I’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).
Solution 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!
Dystopias, 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.