A member of my writers’ group helpfully pointed out how my short stories have too much back story.
I wanted to tell her, but my stories need all those details! And right now!
But, she was right … writers shouldn’t front load the opening of a story or novel with back story, which literally takes a story backward out of the present moment into the past. The details of back story need to be revealed throughout the novel and not in large chunks of description and exposition.
Back story, which is everything that came before the novel’s opening, can be in the form of flashbacks, character musings and recollections, and descriptions of character history. It can be details about the setting and plot that came before now. And it can be an explanation about why the characters behave and act as they do in the present moment and how they came to that moment.
The problem with back story, especially if it’s laid on too heavily particularly in the beginning, is it slows the pace or forward momentum of the novel, causing scenes or the entire novel to drag.
A novel that has a strong opening is cinematic with the story playing out moment by moment. It sets the story in motion while also establishing scene and introducing characters.
Leaving out details of the back story, or past, helps create tension for readers, who don’t need everything spelled out but want to guess the reasons for plot action and character motivation and to put together the clues as they read along. The tension is created between what readers know and don’t know, pulling them into and through the story.
Here are a few approaches to adding back story to give the clues readers need without giving them too much information:
- Figure out the back story that’s necessary to the plot of the story and cut what the reader can figure out from dialog and action.
- Reveal character through action and dialog and less through description.
- Rewrite a scene heavy with back story as a play or screenplay, using only dialog and brief descriptions of action, setting and characters.
- Weave in back story into the narrative of the entire story, keeping the immersion of details and descriptions short; or use the back story to provide a timeout or sense of mental relief for the reader in a scene with heavy action, quick pacing and a great deal of tension.
Back story, especially in the beginning or told in long descriptions or tangents off of other tangents, causes the tension of the story to slacken. It becomes something to read and less of a story. Back story is a literal pause in storytelling and plot. It’s the then, not the now.