Past master: how to stop back story slowing your novel

Human – business evolutionI’ve had this email from Henry Boleszny, who is struggling with unwieldy back story:

My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster.  I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins.  This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.   

The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.

Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.

Solution 1 – Try to simplify

DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?

I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.

From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.

Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?

If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.

Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).

nynfiller2Solution 2 – the opposite – expand and write the prequel

You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.

For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.

You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.

Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of A Game of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.

 Solution 3 – add a newcomer

Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)

You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series.

Thanks for the pic patriziasoliani

What would you say to Henry? Are there any books you would add to his reading list? Share in the comments!   

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compDystopias, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are among the books and topics tackled in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Out now in all formats, including (ahem) combustible.

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  1. #1 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 26, 2013 - 3:12 pm

    What would I say to Henry? “I feel your pain.”

    I’m having similar problems with the third novel of my trilogy. It has a lot of loose ends to tie up, and I’m concerned that it might turn into a monster. But for now, I’m just letting my imagination run wild with the intent of strategically paring down the story later. I feel like I can’t figure out what’s essential (the “critical path,” to borrow a project management term) until I see the full scope of work. I’m also exploring multiple ways to solve the same problem (e.g. different endings).

    This is one time I’m very thankful that I’m a plotter. What I’m writing at this point is just a description of what’s going to happen in the story, not the story itself, so my time expenditure while exploring my options is minimal. When I’m done, I’ll go through my overview and pick out the scenes that best tell the story. That’s when I’ll begin on the actual manuscript. That’s my theory, anyway.

    It sounds like Henry already has a lot of content and he’s trying to figure out how to best use it. If that were my problem to solve, I’d create a beat sheet to get a high-level overview. Then I’d look at the content I had to work with and plug it into the beat sheet at the optimal location. (I know, easier said than done.) I honestly don’t know if that approach will work with fiction, but I’ve successfully used a very similar process for non-fiction, where I’m often starting with a large body of content (articles) and need to organize it into a cohesive presentation.

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:46 am

      Hi Daniel! That all sounds like good advice to me. I play with story options in note form, as you’re describing here, so that I can test different ways to use my characters and situations. I often compare two story options by making a list of the pros and cons of each. I end up generating a lot of paperwork that never gets onto the page!

    • #3 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 27, 2013 - 2:10 pm

      I can relate to generating a lot of words that never directly make it onto the page. I’m writing fantasy, so I often have to step aside from the flow of the story and write a brief history of a location, institution, society, or event.

      I have thousands of words that describe historical battles, how spirits function, how the empire’s government is structured, and so on. That information is a tapestry into which the story is woven, and the magnifying lens of the character POV exposes just a portion of the tapestry at any given time.

      The incredible amount of work that goes into story context is something that I never fully appreciated as a reader. Although a lot of that context never literally makes it onto the page, it lends a richness to everything else that does.

      • #4 by Henry Boleszny on May 27, 2013 - 9:23 pm

        You’re not wrong about lending richness. My ‘back story’ began as a chapter and blew out to more than a third of the book! Without it, I’d have no framework for the ‘present’ events or an understanding of why the characters act and react the way they do. It’s almost as though authors who create a unique universe need to write one version of the story for themselves, with all the back story and explanations in it, and another for the general public where the ‘extraneous detail’ is either removed or put into ‘present context’.

        I used to think some fantasy/sci-fi authors were lazy, either in failing to address gaping holes within the story or in leaving in so much detail that the plot was lost in a fog of information. I’m now realising that it’s so simple to create a new universe where important differences–common to the characters yet extraordinary to the reader–require some description.

      • #5 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 27, 2013 - 10:07 pm

        I actually *do* write one version of the story for readers and one for myself, in a manner of speaking. When I sit down to write details about historical events, fantasy creature descriptions, how magic works, or anything else that I need to invent for my story, I keep that material separate from the manuscript. I use Scrivener now, so I have a separate project just for the background information about my fantasy world Mundia. Everything that goes into that project becomes reference material for the stories set in that world. It’s a great way to avoid continuity errors.

        When I do pull information from my reference project, I rewrite it to fit the circumstances of the particular story. For example, I once wrote up a full description of a sentient feline creature I invented called an Arbolenx. My reference material included how big they were, how and where they lived, what special abilities they had, and so forth. Bits and pieces of that information came out in an encounter between an Arbolenx and the main character in my first book. Some of it was part of the dialog and some of it was in the narrative surrounding the encounter.

        What got left out? Well, the reader never needed to know that a “band” of Arbolenx typically consists of 5 to 15 members. Or that they don’t cook their food. Or that the females weigh 40 pounds on average and the males 55 pounds. But *I* knew that about them, and the knowledge influenced the way I describe them during the encounter. That kind of thing is what creates the richness we’re talking about.

        At first I was disappointed at how much material I was generating that wasn’t adding anything to my publishable word count. Then I realized there’s no reason to hold it back. I published some of it on my blog (Creature Feature, Location Lore, and Character Spotlight posts), and I have plans to publish more of it on the book web site. The readers who *want* all that story world info can get it. Meanwhile, it isn’t bogging down the stories.

        • #6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 28, 2013 - 8:50 am

          Daniel, that’s a good point. You can use your background material the way film-makers put extras and goodies on DVDs. Deleted scenes can be used this way too.

  2. #7 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 26, 2013 - 3:19 pm

    P.S. A book I’d add to Henry’s reading list is “Wool.” Howey does a masterful job of introducing story world with the action. A simple walk up a spiral staircase tells you virtually everything you need to know about the character’s daily life, state of mind, and the world in which he lives. Howey reveals the rest of the story world just in time for when you need to know about it.

    In fact, “just in time” is the rule I try to apply for revealing story world in my own work.

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:47 am

      I was wondering whether to mention Wool, as I know Hugh Howey must have tackled this problem. I haven’t read it, though, so couldn’t comment on how he handled his material. Glad you mentioned it here!

      • #9 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 27, 2013 - 2:16 pm

        One of the things that was so amazing about Wool was how complete the story world feels in spite of it being a short story. I read it over lunch and was blown away. I learned a lot from Mr. Howey. However, Wool is a dystopian tragedy, so I didn’t read on in the series. That kind of thing is not my cup of tea.

    • #10 by Dave Morris on May 27, 2013 - 10:37 am

      “Just in time” – yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Daniel. That way, the reader is only given the background information as and when they need it and when have a reason to want to know it.

      • #11 by Daniel R. Marvello on May 27, 2013 - 2:20 pm

        Thanks, Dave. The “just in time” theory still leaves plenty of wiggle room for too much exposition, but at a minimum, it helps me do a better job of placing the information within the story.

  3. #12 by philipparees on May 26, 2013 - 3:43 pm

    The illustration on this post is rather too close to my particular bone.Literally. A more general question I would put to your readership is this:- I know the strategy is usually ‘ write and let rip’ and then ‘put away’ for as long as you can/dare and then ‘sharpen the paring knife, and strip off/down, edit, and be prepare to murder all your darlings’ and you will end up with the essential lean work your book deserves to be.
    BUT Where do I find any recognition or reference to exhaustion/boredom/ self-doubt/ sell by date which can so easily intrude into that regime? Is the antiseptic steel wiped down work always better than the rough scrubbed pine and terracotta you first slapped on the table? I read these clean living books with increasing misery. Anybody agree?

    • #13 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:51 am

      Philippa, I’m sure I must have posted in the past about rekindling your enthusiasm for a much-edited book. Can’t remember for now what I called it… but you describe a feeling we all get, that somehow we’ve made a big muddle and it’s not the wonderful shining thing we thought it might be when we started.
      Two remedies: take a long enough break that you can come back to the book and forgive it all the hassle it’s caused you. (ie have another book you can work on). Also, keep your early drafts and notes. In their language and confidence, you’ll rediscover the original spirit that moved you to write.

  4. #14 by Leslie on May 26, 2013 - 3:51 pm

    How about a short prologue giving the most important bits of backstory, told in a way that hints of more to come… and have that “more” dribbled in as needed into the story? I am dealing with something similar in my first novel. My story starts “en medias res,” with my protagonist having already been on the run for over a week. I have not presented all the details of how her situation came to be. I also have many decisions to make about how much of the backstory is actually needed, so as not to frustrate the readers, and how to best include it. I’m finding the challenge of it kind of fun!

    • #15 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:52 am

      A prologue could do the trick – although we have to be careful not to make it too abstract. Prologues about worlds, as Henry’s must be, can be quite sterile if we’re not careful.
      Your novel sounds fun – as you say, how much do you reveal, how much do you leave out? Good luck with it!

  5. #16 by mgm75 on May 26, 2013 - 4:42 pm

    Ah yes, how to properly include exposition without bogging down the reader and dragging them away from the story. Too little and the story seems superficial. Too much and you start to feel you are reading an essay.

    Writing a prequel is a very good idea, even if it is only for your own reference. I sometimes find having it all in a document helps me make sense about how to work it all in together.

    • #17 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:53 am

      Writing a prequel to organise your own thoughts – that’s an interesting idea!

      • #18 by mgm75 on May 27, 2013 - 10:50 am

        Yes, I usually do it in a basic short story format. Works for me most of the time as I can use it as a reference.

  6. #19 by jwtroemner on May 26, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    I had a similar conundrum, where I had some major events and changes happening twenty years before the main plot. The protagonist learned about some of them as she went on, but I ended up giving her only the most basic details.

    If this story does manage to make it, I’ll be putting out a companion story, which would focus on the villain as a hero (after all, which villain doesn’t see himself as a hero?), reacting to those major events and eventually becoming the monster who must eventually be defeated. I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo for that one.

    • #20 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 9:56 am

      JW, this sounds very similar to Henry’s situation. And you make an excellent point – villains do see themselves as the hero. There could be a lot of mileage in the story you describe. I hope you manage to write your companion story, it sounds like it has a long way to go!

  7. #21 by Henry Boleszny on May 26, 2013 - 10:16 pm

    Many thanks, Roz, for this detailed reply. I must admit that I haven’t read ‘Fahrenheit 451’ or ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’; my parents and high school made conservatives look radical. I’ve heard of but haven’t watched ‘The Godfather’ series and didn’t know the films were based on novels. Until I started reading ‘Nail Your Novel’, I though wool was something to wear, not read. Clearly, I’ve got a lot of catch-up reading to do…

    I don’t know I’d add other books to those you suggest. Tolkein’s ‘The Silmarillion’-‘Hobbit’-‘Lord of the Rings’ sequence (each completed in a different order to the narrative sequence) is probably closest to what you suggest in Option Two. I could go that way, but I’m not sure there’s enough in the ‘back story’ to justify an independent series of short stories. ‘The Silmarillion’ reads that way, with each story being an independent, inter-related chapter. I’ll probably have to go that way if I can’t integrate key back story aspects into the main story without breaking it… assuming I retain the bulk of what I’ve written. Robin Hobb came up with an interesting approach, too–create a universe and write multiple trilogies from different aspects of that universe. The problem with my adopting that approach, though, is the risk of creating a series that doesn’t seem to relate to my first book.

    Both you and those who’v already responded to this article have given me a lot to consider. Again, thank-you for taking the time to help. ‘Nail Your Novel: Bring Your Characters to Life’ has already helped me correct a lot of mistakes I’d made. This advice helps me address another whopper! All I have to do now is take the time to read the suggested books and consider the approaches those authors adopted…

    • #22 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 10:30 am

      Hi Henry! Thanks for bringing up such a useful question. I know I’ve struggled with back story – and indeed, behind the scenes of this blog I’m wrangling another lot for The Mountains Novel.

      Another writer you could look at is Iain M Banks. His Culture novels have a universe in common, but not necessarily characters and stories.

      Have fun!

  8. #23 by acflory on May 27, 2013 - 9:05 am

    I can empathize with this problem. The tack I finally took was to make the backstory book 1. Of course as I began fleshing out the main events I already knew about [as the backstory], the main story also began to change. Now I am working on a series. But that is not a bad thing!

  9. #26 by Dave Morris on May 27, 2013 - 10:34 am

    I haven’t read George R R Martin’s novels, but I have seen Game of Thrones on TV and there is obviously a lot of history there – eg, how the last Targaryen king died and Robert Baratheon took the throne, and how the Starks and Lannisters figure into all that. Mr Martin must have found a way to unfold that history in parallel with modern events and keep it interesting, so I suggest taking a look at how he did it.

    • #27 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on May 27, 2013 - 5:33 pm

      That’s the first time I’ve seen those names spelled out… We Morrises have been GoT viewers rather than readers. They’re not quite as I imagined them. But no matter – George RR has a wonderful ear for names.

  10. #28 by Dave Morris on May 27, 2013 - 3:05 pm

    Btw I guess that, broadly speaking, there are three strategies for inserting backstory. One is to stick it all in an appendix, Tolkien-style. Another is to put it all in a prequel, as you suggest. A third option is to interweave the historical and current narratives, as The Godfather Part 2 does or the way we were told about the characters in Lost. If the backstory is really important – that is, if it can’t be vastly simplified, summarized or struck out, and must be elaborated in a narrative of its own – then logically the third way should be most effective.

  11. #29 by William Amerman on May 29, 2013 - 5:13 am

    Wonderful topic. I’m writing dystopia as well and I find myself scavenging every opportunity to pack in World details either through plot, character details and histories, sub-plots, etc. I finally decided that it had to become a series; first a trilogy and then i just gave into the “it’ll be done when I write the last book” feeling. Once I did that, it seemed to take the pressure off as even I can manage to fit in all pertinent details over the course of 500k words or so.

  12. #30 by Lara Dunning on January 28, 2014 - 5:18 pm

    I often always write more than I need. I often find that after my first draft a good chunk of it needs to be cut as it may have backstory that is not needed for the present story line. I guess in the need I always ask myself what is relevant now for my character at this point, at this chapter. Usually, what I wrote was extremely useful for me as a tool to get to know my character and the world they live in better. World creation is so complex. I’ve found these questions helpful. Also, Orson Scott Card , How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, chapter 3 and chapter 4, which cover questions to ask yourself about story structure, MICE, and ways to analyse your own use of exposition, abeyance, implicaiton, etc.

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