Bringing in the back-story

For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest.  We hold a large, quiet party.  Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.

Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene.  Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.

The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in.  Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area:  introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.

Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should.  But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.

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