Posts Tagged back story

5 tips for handling amnesia and back story

amnesiaI haven’t forgotten I’m half-way through the self-editing masterclass snapshots, but I got this fantastic question from a writer who’d read a post of mine about back story.

I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.

But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?

(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)

I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.

First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?

Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)

As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.

Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)

Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’

On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.

So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.

And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.

ebookcovernyn3There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!

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Is back story sabotaging your novel? Guest spot at Jane Friedman

friedmanI’m at Jane Friedman’s blog today, where she’s showcasing a section of the plot book that deals with back story.

Misusing back story is one of the most common problems I see as an editor. Writers bury their best events in the back story, and then struggle to think up enough spectacular ideas for the main narrative. Or they rely on secret, past wounds instead of character development. Or they set up secret traumas that are never used in the forward action. Lastly, they heap all the back story into the beginning of the book, stalling the action – the famous back story dump.

But back story is also important. It lets you write with authority. And there are moments when you can play it out and deeply enrich your readers’ experience. So how can you wield back story with panache?

Hop along to Jane’s blog to find out.

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Heroes and heroin – writing a character who has an addiction

joplinwritingcharacters

Pic of Janis Joplin from Wikepedia

You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.

What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.

Choose your poison

The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)

Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality

The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.

Consider what the drug does for them

What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?

Decide how addiction controls them

You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.

Money

What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?

Significant others who aren’t addicted

How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?

Changing

Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?

Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal

Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.

Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.

There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated

Thanks for the pic of Janis Joplin Wikipedia

Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?

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Studying Ray Bradbury: a beat sheet of Fahrenheit 451

learning from ray bradburyI get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.

Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)

First of all, what’s a beat sheet?

It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.

Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.

 

  • Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
  • Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
    natural world & how people are isolated
  • M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
  • Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
    true feelings, everyone’s doing this
  • Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
  • M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
  • Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
  • Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
  • taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
  • M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
  • Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
  • M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
  • B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
  • M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
  • M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…

 

So that’s how it’s done.

Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?

learning from fahrenheit 451Introduce the world and keep the pace moving – variety and contrast

Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.

First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)

We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.

Connecting us with the character

In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.

Change

In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.

Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life

Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.

Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.

I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfreslf3likeThe beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here

And more about Lifeform Three here

Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire

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7 ways to cut a novel without losing anything important

2009_1101oct09chillingham0030‘Help, an agent has told me I need to cut 25,000 words from my novel!’ I get a lot of emails like this – from writers understandably wondering where on earth to start.

What is too long?

In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.

Too long for who?

You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.

So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.

1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.

sidebarcrop2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)

3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.

4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?

5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?

6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersml7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)

NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)

Back to important matters….

Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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How not to bore the reader with trivial details – book excerpt at Jane Friedman

friedTrivia is the stuff of life but you can easily have too much. There’s a fine line between sketching a realistic amount and boring the reader with shoals of baffling blather.

Today, Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I explain this tricky balancing act. If you’re curious about the book – or if you simply want to know how much of your carefully crafted background to include – come on over and see.

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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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Bringing the dead to life… Why novelists should read obituaries

obitMany years ago, my writer friend Cathryn Atkinson told me she found inspiration for characters by reading obituaries, especially those in the Daily Telegraph. By gum she was right, and I was soon curating my own file of the fascinating dead. I called it my morgue, of course.

Reading obits is still a habit, and not just to discover queer folk. I’m inspired by the way obit writers tackle certain problems we also have in novels.

Physical descriptions

Although famous people obviously get obits, so do obscure achievers.

For the writer, it’s easy to describe a person who is already well known; you just tick their recognisable characteristics. For Elizabeth Taylor, reference the violet eyes, voluptuous proportions and bawdy persona – and that’s enough to summon their physical presence.

But the obit writer often has to describe a person the reader hasn’t seen before. Which is also what the novelist does.

Crucially, they don’t rely on visual descriptions. Blue eyes and a crooked front tooth don’t mean much if the reader doesn’t already have a mental picture. So the obituarist adds another dimension – the sense of what it’s like to be in a room with the subject. One of the earliest entrants to my morgue file was an eminent female chemist who always had a worried expression, as though she feared a catastrophe was happening in the next room. I’ve long forgotten her name or what she was responsible for (alas), but I still know what it would be like to spend time with her. Another unforgettable was the religious leader who had the disconcerting habit of closing his eyes while he spoke.

nynfiller2Dignity, even for villains

The obit’s subjects may not always be nice or heroic.

Take The Economist’s obituary of UK reality TV star Jade Goody. She was infamous for squalid incidents, astonishing ignorance and racist remarks. She was also a shameless publicity hound. The obit didn’t whitewash any of this, but their unsparing portrait also uncovered her battles, hardships, goals and happinesses. The result gives her remarkable dignity.

This is so interesting for novelists. Even if we’re writing nasty characters, they become more potent if we approach them with respect and curiosity.

Back story and context

Obits generally follow a formula. First they hook your interest – tell you why the character is significant, conjure up a conundrum that gets you curious. Then there will be defining incidents from their prime. Details about childhood don’t come until late in the piece. After we have read about the achievements or ignominies, we are shown how the person started with similar stuff to ourselves – parents, a local library or sports ground, school teachers. There they are, just like we were, unaware of their destiny.

It might be peculiar to follow that backwards chronology in most novels, of course, but it’s a reminder that back story works because of context. Deployed in the wrong place, back story will be boring. In the right place, it can be humanising and even powerful.

Are there any non-fictional places you go for inspiration, such as obituaries? Why do you like them? Share in the comments

And PS… if you enjoyed this post, you might like the Nail Your Novel books, especially Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated.

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How to wield back story with panache

How soon can you tell readers your characters’ backgrounds? Most writers are in too much of a hurry. Here’s how to deploy back story with confidence

We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.

That’s back story.

Here are the two main problems with back story.

  1. Most writers fling it in too early.
  2. Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.

Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.

So how do you judge when is the right time?

First woo your reader

Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.

In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?

This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.

Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.

So where do you put it?

I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.

Cut it all out

I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.

Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.

Make the back story part of the action

What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.

Leave it as late as possible

As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.

Use back story as bonding material

As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.

So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.

Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.

There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!

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Call me Ishmael… When to reveal your MC’s name if writing in first person

Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’

Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.

Dickens and du Maurier

Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.

At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.

Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.

Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.

A terrible memory for names

How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.

Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)

Safety net

Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)

Key points

  • Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
  • If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
  • Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
  • As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.

Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe

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