How to Tell If Back Story Is Sabotaging Your Novel

by David Marcu

Today’s guest post is by Roz Morris (@Roz_Morris); it is adapted from her newly released book, Writing Plots with Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel.


Back story is events that have happened before the narrative starts. Most stories have it—because they rarely start from the beginning of a character’s life. However, writers tend to misuse it or include too much.

There are two fundamental questions with back story. The first is how to present it (e.g., a vivid flashback), and the second is whether those back story events should be used as part of the main plot.

Here are 4 ways that back story might be sabotaging your novel’s effectiveness.

1. Your novel’s most engaging events are buried in a summary of back story.

I often see manuscripts where the writer has invented a detailed and dramatic back story for a character, but the main story events lack impact and substance. There is no meat left for the book’s real-time plot and so the novel seems empty and static. Of course, the story may be precisely that; the character might be coming to terms with past mistakes. The focus might be the finer detail of living with a burden, or leaving behind a golden period that is gone forever. But just as often, this approach is not deliberate and the writer is scrabbling around, trying to find stuff for the characters to do. They don’t realize they’ve already got fantastic ideas, but hidden them in the back story.

Could that back story be used as a fully fleshed flashback so the reader could participate? Or, more radically, could those same ideas be extracted from the past and reworked as a forward-moving plot? Consider whether your back story ideas should be front story.

2. Your novel relies on back story and secret wounds instead of character development.

Writers often try to get us interested in a character by giving them a colorful past. So the heroine was brought up by theatre folk, which the writer hopes will make her intriguing. It does, to a point, but it’s only the start. The real value is in what this history has made of her. Does she crave security and a settled life as a result, or has it left her with itchy feet? Perhaps these twin urges are at odds inside her, sometimes pulling her one way, sometimes the other. 

The back story on its own is not enough to create a character. We must see how it has steered their choices. Also, back story works best if it exerts an active influence on the characters and plot events.

A variation of this back story problem is when a writer uses a past tragedy to get sympathy for their good guys—the secret wound. So a writer describes how a couple had a heartbreaking experience with fertility treatment many years before, or maybe their son was murdered. Although these ordeals are heartrending, and might make us feel for the couple, they don’t in themselves show us the characters’ natures. Back story is a springboard for characterization, not a substitute.

Still worse is the idea (derived from movies, which must streamline their stories) that a character is explained or decoded by a single key event in the past. Characterization in prose doesn’t generally work in one-shot doses or shorthand.

If an unusual origin or past traumatic event is key to how your character behaves now, don’t forget to show us those consequences. 

3. Dramatic issues and secret wounds are never used in the novel.

Many writers give their characters an exciting secret burden, which never features in the story. So they draw attention to their protagonist’s long-lost brother, or mother whose identity was never known, or hidden romantic obsession, or puzzling birthmark—and nothing comes of it.

Such exciting character tidbits are like Chekhov’s gun. If you load a firearm in the first act, the reader assumes it will appear later on. If not, you’ve teased them on false pretenses— which will be noticed. 

If you give your characters these colorful issues, do they have to be resolved? Not necessarily. Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be fired. Stories don’t have to mete out rewards and answers in a simplistic way. The characters don’t have to conquer every fear, or heal every injury. But each secret wound adds a tension, a marker that the reader watches for. It must color the story in some way. It shouldn’t be used only to grab interest and then disappear. 

If your characters have secret wounds, make sure you explore them.

4. The back story appears in one major chunk at the beginning.

The beginning of a novel is like starting an immense machine. The reader needs to know what’s going on, who wants what, why it matters, who the characters are, what their relationships are, what they do day by day. It’s easy to overload or confuse—and one of the common mistakes is to tell the back story too soon.

This wasn’t always a problem. In the past, readers weren’t so hungry for immediacy or the personal experience, so would accommodate a long tranche of back story as they settled in. Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan begins with detailed introductions to the setting and his characters before he ever puts them in situations where significant trouble is brewing. This certainly has its own virtues as, knowing the characters intimately, we are riveted when the major events happen. But a slow preamble can fatigue modern readers.

If you look at the opening of a recently published well-edited novel, there is usually very little back story—just the minimum needed to establish context. And it’s always related to the action in the scene.

So how much back story is enough at the start? It helps to relate this problem to real life. Imagine you have a new acquaintance. Certain things draw you together, help you get your bearings with the other person’s personality, values and life. If the time comes to exchange your life histories, it will be after your relationship is established, when you are actively curious.

In the same way, the reader at the start of a novel can coast with a few well-deployed details—just enough to understand what’s going on. The detailed picture might not emerge for a long time.

Reconsider your back story

The reader doesn’t need to know every last note of the characters’ pasts. Often, much of your back story is for you alone; it makes the characters and their dramas solid and helps you write with confidence.

Some writers make a draft that includes all the background—for their eyes only. Then they start a fresh file and fillet out everything that isn’t current, looking for places to reintroduce context if needed. They find there is a lot that stays in the vaults.

Some writers limber up by writing back story up until the story starts, then delete it from the final narrative.Writing Plots with Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel.

It’s worth doing an editing pass to look for back story. Highlight anything that’s explanation. Consider whether you could save it for later or give it a different use. Or even, if it could be taken out.

A rich back story helps you to write, but the reader may never need to see it.


Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, then I highly recommend Writing Plots with Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris. You can download the first chapter for free on your Kindle.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , , .
Roz Morris

Roz Morris

Roz Morris lives in London. You’ll have seen her books on the bestseller lists but not under her name because she ghostwrote them for other people. She is now coming into the daylight with novels of her own. Her first is My Memories of a Future Life and her second is Lifeform Three. She is also the author of the Nail Your Novel book series. Find out more at her Amazon author page, her blog, and on Twitter at @Roz_Morris.

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43 Comments on "How to Tell If Back Story Is Sabotaging Your Novel"

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Jane Taylor Starwood

From one Jane to another, thanks for sharing this illuminating post. I have Roz’s “Nail Your Novel,” but I needed to be reminded of this very concept at this very moment, when I’m just sitting down to finish a thriller I started over a year ago. The back story is essential to the plot and loaded with action, and I’ve been struggling with how best to reveal it. I have a better grasp on that now, with these challenging ideas. Now, back to work on my novel!

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hello Jane – glad this post hit you at the right time! I’m wrangling my third novel at the moment and have heaps of back story. I find it takes a lot of discipline to try to use it in active ways – but once I find the right place for a sequence it feels rather good. Keep going!

Debbie A. McClure

Excellent post here, Roz. Every writer out there struggles with character and plot development. You’ve given some really great suggestions and reminders of when enough is enough, and how to spot areas that can be shaved down or removed altogether. Thanks for sharing.

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Thanks, Debbie!

Briar Kit Esme
Backstory is one word, not two. You should also read: http://briarkitesme.com/2014/11/03/writing-literature-for-enquiring-minds/ “How-to-write-a-novel books and creative-writing courses impress upon their readers and students that it is necessary to detail a clear backstory for the principal character in any novel. The belief is that (1) the main character can only be given depth by the inclusion of a backstory, and (2) readers need to be spoon-fed with information. As absolutes, these assertions are both wrong-headed and artless. As an author, you should leave as much to your readers’ imaginations as you possibly can. Only provide backstory details if those details are critical… Read more »
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

And just to check I’m not following a minority opinion, I’m pleased to report that my trusty Chambers also has back story as two words. It’s an enormous dead tree tome, so I can’t provide a link.

Now, on with the topic at hand!

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hello Briar!
I definitely believe in encouraging the writer to question whether they would be better leaving some of their back story out – or indeed most of it. As I said: ‘Consider whether you could save it for later or give it a different use. Or even, if it could be taken out. A rich back story helps you to write, but the reader may never need to see it.’
And later in the book, I delve into this more, considering where we can leave the reader to fill in the gaps. As you say, this can be very rewarding indeed.

mrdisvan

If you’re quoting two consecutive paragraphs, you need to put open quotation marks at the start of the second paragraph.

Back story, back-story and backstory are all valid forms. Eg see Cambridge University Press, the OED, or Wiktionary: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/backstory

Wrt your point, I see that Roz’s article says as much: “The reader doesn’t need to know every last note of the characters’ pasts. Often, much of your back story is for you alone.”

Deb Atwood

I recently found myself guilty of number 1–buried engaging events–and am re-working my ms. in (I hope) interesting new ways. As a reader, I really hate number 4–the back story dump. Thanks for the reminders!

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hi Deb! It’s funny how we hide our best ideas. Glad you’re quarrying them out and making more of them. Good luck!

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[…] at Jane Friedman’s blog today, where she’s showcasing a section of the plot book that deals with back […]

Mom

Ha! I would have never noticed backstory/ back story, I was too busy sopping up the good parts! This was well timed for me. I been grappling around with two very different scenes to open my WIP. Now, I think I’ve got it…it’s behind door #3–which I never even considered! Thank you from the tingling end of my last nerve 🙂
Kassie “aka” Mom

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hello Kassie! Thanks – and glad to have opened doors for you!

acflory
Great post, Roz. To me, backstory is always the springboard for what my characters are doing /now/. I also use it as the source of plot developments so the action feels ‘organic’. As I’m a pantster, I write the backstory into my first draft in great detail. This telling is only for me. Then when the first draft is finished, I go back and basically rewrite the story with the reader in mind – how much do they really need to know? And at what point? Each successive edit pares the backstory away until I literally have the bare minimum… Read more »
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hello Andrea! I like that way of seeing back story – and indeed it’s the reason back story is so important for writers. We create our fictional people with this knowledge, but then we have to work out the best way to deploy it. Your approach sounds good.

acflory

Thanks Roz. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the only way I seem to be able to write.

acflory

P.S.!!!! Did you know you were quoted in an article highlighted by the Passive Voice today?
This is the link to the original article :
http://thoughtcatalog.com/porter-anderson/2015/01/who-decided-our-worth-do-free-books-give-away-authors-value/

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Yes, I just found that! How exciting!

Francis

I was wondering, what about novels that encompass the entire life of a character. For example, Life of Pi, or Wicked… Both take an increasing amount of time covering practically the character’s whole life, starting at the very start. And yet, Pi doesn’t get stranded on a boat with a tiger until much later. Is it not considered backstory because it’s about the character’s life? Because somehow, it was still pretty engaging to read all of the preliminary events that transpired before the turning point in the MC’s life.

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
HI Francis! I haven’t read either of those novels …. but I’m guessing the events might take the form of a flashback inside a framing narrative? Is there perhaps a sense of the present-day narrator looking back with extra wisdom and commenting? The key question is this: were you engaged? And you definitely were. So if I wanted to make this technique work, I’d look closely for how the writer kept our curiosity, and making us experience the events. An example I like is The Secret History (Donna Tartt). It begins in the middle, with the moment that Bunny is… Read more »
David J Delaney

Great advice. Back story can give depth. Thank for sharing how to reveal it.

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Thanks for stopping by, David!

Heidi @

Fantastic post! Thanks so much!!

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Thank you, Heidi!

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[…] How to Tell if Back Story is Sabotaging Your Story, from Jane Friedman: Back story is a very important part of any novel. But how to include […]

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[…] backstory is important to character, Roz Morris explains how backstory can sabotage your novel. Kristen Lamb peeks a one secret to creating multidimensional characters: everybody […]

Melody Maysonet

Thanks for all the insight. I’m about to start my first round of revisions and I’ve been debating whether some of my backstory should be part of the main plot. You’ve given me food for thought.

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[…] How to Tell if Back Story is Sabotaging Your Novel […]

Francis Concepcion

I especially love the first point in this post because that’s exactly been my struggle with the book I’m currently writing. All the great stuff is in backstory, and I was thinking that maybe it should be the story itself. Thanks for this post. It’s quite a reassurance 🙂

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[…] Don’t let backstory sabotage your novel. […]

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[…] Is back story sabotaging your novel? Find out here […]

Al Morrow

Hello Roz
Loved the article. I have what I think is great backstory about how and why my protagonist started out on his life of crime. Rather than not include it I re-started the story earlier to enable the back story to become front story. Does that make any sense? I’m still not sure if it’s acceptable or if it works?

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

HI Al! Your solution sounds good. And you may find, once you start living the back story on the page, that even more comes out of it. Good luck.

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[…] the introduction to her article How to Tell If Back Story is Sabotaging Your Novel on Jane Friedman‘s website, Roz Morris says there are two fundamental questions when it comes […]

Mark
Good point – I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on backstory that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just have it be it’s own novel. I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – yet in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. So doing an earlier novel would be part of the “zero to hero” schtick that is so over done – and I do want the reveals to be important with emotional impact, so I’d… Read more »
Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Hi Mark! A tricky problem. I like your concept for this novel and the way you’re tackling the scenario from an unusual angle. And I perfectly see why you’re not so interested in the back story. That said, you need some of the back story so that readers can understand what’s happened.
I think this would make a good blogpost in its own right as I’ve already thought of a ton of things to say. I’ll link it to here when I’ve written it. Is that okay? And Jane, is that okay by the rules of your blog?

Jane Friedman

Absolutely, link away. 🙂

Roz Morris @Roz_Morris
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[…] (Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.) […]

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[…] or character , can kill the momentum of your story. There is more on this in a great article by Roz Morris for Jane Friedman’s blog where she describes 4 ways in which backstory might kill your […]

shadowkat678

Happy to see this is a strong suit of mine. I’ve developed a very detailed backstory for my main protagonist and antagonist both, but each build on to who they are and where they are in the novel. I hate seeing something placed just for shock value. It feels so…pointless. I’m extremely driven by character, so if I feel like you’re trying to sell those to me without taking them seriously as people, I’m out.

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[…] There are multiple resources on this from great sources like Writer’s Digest and Jane Friedman and […]

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