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.
How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?
After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.