Picture this: You’ve splurged on a hefty hardcover you know you’ll spend weeks reading. You’ve given the bookstore your hard-earned cash because you expect the author to keep his/her unspoken promise. Within these pages a story will unfold,one so riveting that by the time you finish, your life will be transformed–or at least during the hours you and the book kept company.
Instead, the author chooses to begin well before important action takes place, and the first one hundred pages are simply a family or character history. You feel cheated, almost as if you have to pass a test to get to the good part.
Remember “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music? Julie Andrews assures us: “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Maybe that’s true when you’re learning how to sing, but not so much when you’re writing a novel.
Last Friday I defined back story as “all those things that happened before the book begins.” I speculated there are three instances when including back story might be important.
- To explain vital parts of a character’s personality
- To explain motivation for actions in the front story (the story that’s unfolding in the present.)
- To set up important plot points
Deciding what back story to include is only half the writing battle. The other half is how to include it.
Flashbacks are probably the most common way. A flashback can be this simple:
“He remembered another night when she had worn this dress. She’d come downstairs, long legs appearing first, then the ruffled hem, then the nipped-in waist. That had been the best part of the evening, because as usual, a fight had begun before they walked out the front door.”
Flashbacks can also be lengthy. Instead of a character’s thoughts, we “relive” the past as if it were happening again. The author uses a transition to take us into the past and suddenly the characters are younger, and the reader is revisiting a moment in a character’s life that will provide that reader with new insights and understanding. Diane Chamberlain uses this to great effect in her novel The Midwife’s Confession, using entire chapters of flashback so skillfully, we don’t feel disoriented.
Another oft-employed method is to use written material such as a journal or letters. I used this device in Whiskey Island and again in The Parting Glass, the sequel. Whiskey Island begins with a journal entry from a priest in 1880, a journal which is discovered later in the novel and vital for explaining an incident that still affects the present day characters.
For The Parting Glass I used letters written by the same priest’s sister. Quite honestly they were less effective than the journal. I included the letters to connect the style of the two books, but their content wasn’t as important, and the way they were mistakenly set into the book was confusing.
See, I never said this was easy.
Dreams are another possibility, but usually not a good one. Ever watch someone’s eyes glaze when you tell them about a dream from the night before? Enough said.
Sandwiching the book between a prologue and epilogue in the present is another method, which in the hands of a master, can be powerful, but is most often annoying. Who are these people and why do we care?
A story within the story is another way to show back story. I used this device in Fox River by including a “novel” the heroine’s mother was writing. At first the “extra” novel seems like nothing more than an interesting historical diversion, a chance for me to show off what I’d learned about fox hunting. By the end of the book, the reader realizes Maisy’s novel is anything but a diversion. I hate to say more. I want you to read it.
So many decisions, so many good ways and not-so-good ways to accomplish a task. Welcome to the world of a novelist. Remember, if you’re not sure something you’re doing is working, try a different method and compare. Still not happy? Try yet another. Your job is to write the best book you can, and sometimes trial and error is the only way to make sure you do.