Three Rules for Writing Back Story

Back Story–the bane of every novelist. Why do so many first-time novelists get in trouble with back story?
Writing Tip for Today:  Including tons of back story in the beginning of a novel is a typical beginner’s mistake. Author Patty Smith Hall gives a wonderful description of why back story in a novel opening usually doesn’t work. She compares it to meeting someone for the first time, and after the person tells you who he/she is, proceeds to tell you about the time when they were little and such and such happened. When the reader doesn’t know a character well yet, it’s wise to postpone all the background. Here are some “rules” for writing back story:

  • In the First Three Chapters, Sprinkle! Until your readers know the characters well, they don’t need (or care) to know the life story of the character. Try sprinkling one line of back story at a time around dialogue. You eliminate the attribution (he said, etc) and you give readers a bit more about the characters. Later on in the story, you may be able to include whole flashbacks, but tread lightly at the opening.
  • Use Secondary Characters to Illustrate the Protagonist (Main Character). Another great idea from Smith. Readers can get to know and understand your main character through the kinds of company she/he keeps. Whether your character hangs with riff-raff or the nuns can tell us a lot about the character.
  • Cold, Cold Potatoes and the Rule of Three. For back story and flashbacks, pay attention to the “Cold Mashed Potatoes” rule and the Rule of Three. Cold Potatoes just says that while your character is lost in back story, the real time scene is frozen and the mashed potatoes that character is eating are getting stone cold. By the time you get back to the scene, ask yourself if the reader has been gone too long. The Rule of Three says, take a look and consider stopping when you have inserted three lines of back story, dialogue or narration. Maybe it’s time to change things up. Go back to the action and make it exciting.

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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