We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.
— Henry James
Everyone has a story to tell, including the characters in your novel and short story. Back story is part and parcel of who the characters are. Many authors have trouble fitting the back story into their fiction.
Where should it go? How much? All at once like a bio? Start the story off with the bio? Introduce each new point-of view character with his or her bio? Work in little chunks where appropriate throughout the story? Skip it as back story per se and just filter in references to it as the story unfolds.
Think about what you have read in back story in published novels and short stories. For obvious reasons, short stories will have less, even when appearing in chunks. But in novels, how did you react when the author started the novel with the back story or started each scene featuring a new POV character with a chunk of their past, especially if it went on for pages. As my late creative writing instructor, Paul Nowak would write on my manuscript – “so what?”
Sure we need to know some of the characters’ histories. But it should reflect what is happening in the story and why the characters are doing what they are doing. Going on back story tangents can lose the reader.
However, the other main way (which I use) – working in little chunks where appropriate can also lose the reader, especially if a lot of action is happening. But it can be done. Here’s the beginning excerpt from “For the Love of Wills” where I actually filtered in some background.
“Clara, I’m going to fall.”
“Pipe down, Mother. Do you want them to hear us?”
“I can’t move. I’m stuck. See.” She tried tapping her toes against the stone rock wall, but to no avail.
“Well, whose idea was this anyway?” I whispered.
“Mine? Now, listen here….”
“Shush. Do you want Will and that blonde Bimbo to hear us?”
That blonde Bimbo is what got Heidi Anastasia Clarke started. Bad enough that on her 62nd birthday, her husband of 40 years, William Everett Clarke, decided to toss her out of their old-money mansion in Toronto’s Rosedale. All this for a post-mid-life crisis which brought his oh-so-much younger secretary in and sent my mother packing.
“And they’re not even married,” Mother had said.
How could that be? Mother didn’t want a divorce. Although I didn’t condone Dad’s actions, I’m a realist. What happens, happens, and I believe in making the best of it and moving on. Mother, however, has to grab the situation and yank it for all it’s worth. Bleeding her husband half dry in a divorce didn’t appeal.
“You’ll get a lump sum, half his pension and half the house,” I had said.
“I can’t live in half a house with them living in the other. No, Clara I’ve got a better idea. We’ve got to see his will.”
“His will? What the hell for?”
“I need to see that he’s still leaving me everything and hasn’t changed it to the Bimbo.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to just ask William, Jr.? He is the family lawyer?”
She’d smirked and muttered something about keeping her ideas close to her mind.
“Fine. How do you propose we see this will? Do you know where or even if Dad keeps it in the house?”
“Of course he does. A copy, at least. Why else do you think he kicked me out and changed the locks?”
I hadn’t reminded her about the secretary moving in but suggested I visit Dad and ask him, which sent her into a hissy-fit.
“And let him know what I’m up to? No. I have a better idea.” She’d brought her tantrum to a full stop and curled her thin lips into a misshapen smile. Oh, oh. She had mixed trouble into her stew.
That was how we arrived here, as dusk turned to dark, scaling up the back wall of the three-storey family mansion, harnessed into a rope, anchored at various protrusions along the way: metal awnings, window ledges, open window shutters, and the irregular jutting stone wall. Now, on our last leg, I managed to throw our anchor up, hooking it to the top balcony railing. Heidi had insisted it was the only way in without being noticed. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, Blue Denim Press, 2012, Copyright Sharon A. Crawford 2012)
If you analyze the above excerpt you will see that it covers not only some of the mother’s and Clara’s background, but also some events in the immediate past leading up to now. The big priority is to begin the story with NOW and work your way back. Only use what is relevant to your story. Here it includes the mother’s age, marriage background (but only what is necessary), the relationship between mother and daughter. Everything is from one person’s – the daughter’s – point of view. Watch that you don’t end up writing the big tell. Show the reader by using dialogue and the character’s reactions to each other’s dialogue and behaviour.
Flashback is another way – if handled well. Next week we’ll go into using flashback techniques to work in your back story.
Meantime, you can hear and see me read an excerpt from another story – “The Body in the Trunk” from Beyond the Tripping Point at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC505OMPiVNy27zCFfND_8WA Click on “Sharon A. Crawford Reading”
And check out my website for upcoming Beyond the Tripping Point readings in person at http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html
Sharon A. Crawford