Back story is what happened in the characters’ lives before the book begins.
Romance writer Jo Beverly says, “Back story is for the author, not the reader. We want to show how much we planned, how hard we worked at research, now clever we are. In fact, the reader can get by with only skeleton hints. Back story is different from context. We must set the context, which tells the reader why the current action is significant to the character. We should be able to do this in one or two sentences.”
When I read a work in progress that drips back story, and ask the author why it’s all in there, the inevitable answer is, “The reader needs to know this in order to hook into the story.”
Think again. Human beings get by nicely on a paucity of information. Imagine we’re meeting for coffee. You arrive and say, “My neighbor has gone missing.”
I don’t know a thing about your neighbor, not their name, gender, age, circumstances, life history, etc, but I guarantee you that my response will be shock, horror, and fear because I’m reacting to an event happening at this moment. If you said, “My neighbor disappeared thirty-five years ago,” my reaction would have likely been, “Who cares?”
Someone is missing. I know we live in a world where bad things happen to people. I fear for another human being. I fear for myself a little. If something has happened to them, could it happen to me?
If my response is, “Start at the beginning. Tell me everything,” we both know—or we should know—that I’m not asking about when you moved next door forty years ago, her disastrous first marriage, her career as a bookkeeper, her cruise up the Inland Passage to Alaska, or that she raises prize-winning roses. I want the story that begins when her daughter came to visit yesterday afternoon, found the front door unlocked and her mom gone.
Because we are good story tellers, we know what kind of details set context, and we select those details to build a story that implies what we think has happened.
- Context one: She’s not confused. She takes it into her head to have adventures. This has happened before. A suitcase and some clothes are missing.
- Context two: She’s sometimes confused. It’s never happened before. Everything, including her purse, is still in the house.
Because of the context details, I’m going to become calmer or more fearful. I still won’t either know or care about the first marriage, bookkeeping career, cruise, or roses, and that’s okay.
Maybe the plot does hinge on one of those things we don’t yet know, but there’s no need to salt the story with a premature mention of the disastrous first marriage. Allow the first husband to show up some pages later. Once he’s appeared in the story, then the protagonist has a legitimate reason for delving into the marriage story.
If there are extensive references to another time and place in the first 100 pages of the book, consider writing the first part in that time and place rather than using back story to convey information.
- Part 1, Chicago, 1974
- Part 2, Calgary, 2014
This is different from a prolog. I admit to an absolute personal prejudice against prologs. I always skip them. Always.
The reason is I feel the writer is jerking me around. She wants me to spend a couple of pages in a different time and place, not only remember what I read, but carry the emotions I felt with me while she makes me jump to the time and place where the real story takes place. Readers go where the writers take them. By the time I realize I have to leave the prolog’s world and go somewhere else, I don’t trust the author. If she doesn’t care enough about my feelings at the beginning of the book, what kinds of trick is she going to play on me later?
It’s possible to create a character and a tense situation without knowing reams of information about what happened before the book began. If we can answer three essential question about our main characters, we can set the context.
What three utterly defining moments—each of which relate to the theme—are in our protagonist’s/antagonist’s pasts?
Defining moments are points at which the character’s life changed. Back story is knowing our character’s favorite breakfast when she was nine. A defining moment is, “When I was nine, I came down to breakfast, and my grandmother told me my mother was dead. Three days later I went to live with my aunt. I hate bad news that comes at breakfast.” Context in three sentences.
What games are to be played with the reader?
It’s so much more fun to build ambiguity in the reader’s mind. It keeps them turning pages to find out which version of many is true.
What secrets are to be kept from the reader?
Back story wants to reveal everything up front. Where’s the fun in that? Secrets want to hold back important stuff until the right moment.
Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense. ~Fawn M. Brodie (1915 – 1981), biographer and history professor
Thursday of this week on Level Thinking, we celebrate author’s families.
Next Tuesday on Write the Novel: How to Develop a Brand