Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Let me interrupt the action to tell you about my life...

This week, I want to talk about my biggest peeve as a reader/editor/reviewer...etc. In one word:


I review and edit a lot of unpublished work and one of the common beginner mistakes is what I said above: back-story.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.


Karen Jones Gowen said...

Excellent advice, Ann! Not sure why back story is so tough to deal with as writers. As readers, we sure understand it but when writing, for some reason, it can too easily get the best of us.

Laura S. said...

Nice post, Ann! I'm looking forward to your next one about backstory. I agree with Karen- backstory does seem to get the best of us as writers!

Natasha said...

Really looking forward to the next posts. Personally, I like to bring the back story in through dialogue, but I don't do much of it in any case.

~ Rayna

Bisi Adjapon said...

I can see where a reader would be frustrated. You get drawn into the action and are biting your nails, then without warning, you come to a screeching halt. That's like ice water on you.

Take care. Hope you've changed my link to bisiadjapon.wordpress.com :)

Terry Odell said...

I think the best advice I got was to think of back story as an IV drip. Or, to think of how much you reveal about yourself when meeting someone at a cocktail party.

I've been judging contest entries, and some of the entrants would do well to read this post.

Elspeth Futcher said...

Backstory is tricky - it's absolutely needed to flesh out characters, but large helpings of it can lead to indigestion. I try to drop it in throughout the plot, but after all the characters have been introduced and the plot is well and truly underway.

Ann Elle Altman said...

All of you are right and I hope I can keep you entertained thoughout the week. Thanks for your comments, guys.

Bisi, I'm gonna try to add your wordpress blog but I've got so many blogs that my dashboard is saying 'no more!'


Talli Roland said...

Haha! I'm remembering my first novel where I dumped in three pages of back-story after only three paragraphs.

I don't do that now.

Elana Johnson said...

I agree, especially about the placement of backstory. I happen to use a lot of backstory and flashbacks, but the placement of them is critical.

Martin Edwards said...

I agree - very good advice, on an important issue for writers.

Carol Kilgore said...

I totally agree with you about back story. Great post.

Jemi Fraser said...

Backstory delivered like that drives me batty! I'm looking forward to your posts :)

Anonymous said...

Ann - Thank for this well-taken point. There's no doubt that backstory is a difficult issue. Readers want to know about the characters, and we want to tell them. But no-one wants the action interrupted by too much backstory. I will be very interested in what you have to say about it.

Unknown said...

Love this post!! Excellent advice!

Debbie Lamedman said...

Great advice. It's a problem I have in my writing as well...I just blame it on my ADD! LOL! I go off on tangents when I'm talking too! Gotta reign it in. Thanks for this post.

Home business said...

Your writing is really good. I believe you have so much knowledge in writing. Thank you so much for sharing this knowledge to everyone.

Nishant said...

I like to bring the back story in through dialogue, but I don't do much of it in any case.
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prashant said...

it can too easily get the best of us.
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