Over the years, I’ve had to tackle the issue of back story. Back story, of course, is crucial in some novels. In others, writers might want to find different ways of bringing the past to life, perhaps through dialogue.
I like back story, but I would admit it has the tendency to slow down the pace of the story. As a reader, I prefer to experience the now, the rising tension, the move towards a conclusion. I don’t like sudden interruptions and journeys into the past, especially dated sections of writing. And yet, some novels wouldn’t function properly without back story.
I’ve tried a different approach in my second novel, a psychological thriller set in the north of England. Instead of taking the reader back into the past, I insert short sections at the start of certain chapters, concentrating on simplicity and immediacy.
Here’s an example:
They say I never went to the caretaker’s house, only Gordon did. But I did go, and so did Wayne Winters. I remember the three of us going and I remember the house. I doubt I shall ever forget. Faded curtains. Musty smells. Shabby carpets. Elusive dancing shadows behind the loose banisters on the staircase. Model aeroplanes littering the sitting room. Spitfires. Lancaster Bombers.
The whole place had a dark and gloomy feel, as if the house concealed years of secrets. The creaking floorboards used to conjure up images of ghosts watching us, causing me to turn cold with fright. Yet, the house never seemed to scare Wayne and Gordon. They liked exploring, going into forbidden rooms. Once, I ran up and down those stairs, searching for Wayne and Gordon who were hiding from me. Their giggles gave them away. I was frightened of the ghosts, but I tried not to let Gordon and Wayne see in case they thought I was a scaredy-cat.
When Wayne came with us, he always got overexcited. He loved the model aeroplanes in the sitting room. He’d reach out and touch them, but Gordon would have to warn him off. For we all knew that Vince Macarthur was a kind man who wouldn’t begrudge anyone a chocolate biscuit and a glass of lemonade. But he was a man with a temper, a man who’d give the three of us what-four if we damaged his planes. And none of us wanted that.
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I spend hours writing most days, working on a psychological thriller. Mostly, I enjoy the process. No writer’s block for a month now! But what about reading? What keep me interested when I’m reading a particular novel?
I like psychological thrillers and autobiographies, but occasionally I’ll read books from other genres. Here’s a list of what I look out for:
- Atmosphere and psychological intensity
- Simple viewpoint or First Person narrative
- Present tense (in thrillers but not autobiographies)
- Variation in the writing style and not too much dialogue
- Showing rather than telling
- A clear answer to the central story question (open endings don’t work for me)
- Character build up
- The effects of a crime upon the people involved rather than pages of endless procedure
My preferences have changed over the years. At one time, I liked omniscient novels with thoughts italicised and clichés – but not anymore.
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About a year and a half ago, a friend read my second novel - a psychological thriller – and gave me a good deal of constructive criticism, all gratefully received.
‘I almost feel there’s several novels here,’ she told me over coffee. ‘I think you need to find a way of bringing the various streams together.’
A huge challenge. At the time, the streams included:
- The central character’s back story
- Friendship between central character and his best friend from childhood following a reunion after many years
- A complex history between the best friend and the central character’s sister
- A growing sense of menace originating in the three main characters’ shared pasts
- Shady caricatures of criminals in a bland town
There was little distinct scene setting, and most of the novel revolved around back story and endless dialogue. At times, I found the writing unbearably frustrating. The story tended to meander, a problem since its first tentative draft.
Ideally, I wanted to concentrate on the central character, in particular his psychology and confused memories of childhood, but I couldn’t, as I didn’t actually know what had happened to him during his childhood, so I concentrated instead on the on-off romantic relationship between his sister and his best friend. For some reason, the material didn’t always ring true in places. I guess that if a writer isn’t passionate about the story, readers will quickly notice.
Most writers, I would imagine, don’t like cutting material, especially well written material, but pruning seems to be an essential part of the process. I’m now concentrating primarily on the central character with a view to developing the forensic aspects of the story. Instead of relying solely on memory flashbacks and countless back story sections (both potential clichés), I’m allowing a number of viewpoint characters to establish the forensic elements, along with a simple First Person narrative in present tense that includes occasional brief hazy recollections of a childhood event that is not entirely clear at first. There is no reason why memory uncertainty shouldn’t play some role in the story.
The back story question itself is far more complex than originally sketched out, now allowing for a richer unfolding of events. For the first time since resuming this project, I feel a greater degree of confidence and interest in the story.
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In an earlier post, I outlined some of my thoughts on using back story in fiction. Clearly, back story doesn’t always work and may leave readers feeling lumbered with unnecessary information. However, like I pointed out in the earlier post, when done properly, back story can add extra atmosphere and immediacy to a story in a way that employing dialogue might not.
I think that for back story to work, the content must be relevant at all times and should only address the central story questions. In other words, it should be kept to a minimum.
I also think that back story needs structuring like the present story with the same eight stages. Those are:
- The starting point (“stasis”)
- An inciting event (“trigger”)
- The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”)
- A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”)
- Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”)
- The consequences of the choices (“climax”)
- Consequences of climax (“reversal”)
- Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”)
More on story structure
Perhaps the best way to ascertain whether back story works is to copy and paste to a separate document and see if it feels complete.
Just some of my thoughts.
I will be sending my first novel to the editor on Monday and shall continue working on the second, which seems to be going well.
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At some point during the month, I hope to get my first novel back to the editor. This means I’ve had to put the second novel on hold and take a final look at the first book, a psychological thriller.
I feel the overall quality of the work has improved, in particular the plot and the structure, but at times I get so frustrated by traces of previous drafts still present in the work, especially old clichés like, “She went in, her unease mounting.”
For instance, what does “unease” really mean? Different things to different people. And would most people use verbs like “mounting” in their everyday vocabulary. I don’t think so. I’m having to find new ways of bringing to life the various emotional responses.
So what are the things to look out for in a (hopefully) final polish? If the story works – and I suspect mine is beginning to – I would say:
- Dialogue. Try to keep it relaxed with each speaker’s voice as distinct as possible
- Redundant sections. Cut these
- Does the unfolding of plot always make sense? I’ve included a new paragraph about an eight-year-old child’s introduction to a pony called Bella to bring out of the oasis of a childhood that later turns sour
- Specifics. Exactly what is it that affects the viewpoint character so much?
- Easing language that has become stilted or formal, or language that intrudes into the viewpoint character’s voice.
A bit hard going, but I think the extra work is worth it.
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Posted in Writing, tagged Dialogue, novel on December 30, 2009 |
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When revising troublesome dialogue, it’s sometimes easier, better and quicker to start afresh and let the conversation unfold in its own way. In the past, I’ve spent some considerable hours wading through dialogue scenes, trying to adapt the speech to the context. Constant revising doesn’t always help, but starting from scratch does.
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It’s the problem that won’t go away…. those sections where a writer shows an adult character looking back to childhood in a way that captures the immediacy of the recalled period. I can think of one reason why readers might not like back story: it interrupts the flow of the narrative. As an avid reader of crime/thrillers, I tend to feel bogged down and uncomfortable when faced with back story in novels. I prefer the rising tension, the story in the now. Mainly, I want to know what will happen next. I love the fear factor, the excitement.
And yet, sometimes in psychological drama, a character’s past has had such an effect on their present that there probably is no other way of bringing the conflict to life, other than by using relevant back story. Perhaps the word “relevant” is the key: a strict limit on back story to include only what’s needed in order to make the overall story work. A case of carefully considering the advantages and disadvantages of using back story and arriving at a decision.
For me, the issue remains somewhat puzzling and frustrating. I have about ten back stories in my first novel, a psychological thriller set in the countryside. These appear in the viewpoints of the two main characters. Additionally, the protagonist tends to recall events fairly often, including in the middle of highly tense moments. This interrupts the pace and spoils the build up of tension Clearly, many of the recollections need to go.
Removing all back story sections, however, may present new problems and lead to a situation where it is not entirely obvious why the scenes in the present have had such an impact on the viewpoint characters. I have found that attempts to deal with the issue through other means, such as dialogue, don’t always remedy the problem. Back story encompasses a certain level of immediacy that doesn’t always come out in dialogue, and the dialogue itself would demand a reason for its presence in the story.
Further, dialogue can easily become samey and all on the same level. Convincing dialogue is difficult to pull off. It requires distinct voicing and a clear sense of purpose, a sort of process of travelling from A to B to C without it resembling screen writing.
After looking carefully through the novel and making 82 pages of critical notes, I am considering keeping just three of the back stories told through the protagonist’s viewpoint.
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I’m still at it…revising the first six chapters of a draft, a psychological thriller I started earlier in the year. Several times in the past, I’ve read that writers never find the novel writing process easy; if anything, the process gets harder over time because the writer’s standards increase. I think that’s certainly true.
Viewpoint, dialogue, scene setting….these seem manageable to a point. The problem in this particular novel revolve around creating a feasible and believable plot.
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I’ve been using a new technique in my novel writing to keep the material from losing focus – something that tended to happen a lot in my earlier drafts. Up to recently, I’d been reading through the manuscript with a pen and working with groups of fifty pages, jotting down ideas and story questions as I read.
I’m experimenting with a new technique where I work backwards by writing down the story questions from the previous chapter or two until I have a small list of story questions. I do this from memory before attempting any new chapters. (In this particular novel, a psychological thriller, each chapter is told from a distinct viewpoint, so the recording of story questions helps keep me up to date with what each character is doing.) The method also helps with pacing. Pacing itself is a huge nightmare in writing – too little tension and the story gets boring, too much tension too much of the time and the tension is spent.
I’ve also noticed that revising a story line by line doesn’t really work and can actually make the story worse. In adding and improving sentences, the original immediacy can easily get lost. Even inserting dialogue to bring something out in a character can upset the flow of the narrative.
The best editing, I believe, centres around relevant story questions and knowing your characters well, particularly their deepest conflicts and their most powerful desires. These drive the story. Two of the best questions to ask about a leading character are – 1) what do they fear most? and 2) what do they want most?
During the revision process, I tend to cut a lot of material. Yet, I always end up with more. This is because getting rid of material that plays little or no function in a story frees you up to develop new ideas.
Some ideas to try:
- Read through a synopsis, sample chapter or blurb like summary and circle in red any words that capture your attention.
- Ask your main characters some questions – e.g. what are they doing on Saturday evening?
- Describe an incident through the eyes of three people.
- Problems narrating a section? Write it in second person, then rewrite the new version in the original viewpoint.
Further tips can be found in Creative Writing Headaches and Writers Bock
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As I posted earlier, I’m currently revising the draft of a psychological thriller, this time by writing each chapter from a distinct viewpoint and concentrating on atmosphere. I think the editing is going okay, but there are still problems with one particular viewpoint. I’ve also found that adding new dialogue simply to bring out more on the character doesn’t always work and can give the whole thing a slight “screenwriting” feel. In short, less is probably best.
Part of the rewriting involves merging sections of the novel to avoid repetition, particularly where two scenes occur at the same location. For instance, two adult friends go to the pub on two occasions and there was two more scenes where one of the friends sleeps on the couch because he’s drunk too much beer and can’t drive. I’ve ended up merging the scenes so that the first pub visit is padded out with more atmosphere, which will mean having to completely write out one of the other scenes to avoid yet more repetition.
Back story plays an important role too and there are dated sections in the some of the chapters. Slightly confusing, perhaps, but that’s the best way of telling the story, I feel.
Elswhere, I’m still practising the repertoire I was working on at the start of the year: Grieg’s piano sonata in E minor, Chopin preludes and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies (5 and 12). The Czerny exercises really help with technique. (Plus, they’re tuneful and pleasant.) Also, the last four Chopin studies (second set) are excellent all round. I grew up with classical and rock music in the background, but I particularly enjoy playing piano works written in the Romantic Era.
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