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For those of you writers following my blog… The back-story.

Today I sit by my laptop trying to decide how to place the back-story in my latest novel. I have found that the back-story is used in different measure with different significance in different tales. So what is its value? What is its danger? And when and how should it be placed in a story? The answers are as plentiful as the stars. Yet there are some basic principles that you might benefit from.

Consider first the danger: Too much back-story can leave the readers feeling like nothing is happening in the novel. Things–perhaps even interesting things–have happened, but little may be accomplished in the novel itself. Then there is the opposite problem: too little back-story may leave readers feeling like the characters have no past, that they are one-dimensional. So, whatever you do, do with thought.

Methods: The back-story can be introduced simply by having the character’s themselves dialogue about their past. The characters may also relive their past or think about their past.

Reliving is by far the most persuasive method and it draws much sympathy for the characters. It follows the ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule we have all heard so often. Yet if you get stuck in back-story-telling mode, your readers are going to get bored quickly. Things need to progress. Another problem may be that if you hold too much information back from readers, they will grow irritated. Above all, make sure that if you are reliving the past you are reliving an adventurous part of the past.

Dialoging is another great method for utilizing a back-story. It breeds a connection between two or more characters who open up about themselves. It has the added benefit of not frustrating readers, because they feel they are on even ground with the characters themselves. They learn what the characters learn as the characters learn it. Yet the caution here is that, in telling instead of showing, readers will tire of immense amounts of dialogue.

Thinking about the past is rarely used on its own. It can combined with either or both of the other methods. It leaves the readers feeling like they really know the characters, but it also can bog down a story. Use in conjunction with other methods minimizes risk.

Value: We have already mentioned how the back-story can breed connection between characters, as well as between characters and readers. This is vitally important. Your readers need to have a feeling about the characters: affection, concern, dislike. You want your readers to be in the stands cheering for your noble characters and routing against the criminals. Miss the opportunity to connect a reader to the story and you miss the opportunity to make your book stand the test of time. Even readers who love Tolkien’s Middle Earth for the sake of Middle Earth itself found a connection to Tom Bombadil or Frodo or some other favorite. The human connection is why we tell stories.

The value of a well-told back-story transcends character development, however. It also makes you as the writer appear more competent at crafting a tale. Most importantly, the back-story can be a place to leave clues and introduce concepts there is no easy way to incorporate.

In summation: whatever your method, whatever your decision, whatever your purpose, do not overlook the editing and significance of the back-story.

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