happened in the past.
Situations or scenes will provide opportunity to demonstrate a past event in their lives, explaining or justifying their reaction or non-reaction to a certain event. As in real life, we don’t need to know everything at once. Part of the mystery and enjoyment with new friends (or enemies) is finding things out as we go along.
Introduce a character, introduce the issues or conflict they are currently involved with and allow the reader to be part of the character’s problems and resolutions. In a natural way, the past will play a part in their present and future. The reader will get to know more as the story evolves.
This slow-release suggestion may not work for all genres, however. Murder or crime novels may require a completely different approach. Otherwise the book may be cast aside at an early stage.
Readers need to empathise with characters, even those behaving badly. Ask yourself why you would sympathise with a character who has murdered their parent, sibling or child. Would you feel differently if you knew the reasons behind the murder? What if the mother or father in question had abused this protagonist? What if they had neglected them, left them to their own devices, exposed them to grave danger? Would that alter your perspective? Yes, if the information was provided at the earliest time possible? What tools would a reader use to present this valuable information?
In this instance, it may be more effective to open the novel in the throes of a murder scene, allowing the reader to be part of the event, witnessing the violence and strong emotion first hand. Let them feel every wield of the knife through the murderer’s eyes, let them feel satisfaction as the blade twists. More than anything, let the reader ask why.
Once the opening scene has reached climax and the tension has abated, the reader will crave more information about this horrific ordeal. There are a variety of ways to plunge into the past, bringing the reader directly into the action of years gone by.
A phone-call, email or even solicitor’s letter can be a useful way to introduce a character’s past. There are numerous ways to flesh out a character and show a reader what came before. In a full-length novel, there’s no need to be in too much of a rush. It’s more than acceptable to leave back story untold. Less can be more at times. Where appropriate, don’t deny readers the opportunity to figure things out for themselves.