Monday, September 29, 2014

Back story – how much?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a back story as “a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot.” Notice the wording: it leads up to the MAIN story.
MAIN story is what your novel is about. Some writers, especially series writers, often include prologues in their novels or spend the first half-dozen pages of the first chapter explaining back story to the reader, before they move to the events of the MAIN story. The more ingenious authors cheat – they start with an exciting incident and then, a couple pages later, backtrack to the back story. Is it necessary?
I think not. In our lives, how much back story do we need explained? Not much. All our previous experience is imbedded in our psyche, so our decisions are based on our back story, our previous mistakes and lessons, but nobody needs to explain them.  
The same is true to fiction. If your MAIN story doesn’t need a back story (in most cases it doesn’t), don’t include it. Treat each novel as a stand-alone. Include only what moves the plot forward. If farther down the road you discover that some of the info from the back story is absolutely essential, dish it out in small chunks. Otherwise, omit it altogether. Only give your reader what she needs at the moment of reading.
Strunk and White had the right idea about it. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” The same is true to a story. Unnecessary parts clatter your story, slow down the action.

We all treasure our back stories. They made our heroes who they are. But the reader doesn’t need to know what's made the heroes tick. All she needs to know is what is happening in the story now, how the hero acts, what he thinks and feels, not why. The ‘why’ is up to the reader to surmise.In my novel ALMOST ADEPT, I didn’t spend any time on Eriale’s back story. She’s finished her magical studies, that’s all. The book starts with the new chapter in her life, and the reader doesn’t need to know what happened before, although it’s different for the second protagonist, Kealan. I spent a bit of time on Kealans reminiscences, because theyre crucial. His present doesn’t make sense without his past, but I condensed those tidbits of his back story to short paragraphs sprinkled throughout the narrative. 

In my novel EAGLE EN GARDE, I don’t explain the hero Darin’s back story at all, just give a definition: he is an officer of the mercenary company The Eagles. Nobody needs to know about his adventures before the start of the novel, they’re not relevant so they’re not there. 

Do you use back story in your novels? How do you handle it?



Big Mike said...

I've done two series. In one (FINAL SOLUTION and FINAL TRUTH) I allowed the reader to learn how they got to the sequel through the first half of the story. In my Cherokee valley series (DISTANT OBSESSION and NEVER FORGOTTEN), part I and part II were too dependent on each other, without a small premise the reader would have keep saying, "What, what?" I used, what I considered a clever scene in part II as the heroine comes out of a coma and the first couple pages bring her up to date on how she got there. Well, least I thought it was clever (g).

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Good job, Mike.

Brief and concise.