How Much Back Story?

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Sometimes in my review of a novel, I find that the story doesn’t pick up soon enough. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading about and my interest may lag, though I can still eye great writing.

“But I wanted my readers to know about my characters,” the author may protest.

Understandable, indeed.

However, I believe it’s important to lay out the basic conflicts for the reader early on so she’ll know what she’ll be exploring with you and will be eager to keep diving in. Before I learn that the hero had a difficult childhood and the heroine struggles with lingering effects of poverty, I want to know their immediate obstacles to their current goals. Those goals may be (whether they know it or not) their ultimate romance. Or they may be involved in a quest. Or perhaps solving a mystery. In any event, the reader wants to know what type of book he’ll be reading and will want to learn what obstacles he’ll be overcoming with the characters right away. Then, once the reader is interested in the characters’ journey, their back story will be all the more fascinating and relevant.

I’ll grant that this is a finely tuned dance. Learning how to balance enough back story within the plot is part of the craft, but one worth pursuing.

Your turn:

What is your favorite book that is really successful in balancing back story with plot?

Have you ever put down a book because you thought the story took too long to get moving?

Did you ever slog through a couple of boring chapters to get to a story? Did it pay off?

7 Responses to How Much Back Story?

  1. Angie Dicken February 27, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    Hi Tamela,
    Back story has been on my mind a lot as I prepare entries for contests. I am learning that it really speeds up the pace of those first chapters to cut back story out! One of my favorite books is She Walks In Beauty by Siri Mitchell…She does a great weaving of back story, and brings it to culmination at the a-ha moment! Love it!
    I think it’s good to think of back story like when you’re getting to know a person in real life. We don’t dump our history on someone right away, usually we relate to each other in the moment or situation of what we’re doing, and then as you grow in relationship, you begin to learn more about the person.
    Have a great day!
    Angie

  2. Ane Mulligan February 27, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    This is a pet peeve of mine, too. I always tell new writers it’s like when you go to a party and meet someone new. If that person starts telling you their life history, including Aunt Emma’s gallbladder surgery, you start side-stepping toward the door. You’re looking to escape.

    Besides, if we know all the whys then we don’t need to read to find them out. I love a bit of mystery attached to the characters. Why are they this way? Dropping tiny hints is fun. The book becomes a treasure hunt of characterization and draws me onward. :)

  3. Teresa-Rae February 27, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    “I’ll grant that this is a finely tuned dance.” Well put! Answers: Wuthering Heights; Yes; No.

  4. Linda Samaritoni February 27, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    If the author wants to have a few back story steps before getting to the finely tuned dance of the mystery, how many page(s)are you willing to read before you decide you’ve waited too long? I agree that the character’s life history is NOT what you want for the first ten pages, but as a new writer I have some stories with immediate action and others that seem more relaxed with longer introductions to the story.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray March 3, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

      Linda, sorry for my delay in responding but I have been at a conference. You do need to be true to your story. Some back story will seem more needed and natural in some plots than others. If you are uncertain about overdoing back story, find a couple of beta readers who will be very honest. Ask them if they are bored by the back story. That is the best way I can think of to get feedback before an editor or agent rejects the story. Hope that helps!

  5. Rita Stella Galieh February 27, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

    I write out everything relevant to my characters then slip in what’s needed where most appropriate. I do like to know a little about them at the start though, or else I wouldn’t care what happens to them. Yes, it sure is a fine line.

    I’m not going to name certain books that have dumped the facts near the beginning but I tend to struggle on hoping the plot wil reach out and grab me. If it doesn’t… money wasted!

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