Several years ago, an article in a writing magazine (either THE WRITER or WRITERS DIGEST, I subscribe to both) pointed out that the number one problem of beginning novelists was the placement of back-story. You know about back-story, the information about the characters or plot that the writer wanted the reader to know. They most often put it in the very beginning of the novel, sort of like the first stories we read as children. “Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom, and in this kingdom lived a beautiful princess...”
I haven’t read a similar article lately, and assumed that writers might have conquered that bad habit. I’ve seen many articles about “hooking” the reader with a Killer first sentence, first paragraph and first page. If the author did that, the back-story problem would disappear, right? Wrong.
I recently read a novel where the author wrote an exciting first scene of the heroine being sent away to marry a man she never met (historical romance, right?) which was then followed by 105 pages of back-story. It took the heroine from birth to age eighteen, with descriptions along the way of her parent’s lineage, her step-parents’ seven children, her playmates at eight, her hobbies at twelve and her horse-riding accident at sixteen. Finally, on her eighteenth birthday, the author got back to the actual story.
Admittedly that’s an unusual example, but what other things happened to back-story? In my experience as a reader of fiction by unpublished or self-published writers, I sometimes found it turned up as a Prologue. A murder, violent encounter, or the princess meeting Prince Charming would be written in a way to “hook” the reader, and then the first chapter got the back-story anyway. But at least only twenty pages, not 105.
Second, the back-story simply got shunted off to chapter two, where it remained as boring as it was before. Often, chapter two would be a traveling scene, and the author used the time consumed by the journey–by plane, train or automobile–to acquaint the reader with the Princess’s deceased parents, wicked stepmother, or a local curse. Which at least was entertaining. Unfortunately, in many of today’s contemporary novels, the back-story is no more interesting than reading a resume by a job applicant.
So the question for newbie writers is: Can back-story be made compelling? And the answer is “Yes.” The trick, according to best-selling authors, is to break up the back-story into small chunks and scatter them throughout the book. Not just anywhere, of course, but at the place where the reader needs that information. For instance, if the Princess is going to lose her slipper in front of the Prince in chapter ten, you don’t need to tell us in chapter two that her feet are so dainty she has trouble keeping slippers on them. We’re smart readers and will figure that out.
This is often where “plotters” and “pantsers” diverge. Plotters might write out the entire back-story upfront, whereas “pantsers” just start writing, and–at a particular point in the story–decide the reader needs to know something from the hero’s past, and writes in then and drops it in. I’m a “plotter” myself, so I had to learn to make a list of the elements in my character’s past life and pull them into the story at the point the reader needs the information. And not before.
My current WIP, set in the year 1960, required a lot of research, and it was tempting to describe the story world immediately, but I resisted. Instead, I focused on plot, and only stopped to insert back-story at the point I actually needed it.
How about you? Do your Beta readers or critique group sometimes complain your narrative is boring? Perhaps it’s a back-story problem. Or do you have a system in place to avoid it?