Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beware the Boring Back Story

Just about every story has some element of back story that provides critical detail that the reader needs in order to make sense of what is going on. Unfortunately, back story not only tends to be boring, but it can literally pull the reader out of the story and cause them to lose interest if not handled correctly. Imagine a fast paced chase scene packed with action and intensity that gets interrupted by a narrator popping onto to the scene, giving a monologue that explains why the results of the chase scene are so crucial to the story. All the action is suddenly brought to a halt. The intensity is deflated. And you just lost your reader.

Some beginning authors make the common mistake of trying to put all their back story at the beginning of the book, thinking that the story can’t begin unless the reader already knows everything that has happened before. That’s a big mistake, unless you want to lose the reader’s interest in the first few pages. Nor does it work to just drop a big chunk of back story in later chapters either.

One overused way of handling back story, is to leave it in big chunks by including it in a flashback or dream sequence. While this can work, it often has the effect of still pulling the reader out the present action of the story. I’m not saying, you shouldn’t approach back story in this manner, it’s just not always the best method and has become a bit cliché.

Back story has to be handled with care. It’s usually best if sprinkled and woven into the story in a way that it hardly goes noticed by the reader. One way to do this is to break it down into small pieces that can be injected a piece at a time throughout the course of the story; maybe a quick comment in a dialogue, a tiny memory that a character recalls, a headline on a newspaper (not the entire newspaper article), and as needed, short bits over time from the narrator can be effective if done in an unobtrusive manner.

The point is, be careful about how you handle back story. Pay attention to what it does to the flow and interest level of your story. Find ways to use it to enhance your story, rather than drag it down.

What have been some effective ways that you’ve learned to handle back story?


  1. An excellent topic and one that every writer has to deal with.

    One thing I've learned is to make the back story very organic to what is happening in the story's here-and-now. Include tidbits about the past when something triggers this memory in the character's natural thought process.

    That ties in with the idea of not interrupting a fast paced scene with back story, because when the adrenaline is pumping, you're not likely to take a stroll down memory lane. You stay in the moment, focused and ready to act. And the narrative flow should reflect that.

    Also, one of my pet peeves is a prologue used as an excuse to include back story. I heard an author once say, that's why they call it BACK story--because it doesn't belong in the front. Ha!

    Thanks for another great post.

  2. Lana, great points. You're right on the mark about how back story needs to be organic to what's going on. It has to feel natural to the reader.

  3. Great discussion. I like to wrap the backstory in organically also. Adding it in at an appropriate time, as it relates to the current situation, gives depth to the story without creating distance between the reader and the story.

  4. I agree that you need to weave the back story into the narrative in small bits. Add a memory or short flashback for the character at a point where the action would naturally trigger that memory.

    However, you have to be careful that it reads as if the elements of the backstory were there all along, and not as if you suddenly realized you needed to add something to the plot. Stieg Larsson is guilty of this in his second novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, where on about page 300 that the hero, Mikael Blomkvist, in addition to being a sterling journalist who is irresistible to women, is also a brilliant mathematician.