If you’re like me, you just lo-o-o-ve telling the tale before the story begins. That’s because you care so much about your characters and you can envision where they were when they were three, and you know the whole cast of characters surrounding them at key moments in their lives. These people don’t only live and breathe for you; they’ve got reason for being, and you’re damn well determined to explain that to anybody who’s listening.
But then suddenly, the manuscript is cluttered with flashbacks. It’s dragging with dips back in time. And guess what? Your reader, or your agent, or your editor, is saying to you loud and clear: Here’s Where I Stopped to Rest.
I’ve got seven ways I wrangle my ever-burgeoning back story. Let me know what works for you, Wonder Women, Wonder Men, Wonder Humans & Creatures of Fabulosity!
Don’t define it as full chapters or even a page. Don’t insist on prologues as the only and most obvious place for back story. It can be one sentence, it can be 100, it can be–gasp!–a PHRASE. Yes. Let’s be clear that you can allude to what happened before in your story without making a big deal of it.
See the opening chapter of my latest novel, No Small Thing, at the end of this post, so you can read in bold where I insert bits throughout a present scene of dialogue, whether in summary or mini-flashback sentences, or via the dialogue itself, before and breaking into a couple paragraphs of true back story (scene and summary), and then I return to the main narrative.
My agent, Tara, helped me see that back story carried on far too long in chapter one and that I had to both shorten it and break it up or risk losing my reader.
We won’t notice back story if it’s told with verve, with snark, with anger, with the unique rhythms and diction of a character’s voice and the unique angle of lens. If back story is delivered with a certain point of view, it’s much easier to swallow. Easy for me to say: I prefer to write in first person. But if you’re working the third person, remember that third-person close point of view insists on a careful and direct lens as only the character sees and experiences things. How does the character see their own back story? Remember that as you deliver it.
In other words, if the voice is loud enough, it distracts from the time switch. We don’t care what era we’re in as long as this particular voice keeps telling us the tale.
Sometimes the present just speaks for itself. You don’t always need to hearken back to the original cause, the Prime Mover of someone’s character or fear. It might be better to immerse readers in a full scene. We’re best equipped to ask this question when the whole book’s written, so if I were you, I’d write all the back story, place it wherever you like, and then come back with a big, fat red pen with this question in mind.
I’ve got so many questions running through my head when I write, so to not stop the flow, I leave Notes to Self, all the questions about the back story, in various places with yellow highlights. Example: NEED BACK STORY ON DAD’S RELATIONSHIP TO B HERE, or, REDUCE THIS BACK STORY. Just get it all out, then move on, and when you revise, listen to your neon-yellow reminders and that sixth sense you were getting about something missing or something too long.
If you’re determined to take us back in time, do it well. Do it with scene that immerses, that gets the heart racing a little, that makes us live it along with whomever’s taking the journey.
Summary? The “telling” versus “showing” part? It works well if done right with voice and other techniques.
If you don’t know the difference between scene and summary, check out my posts on the key ways to improve both.
When you’re in revision mode, and revisiting your piles of back story (like I am), with a red pen poised like a scythe to wreak much-needed reaping, make it a goal to get the back story down by 50 words or more. Oh, heck, why not 500? Challenge yourself to make it tight as possible.
If you get stuck, see #2 and #5. If you’re doing both of those supremely well, who cares how long it takes to get this part of the story out? (Well, editors and publishing house budgets, or your publishing budget, sure.)
Stand ready to cut hard and unfeelingly at this stage of the process. Remember what the core narrative’s about–the question you ask and attempt to answer–and then let those words go, Marie-Kondo style, out into that good night.
Sometimes while in an early draft of a novel, it’s tempting for me to stuff back story in and over-explain something, like I don’t trust myself or the reader to “get it.” It’s also tempting to cut all back story in a mass-murder move because you think your story’s suddenly boring and no one will ever keep reading. Here’s a truth: it’s way to early to tell in a first or second draft if this is the case, or at least it is for me.
My process involves really getting to know my characters. They are not pawns in a chess game. They’re people with my goals and plans, sure, goals and plans meant to trouble their waters, but they often surprise me in a new draft what they can do as they seek to be fully human. When I rewrote No Small Thing this year, new scenes appeared to meet the challenge of tightening plot and suspense. Characters replaced one another. And back story got moved all over the place if not deleted entirely. That was I believe my fourth draft of the book (I do lose count) and I’m really glad that a) I did over-explain early on, to understand where Audrey and friends came from and b) I didn’t cut huge sections early on. With enough distance, I was able to cut hard in a later draft and piecemeal back story or remove it entirely.
If you need more meditation on the art of patience while writing, and how I have learned that going “super-slo-mo” is actually okay, check out this post:
Need a sample of how I integrate bits of back story in a scene? Here you go.
“Coach, please! Let me!”
This is my workout before every guys’ basketball game: trotting behind Coach Hale, begging for a place on his bench.
I’ve lost count how many times he’s said that to me.
“But I’m quick, you know I can dodge anything!” I’m huffing as I tail him down the athletic department hallway. “How often does the bench take a hit?”
“Audrey, I said no.”
“Coach Azzi says yes!” I’m Coach Azzi’s “manager.” She lets me sit on the girls’ bench and grab footage and audio. The woman gets me.
Silence as he stomps on to the gym. A former Division II basketball player, Coach Hale is only five-eight, but pure muscle, and strikes fear into the hearts of players with ten inches on him. But not me, nine inches shorter. The guy who hung the hoop in my driveway never scared me because I’ve seen a hammer make him cuss a blue streak. The dude knows I’m athletic, and though I be but little, I am FIERCE.
“Come on, Coach! I’ve got health insurance!”
“It’s a huge liability. NO.”
We’re feet from Athlete’s Alley, the tunnel into Gurney Gym, when I toss today’s Hail Mary: “1500 likes in the last hour, and 300 comments last week on the Threepeat show—”
Coach spins around. We almost collide, as in my nose to his chest. “We don’t need the media.”
“It’s my SENIOR YEAR!” I holler.
“Your mom would kill me!” he hollers back, and storms into the gym.
Mom: 25 billion; Audrey: 0. I turn and hit the wall with the side of my fist. After all I do, covering his team—three straight years of amazing highlights, interviews, profiles—he won’t grant me this tiny request? “Dude, you NEED me!” I tell the wall.
That’s the real reason he said no: because my mother, Ellen Powers, says so. The guy who bought me my first hoop also buys the Mom propaganda.
Audrey is petite. Audrey is frail. Audrey is breakable.
When I was born, I wasn’t just a preemie: I was a micro preemie. So raw, barely cooked, my skin was blue, sticky, and gelatinous. At 23 weeks and two days old, I weighed less than one pound, 12 ounces. But I prefer 800 grams because it sounds bigger, and no one in America really knows how much that is.
My skin was so fragile and ready to tear, they had to treat me like a burn patient. The nurses wrapped me in plastic to keep me warm. Instead of Mom, IVs nursed me. They said the chaplain had tears in his eyes when he came to the NICU to baptize me, and that my dad had to leave the room. Those first weeks, no one thought I’d make it. Vegas would have put 5:1 odds against me. Maybe it’s good Mom’s not a sports fan or one to worship stats. Because I certainly wouldn’t have made the draft.
My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.
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But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.
As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?
The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?
You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?
And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?
My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.
At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.
I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.
Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.
Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.
Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.
Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.
Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.
The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.
It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.
Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.
So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.
The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.
Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.
Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.
Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block?
“Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
— Michael Crichton
Today’s Word Count: 271, 533 (1374 words gone!)
Page Count: 1013
It used to be you couldn’t see the film clips that hit the cutting room floor. That was until the DVD business got excited about “Special Features,” which included tons of outtakes. When you view certain footage you think, Good thing they left that out! Other clips make you wince at the tough call a director or editor had to make.
Today I post one of my castoffs, and you’ll fast see the reason it got cut. It’s back story, the below-the-surface iceberg stuff Hemingway talked about. It informed my character development while I was drafting but it doesn’t help narrative flow. In fact, it’s very much a big fat ice-beast lurking in the path of my reader. It stops the momentum and resounds with a big ol TWANG when you hit it. (A must-read is Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction). A story “thrums” along, he says, till you the writer leave junk — trash, nails, anything – right in the middle of the road that readers run over. Boom, there’s a flat. The moment is gone and the reader realizes, “Oh, yeah, I’m reading.”
This deleted passage has been stuffed in the “excess_file.” If I’m waffling, it could go into the “save_and_move_file” because I trick myself into cutting by thinking I’ll hunt for it later.
Not likely. And the reader won’t miss it one bit.
I’m talking all rough and tough about cutting but what you have to realize is how important the big derriere of that iceberg is to writing. All that back story isn’t an obstacle while you’re honing that peak that everyone gets to see and marvel at. My characters wouldn’t be rich if they didn’t have a history. Here is some of my protagonist’s upbringing, knowledge that helps me inform her daily choices, but trivia the reader can do without:
I grew up in a tiny ranch house in Burlingame. Dad patched it repeatedly with his workman’s savvy, a postage-stamp front yard boasting a riot of my mother’s flowers. She did her own gardening in those days before hiring out the “illegals” she now despises. In that neighborhood I escaped to the Reillys’ (fellow Irish) or the Washingtons’ (African-American) for the foosball tables, basketball hoops, and firecrackers. There we had backyard barbecues with people Mom barely tolerated while Dad reveled in them. He bowled and drank beer with “the blues” just to harass her: postal carriers, construction workers, waitresses. On that street people worked hard and played hard; morning sunlight glinted off broken glass outside the Reilly’s and off the Pontiac where Mr. Washington spent the night. Mom hated the drama; she kept our doors bolted with chairs up against them. She played Mozart at volume 11 to drown out neighbors on the night prowl.
The sacrifice of this 155 words gave me permission to write a whole new scene. Chances are that one will get cut, too, but right now it feels good to have it in, since I’m busy fleshing out another character and his role in the story and figuring out what’s essential.
Note also the tone of this flashback sounds very much like a godly narrator, even with first-person narration, a character stopped in her tracks to spin you a yarn and act as authority. Meanwhile you as reader are looking around, saying, “Hey, what happened to the story?”
My story runs on dialogue and scene, not summary. Some authors like Jane Austen are brilliant summarizers. Not I. Modern readers also have a low tolerance for it, unless it comes from a brilliant writer like Ian McEwan. Read On Chesil Beach and see how he sums up the zeitgeist of the early sixties, its sexual mores and gender relations, in perfectly-honed paragraphs of interpretation, opinion, and meditation.
My dad’s revising his novel and just by listening to Stephen King’s advice in On Writing about adverbs, he’s cut over 50 pages – and he’s not even through. (Like father, like daughter, we’ll say – he started with over 1,000 pages, too!)
Today’s Writing Goal: Edit 10 more hard-copy pages of the novel with another 1300 words — or more — hitting the floor!
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
Elementary: The Secret Story
Imagine you are someone else. Change your age – what age do you want to be? Change your height – how tall or short do you want to be? Change where you live — where do you want to live? Do you want to be a boy or a girl? Do you want to have a special talent?
Now pretend you are this new person. Write the secret story that this person would never tell. This is a story of something important that has happened to this person and there is a good reason he or she does not want to tell it. Did you do something bad or good and don’t want anybody to know? Do you live somewhere special or awful and want to keep it secret? Do you know something that nobody else know?
Secondary and Adult: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Think of people, things, or experiences in your past that have marked you, but you don’t often talk about it with many people or even anyone at all. It could be
— A fight you had with someone
— A frightening experience you had
— A loss you suffered
— A secret you keep
Now write that story for your eyes only. Tell whatever details you are able to tell.
Put the story away for a few days.
Return to it and answer this question: how does this private story of your life affect your feelings, thoughts, attitude, and actions today?
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.