I review and edit a lot of unpublished work and one of the common beginner mistakes is what I said above: back-story.
Here's an example of back-story: A woman is running for her life through the woods, her stalker close behind, she finds a house in the clearing that looks like a cabin where she used to camp as a child. Now, instead of keeping the flow going, the writer decides to stop the action and instead, write about the camp and how her family went to the lake every year.
What!? Why would the reader want to know about that? And then?
Back-story is vital in a novel. We want to know the background of the main character, we want to know why a character drinks a lot or why they chose to be a mortician. But, don't stop action to write paragraphs of unrelated narrative. You WILL lose the reader.
Here are some things to remember about back-story:
- Don't bring in back-story until the novel's action is underway. I don't like to add more than two sentences of back-story into the first chapter.
- Layer in the back-story as it arises but let what happened in the past effect what happens in the story. For example, in the story above, the woman comes across the house in the clearing and instead of running inside for help, she keeps going. Why? Because - as you write in the back-story - her abusive grandfather lived in a cabin similar to that one and she has bad memories there. You don't need to go into all the memories but knowing a bit about her past will explain her current actions.
- Tell the back-story in a variety of ways.
Over the week, I will discuss how to layer back-story into a novel in a variety of ways.