B is for back story

Sin #1: Incorrect use of back story
Unless your book opens with a birth scene then your character will most definitely have a back story. They’ve been around longer than five minutes and will have done and seen a lot of things. Yes, we get it your character is a real person with all the associated memories and experiences and funny anecdotes that come along with being human. I’m sure even some of them are relevant to the story…but, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, DON’T put the entire bloody back story in the opening chapter!!
The whole point of a back story is to add depth to your novel, it may explain why a character acts they way they do, or how they got to a certain point in their life but that doesn’t mean it has to be piled on within the first chapter. It should be sprinkled liberally every now and again or offered in a small compact way that doesn’t overshadow the main story.
Another major problem with having a back story to explain parts of the novel is that it can be very hard to bring it into play. If a character remembers a key detail just before it becomes relevant in the plot then it will feel forced and, well to be frank, cheesy as hell! Which I’m presuming is a pretty cheesy place.
Personally I prefer it when back stories run parallel to the side of the main story, and it is not until the end we realise the full ramifications of both stories. Obviously this doesn’t work all the time and there are a few books I can think of where I’ve wanted to skip the recollections and stick to the main plot, but it can be a very useful tool.
Just remember that back story is a tool to help improve a novel, it’s not an essential part of a book and characters can be just as strong and believable without having to delve into their past to show how troubled they were and how well they’ve done to overcome it all…against all odds blah, blah, blah.
For those that use back story well – well done! I think when done correctly it can really add depth to a novel. For those who are unsure – skip it! Or learn how to use the tool properly before wedging it into your novel.
‘C’ you tomorrow! Ha! ‘C’ what I did there??


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    • CekaTB on April 3, 2011 at 07:01
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    Very well put, Steven – but did you mean a defiant back-story or maybe a definite one?

    • Sue H on April 3, 2011 at 11:26
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    Backstory is the foundation on which the current action rests. I agree, it helps the 'flesh out' the characters and explain their behaviour traits.

    However, it needs to be an aid to telling the story rather than taking over – I've read some books like that and it was difficult to work out what emphasis the writer was trying to suggest to the reader! (…or it may just have been that I'm thick and didn't get the point!)

    So, "…'C' what I did there?…" – let me guess, your next is 'C' for 'Comedian' ? ;-p

    • Fiona Faith Maddock on April 3, 2011 at 13:33
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    This A-Z is a great idea.

    • Sherri on April 3, 2011 at 14:03
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    I do use back story…and I think I do it well.

    • Steven Chapman on April 3, 2011 at 14:45
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    Cheers for the heads up Ceka! I've changed it now 😛

    Darn tootin', Sue! Yeah, back story can be very useful but it can also trip up a lot of writers. I'm having a hard time fitting my back story into my novel, but I'm still trying.

    Get signed up or it then, Fiona! There's still time to catch up!

    Good, good, Sherri. Do you alternate between past and future or drop in information through character recollection? I'm trying to do both at the moment, in the form of bad memories and nightmares for my MC.

    • baygirl32 on April 3, 2011 at 22:16
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    C you monday!

    • Jennifer Thomson on April 4, 2011 at 00:03
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    The best advice I read was from Liz Roberts who whittled down the Debut Dagger entries – ‘Many entries started off very well – and then ran the reader into the literary equivalent of a brick wall around page 3 or 4, because they couldn’t resist putting in a lot of back story.’

    • C R Ward on April 4, 2011 at 00:55
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    Great advice!

    • Ellie on April 4, 2011 at 15:04
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    Well said. A trickle of back story here and there is okay BUT only if it is relevant to the scene or chapter.

    • Steven Chapman on April 7, 2011 at 09:46
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    Cheers for the comments everyone, I'm glad I wasn't ranting about something that everyone else disagreed with!

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