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.