Stir the Pot. Treat back story as a pungent spice.
When back story is sprinkled modestly onto your prose, stirred well to conceal its presence, and brewed until the flavours coalesce, you will create layered characters that your reader will engage with.
But, if back story is explained to the reader, or revealed in large lump, it can feel like SHOUTY CAPITALS. You will either make the reader roll their eyes at the obvious disclosure, or send them to sleep.
Benefits of seamless back story
* Maintain story pace.
* Reduce the amount of explaining (otherwise known as the dreaded telling instead of showing).
* Get the reader to empathise with the character enough to make them care about the outcome of her predicament.
* Make your reader eager to find out more.
What is back story?
Back story is the base line from which you can show a change in your character by the end of the story. Usually, back story includes secrets, shame and regrets — all powerful tools to create internal conflict — none of which the character wants to reveal. So, you’ll have to tease it out of her slowly.
It encompasses any event that occurred to any character in your story before the moment it starts. However, the author should only be concerned with significant events that shaped the character into the person he is today. All of these events have affected his personality, morals, innermost fears, hopes for the future, and misguided views of the world.
I like to look at back story as a nice filtered coffee. To avoid a bitter after taste, you need to let it percolate and permeate your story. (For more information about the “osmosis method”, enquire about doing my back story workshop).
The first step
I like to develop a character history for each of my characters, because it’s important to understand where each one of them is coming from. The story length and importance of the character in it, the more detailed the back story.
Context is critical
The reader doesn’t need to know about the horse riding lessons John had when he was six years old… unless he’s a jackaroo, or falling in love with a dressage master.
You may have created an amazing back story for your character, but the reader doesn’t care unless it’s related to what’s happening in the story.
For example, in Inheriting Fear, Mya suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father. The reader doesn’t need to see every time he came home drunk, or every argument, or every bruise on his wife’s cheek. Instead, I chose a single incident that had a profound effect on her.
Also take care to make back story relevant to the immediate situation. You don’t tend to think of a past event out of the blue, rather it is triggered by something you see, hear or do. So it should be with your characters, or the revelation will feel awkward.
How much is overpowering?
Remember, spices should be used modestly, or the strong flavours can overwhelm your dish. Back story should also be applied by the pinch.
The best method is to sprinkle a little back story often in the beginning. Intertwine it with the front story (that’s the life your character is living in the story), until it’s so infused with every other element of character, plot, setting and pace, that the reader doesn’t realise they’re getting to know him so well, until they feel his emotional pain.
For some reason, writers tend to forget the “show, don’t tell” mantra when they need to squeeze historic character information into their stories. Avoid large info dumps and giving too much away too soon.
* Perhaps the most obvious is flashbacks, where the character day dreams about something that happened to them in the past. Keep them brief. Here’s an example from Inheriting Fear: A long time ago she decided no man was going to beat her the way she’d watched her mother get beaten.
* Dialogue is a good, interactive way of revealing back story, but don’t be over obvious. Example: “As you know, Bob, I used to be a rodeo clown”.
* Other characters can be a very useful device, because they can ask lots of questions, or might even know a secret about the main character.
* Reflection and mirroring. Use what is happening in the front story to illustrate back story.
* Subtly hinting at back story, using the character’s physical and emotional responses to what’s happening around them.
Hopefully you are now suitably armed to give your latest story a stir to make sure the back story is well and truly blended, making for a mouth-watering read.
Don’t hesitate to ask me any other questions you have about back story.
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