When Is Back Story Necessary?

Many first-time novelists complain that without back story, readers have no way to fully understand the characters. While it may be important that Our Hero was abused in childhood by a demanding father, most readers are willing to forgo a detailed history in favor of action in the real-time story.
Writing Tip for Today: How can you add back story without stalling your story?

  • No Cold Mashies! As I’ve said before, anytime you step away from the scene to have Our Hero’s mind “reel back” to fill in the reader on something which happened earlier, you stop the real-time action. It’s as if Hero is frozen, unable to move while the Back Story is trotted out. If Hero was about to shovel in a heaping spoonful of warm mashed potatoes, they’d be stone cold when the flash back or back story is done. The reason for this rule is that as long as you are in “the past” (back story), readers are more likely to forget what was going on in the real time scene. And readers who forget are liable to stop caring.
  • Learn to Weave. Call it weaving, blending, whatever. By learning to keep the real-time scene going and weaving one to three sentences of back story in and through the scene, you eliminate the “mind reeling back” to a large degree. In real life you often think of past events without stopping to sit down and let your mind reel back. Do the same for Our Hero. A well-placed sentence or two of back story often heightens tension in the real-time scene without freezing it for a lengthy explanation.
  • Need to Know? Evaluate your back story placement the way the military does–on a need to know basis. Decide when readers need crucial back story info, and only then put it into the story. While our natural tendency is to dump it all in Chapter One, a much briefer sketch (there’s that Rule of 3 again!) often is more than sufficient to keep readers reading and still give them Our Hero’s motivation. Use verbs in the real-time scene which reflect Our Hero’s attitudes (like why he hates Dad) and you can convey a powerful emotional message–without much mention of the actual back story.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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