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.


8 thoughts on “The Problem of Back Story in Novel Writing

  1. I love back story, but I love characters and knowing what makes them tick. I will wade through pages of reflection as the character delves into past events and I don’t really mind if they are relevant. However, as a writer I know that most readers don’t appreciate backstory. Readers want to know what is happening in the here and now, not what may have happened ten years ago to send this character on such-and-such a path.
    I’m in the process of deleting back story in my current wip but every time I go to delete a section I realise why I wrote it in the first place and then have to figure different ways to convey the same information.
    Good luck with your writing and good luck with finding the right balance of back story.

  2. I agree – as a reader, back story does interupt the flow. The best thing is to use as little as possible and, when you have to use it, feed it to the reader in bite-sized chunks.

    However, in your case, where you seem to have so much material from the past, have you considered embracing the backstory and making it a dual-timeframe novel?

    Half of it can be set in the here and now. And the dramatized backstory can become a kind of second “here and now” (if that makes sense) 🙂

  3. Nice article, Lawrence. The way I’ve been handling backstory in my current WIP is to give it out in dribbles and dabs. Generally, I try to set up a trigger (some event – sight, smell, or even a situation) that triggers the character’s memory, then give the tiny slice of backstory a three or four line mention. If you set it up in terms of scene and sequel, you can give your reader a glimpse into your characters’ past and keep your action moving.

    Some novels do work well with big chunks of backstory. Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club worked exceptionally well with long sections of backstory. It depends on the story you’re trying to tell and how you want to configure it.

    Good luck, it’s an art, that’s for sure!

  4. Thanks for the good wishes.

    Yes, I’m toying with the various options. Using the open source platform Storybook is really helping, since it forces writers to work in scenes rather than chapters.

    Harvey, thanks for your suggestion about dual-framework novel writing. I shall check that idea out. Btw – interesting site!

  5. I’m like Cassandra; I love back story. To me it is more like real life perhaps? To me back story is like context. Even when my husband and son are watching sports, I’m more interested in where the game is being played than the score. Maybe that’s why I like etymologies too; wondering what the origin/the context is?

    Good luck Lawrence as you work through the various options to find what resonates with how you’d like it to flow. It sounds like a puzzle, a piece of art, in process!!

    I hope the meeting goes well on Thursday!


  6. I also love reading backstory (hate writing it!), but I think it has to come in naturally, without shifting the flow. I find this is well done usually when linked to the present directly, and def cannot be a stand on it’s own scene. Good luck wit it, Lawrence.

  7. Thanks, jennifer.

    From what I’ve gathered, it’s all right to include critical back story. I don’t think the backstory scenes need to be in a separate section or chapter. I think the scenes just flow at the right moment.

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