Writing Tip for Today: Every fiction writer uses back story at one time or another. How can you write effective back story without falling into the quicksand of too much?
Write What They Do, Not What They Did
Every memorable character has a history and that history contributes to the all-important element of motivation. Why is your character doing what she does? To answer, you must know your character inside and out. A good exercise is to do some automatic writing. Write a letter from your character to you, allowing your subconscious to bring up the answers to why Character A does the things he does. Maybe she’s never gotten over the death of her father. Or he’s been jilted or hurt in love. Whatever the past, you as author must uncover those hidden secrets, nurtured wounds and axes to grind. The best way to know all this is to write it down, searching your own world for clues. Now here’s the secret: You will probably use at best a fraction of this information, and you will use it only sparingly and on a need to know basis. As you write your story, keep these back story motivations in mind, but concentrate on writing what your character DOES NOW as opposed to waxing poetic about what they DID (BACK STORY!).
Write Back Story in Small Doses.
I advise writers to learn to weave in the back story on a need to know basis by adhering to the Rule of Three. You can insert up to three sentences of back story before the reader begins to wonder what’s important and when they are in time. This is especially true at the beginning of the novel, where readers will gladly forego back story in favor of action and forward movement. If you find that your back story is more interesting and compelling than your real-time story, you may want to reconsider which story to tell. The Rule of Three is only a guideline–many times you’ll want zero back story. And as the reader invests in your story, you may be able to insert longer back story portions. But beware: Back story is alluring to writers–you can easily convince yourself that readers must suffer through pages of it. Be willing to ax excessive back story.
Keep the Reader in Real-Time Scene.
Also known as the Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule, anytime you insert a memory, flashback or other kind of back story, you risk losing your reader. If for instance, your character is about to eat a forkful of hot, buttery mashed potatoes when HER MIND REELS BACK, that fork is stuck in midair as we attend to the back story. The real-time scene is paused as you go on about another place and time. Which place is the one you wish readers to pay attention to? Unfortunately, the longer you keep us in back story, the more the mashed potatoes get cold. Nobody likes cold mashed potatoes, and your readers don’t like having to decide which thing to attend to. At the least, be sure to touch back on the real-time scene frequently as long as you’re in back story. How often? Just use the Rule of Three, of course!