The Truth About Writing Back Story

Remember the Rule of Three!

Remember the Rule of Three!

Every new fiction writer hears the warning: NO BACK STORY in the FIRST CHAPTER! And then the fretting begins: How will readers understand my character without back story? Won’t they demand to know everything before they commit to the story?

Writing Tip for Today: The answer to these back story questions is yes and no. Let me show you what I mean:

Where the Action Is

The question I get often is how readers can possibly sympathize with the Main Character if they don’t understand that character’s background. After all, we are the sum of our stories. Yet readers crave action. If you subject them to a lengthy explanation of how the character arrived at today, you’ll likely lose them. This is usually because many writers put this back story into a straight narrative and it gets really telly. Remember show, don’t tell? Yep, readers crave showing. So yes, readers do want at least a hint of a character’s motivation. But to show this rather than tell it, try inserting your character’s current attitude toward some event or person rather than explaining the entire story. Here’s an example: Megan slammed down the advance reader copy. How dare those editors. Who did they think they were dealing with, a rank beginner? She picked up the book. They even misspelled her name. She clenched her jaw and chucked the miserable copy into the trash.

In the above example, note that I could have written the entire story of how at first Megan was ecstatic to get a contract, but her joy turned soured the day she got her content edits back from the editor. Things got worse when she was told her book’s release would be delayed to the Spring. And when the same editor kept misspelling her name, well that was the last straw. Now she was going to pull that novel and return the paltry advance. Although they explanation is one many writers might relate to, if the story begins the day she attempts to get her book’s rights back, all the bad stuff leading up to that day is considered back story. It can be hinted at in the opening in order to establish forward movement, which is essential to any novel’s beginning. Remember, at the beginning, readers crave action, not explanation.

Rule of Three

A handy tool to keep you from getting carried away with back story is what I call the Rule of Three. I also use it for dialogue, to prevent Talking Heads or speeches. The Rule of Three is simple: If you write three sentences of Back Story, stop and consider going back to the real time action, if only briefly. Otherwise, readers tend to forget what the real time scene was all about. At times, you may write fewer or more sentences, but it’s a handy guide to prevent getting sucked into back story art the expense of the real time story.

No Cold Mashed Potatoes

The Cold Mashed Potatoes rule is also a helpful tool when writing back story (also called Flashback). Imagine that your real time scene features your character at a big feast, served a steaming, buttery mound of piping hot mashed potatoes. She picks up a forkful and just as she’s about to eat it, her mind reels back (please don’t write it that way!). She remembers her grannie’s potatoes, how they melted in your mouth, etc. Every year at Thanksgiving, the whole family fought for seconds of those spuds–and so on. The whole time we’re back at Grannie’s house, the character’s forkful is in midair, growing colder by the sentence. The moral here is that if you stay too long in back story, readers forget all about the real time scene. Use the Rule of Three or learn to weave back and forth between memories and real time action. Writers shouldn’t be afraid of back story, but instead use it wisely.

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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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