Story Problem #1: Too Much Back Story Opening Novel
In June, Angela Ackerman shared her Top 5 Mistakes I See When Critiquing and I wanted to take each of those items and talk more about them.
First on her list was:
Too Much Back Story Opening The Novel
Back story is attractive because it’s an easy way to show who the character is on a deeper level and what motivates them. Often built into the opening chapters of a novel, this pattern is definitely one worth breaking. Every time a writer brings up back story, it stops the forward momentum with a giant info dump or dip into the past. Not all back story is bad, but in those important opening chapters, you want to hook the reader and pull them deeper into the character’s current world, not their past. Show who they are by what they do NOW, not by what they did or experienced before the book began, and use hooks to hint at the past for later development.
I love back story. I love to read and write it, but these days extensive back story is the kiss of death. Especially in the first chapters.
So how do we let our readers know all about our characters without lots of back story? This is something I’m still working on, but here’s an example where I think I did it right.
“You can send anything you like, as long as you’re on that tram tomorrow. Unless, I can convince you to take an aeroflyer?” His eyebrows lifted in hope.
Talia sighed, “I’ll be on the tram. You know I prefer to stay close to the ground.”
“I know, but you’re going to have to get over that…
What do you learn about Talia here?
I think I did it right because it doesn’t feel like back story. It’s contained in dialogue and it’s just a hint.
It’s important for every author to know each character’s back story so they understand what motivates their desires and actions. The hard pill to swallow is that the reader doesn’t care what happened to your hero when he was five. Or that boys asked your female MC out on dares but never showed up for the actual date. None of that matters unless it has a direct impact on the plot and conflict in the current story.
Now, both things mentioned above are complete scenes in my head. I know how Landry felt as the events unfolded around him. What he looked like, how he wanted to cry but didn’t, etc. I know how Talia dressed for the date that never happened and how she hid in the forest and cried so her mom wouldn’t know. If I wanted I could write out the scenes in vivid details, but it would completely stop my forward motion in the story and the reader would be thinking, “What the heck?”
However, both of those events affect how Landry and Talia react to things in the current story. I’m going to share how I used these back story bits to give a reference point so the reactions make sense without going into an info dump.
Ladies first. At one point Talia is shocked to be asked out by a complete stranger. Remember she’s quite the recluse in the beginning of the book. Here’s her reaction.
“I would love to take you to dinner, Miss Zaryn. Show you around Joharadin.”
Talia’s mouth dropped open for the second time that day. She looked him over, wondering if she could bear to give dating another shot. He looked to be about her height, brown eyed and plain in every way except his build. His muscles barely fit in his uniform, giving him a stiff pained look around the shoulders. Her mind drifted to her school days. Ardro Gunik, tall, built, and popular. He asked her out once too. On a dare. The memory still prickled.
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” She grabbed the pass, and bolted for the security gate.
Do you think this worked? What does it tell you about Talia?
In another spot, Landry asks Talia a very personal question. She replies simply.
“Guys usually…” The muscle in her jaw clenched. “Well, they kept their distance. I guess I’m not the dating type.”
Those two hints into Talia’s past are at least 100 pages apart. No chance of it feeling like an info dump!
Landry seems a bit unfeeling at times to those around him. But as is true for most people, he just keeps his emotions locked deep inside. There’s a moment when Talia thinks him the most callous person she’s ever met, but their telepathic connection enlightens her.
When did you stop caring about other people’s deaths?
The image of a small boy standing on the steps of the palace came to her mind. He watched soldiers carry a man up the stairs on a stretcher. They stopped in front of him and the man
on the stretcherreached out a hand as blood bubbled from his mouth. Talia descended to a familiar pain, the sense of complete loss. Then the scene was gone, as Landry quickly blocked itshielded his mind from her once more.
This section was a bit longer (sorry about the editing). I included this piece of back story because Talia needed to see a softer side of Landry. She needed to connect to who he is emotionally before she could let her walls down and learn to trust him.
When all is said and done, back story IS important, but too much is self indulgent on the author’s part. It’s not about us. It’s only partially about our characters. It’s all about the reader.
How do you decide if a certain tidbit is necessary back story or not?