[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#1]
A story is commonly considered to be a narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. By that definition, every life is a story. It doesn’t matter whether the person living it is real or imagined – the story begins on the day the individual was born and ends with his or her death. Most people who write autobiographically tend to focus on some aspect or particular time period of their lives, rather than attempting to tell their entire life story. So do novelists writing about fictional characters. You can squeeze a great deal of storytelling into a mere couple hundred pages of manuscript if you bear in mind the following:
Stories break down into episodes, and episodes are triggered by change.
In real life, changes are usually beyond our control. They occur randomly, often without warning or for reasons we don’t understand. They can be minor hiccups or major upheavals in our lives, for good or for ill, but they cannot be ignored. They cause problems that we have to deal with as we struggle to return our lives to some sort of normalcy, to a situation we can live with, a status we’re willing to accept as quo from that point onward. And in each case, the return to normalcy marks the end of the episode.
In a novel, the changes are orchestrated by the author and are completely under his or her control. They can be as large or as small, as tragic or as comical as necessary; and, as in real life, they cannot be ignored by the character who is experiencing them. However, the main difference between reality and fiction, especially popular fiction, is that the fictional work must have a coherent and believable plot.
To that end, a genre novel focuses on the episode resulting from a single significant, mind- or heart-altering change, or problem, or challenge that occurs in the life of the main character. The novel brings out the dramatic conflict in that episode in a series of progressively higher rising actions, each followed by a falling action that shows the effect on the character of handling the various new complications in his or her life. Finally, the narrative rises to its highest point, a climax that provides a morally and emotionally satisfying conclusion to the episode, with life returned to a comfortable norm for the person the character has grown into over the course of the book.
Strictly speaking, then, although we call it a story and it has a beginning, a middle and an end, a novel is not the character’s full story, but rather one episode from it. Many changes will have preceded the one that triggers this particular episode; and unless the character dies at the end of the book, there will be many more changes, problems and challenges to come after the episode is ended. Everything that the character has experienced before the opening paragraph of the novel is considered to be the character’s back story. Some of it might have led directly to the situation he or she is in right now, but most of it will be irrelevant. So, while it may be tempting to let the reader wallow in your character’s colorful and exciting past, here’s the important thing to remember:
Only the author needs to know a character’s full back story.
To illustrate, allow me to introduce my own personal daemon, Bilyash. The prework story, “When Billy Met Angie”, takes place when he has been on our world for nearly five hundred years, and the change that launches the episode is – you guessed it – that a unique and interesting human named Angie comes into his life. This novel is going to be a romantic suspense tale, so there will be some major problems and challenges for the two of them to overcome as their relationship develops. However, the meeting between Bilyash and Angie is where it all begins.
Bilyash has seen and done a great many things during the past eight hundred or so years. They’ve formed his character, confirmed his attitudes, and literally made him into the person he is at the moment he and Angie first lock eyes. I could share his entire history with the reader, but I won’t, because those are all past episodes and what’s important to this novel is what is happening right now – Bilyash meets Angie, sparks fly, and the roller coaster ride begins. I want the reader to become immersed in this one episode of the character’s life, even feel as though the reader is experiencing it alongside him. For that to happen, I need to create a sense of immediacy by keeping distractions from Bilyash’s past to a minimum.
So, you may be wondering, why bother with back story at all?
Here’s the reason: A realistic character is one who sounds and acts like a real person, and real people are shaped and influenced by the events of their past. Therefore, the author needs to be familiar with each character’s back story in order to make his or her present self believable. That’s all the reader cares about – being able to suspend disbelief for as long as it takes to read the novel.
For example, I know why Bilyash won’t eat human flesh or drink human blood, but to the reader, all that matters is that the character has food preferences, just as any real person does. I also know which past experiences have colored Bilyash’s attitudes, predisposing him to behave in certain ways in particular situations. There’s a consistency to his reactions that might lead the reader to suspect their cause, but unless it becomes significant to the unfolding of the present episode in Bilyash’s life, there’s no reason for the knowledge to be shared. Just as in real life, some things are best left to the onlooker’s imagination.
As a rule, the character’s past should only be recalled if it bears directly in some way on the present episode. For example, here’s some foreshadowing from “When Billy Met Angie”. Notice that there’s a clear connection between the back story information and Bilyash’s current situation:
Maury had been listening. He picked up. “Be careful when you get here. I just heard from The First that a triad of assassins came through the gate last night, so I’m setting traps around the house, just in case.”
“It’s been nearly five hundred years since I left Araunt,” Bilyash pointed out, “and more than a hundred since I moved out of your place to live on my own, and if nobody’s come after me in all that time—”
“—it was probably because you were too young to pose a threat. That may not be the case anymore. You could be the last living member of a family that my family is sworn to protect. So watch your back, kid. From now on, trust no one. And remember: it isn’t paranoia if someone is actually plotting to kill you.”
There are several ways to provide a reader with insight using a character’s back story, ranked here in descending order of effectiveness and desirability:
- Coincidentally, in dialogue. Dialogue is the preferred medium for delivering background information because it lends itself to the coincidental inclusion of facts and it won’t slow down the pace of the story, as you can see from the example above. When using dialogue, restrict the flow of data, revealing only what is most significant at that moment to the characters having the conversation, and make sure the speeches are kept short and ‘in character’. Don’t just break up a history lecture into a series of pro forma questions and answers. And if you ever find yourself beginning a line of dialogue with the phrase, “As you know,” pull your hands away from the keyboard immediately and go get some fresh air.
- In small bites, in exposition. Sometimes a brief glimpse of the past is necessary to the development of a fully-realized character. This information should be doled out sparingly, firmly embedded in the present situation, and revealed from the character’s point of view. Notice the difference in what is learned about Bilyash from the two examples below:
Five hundred years earlier, Bilyash had come through the gate into an alien world. He had been very young at the time, and he had found the experience frightening and confusing. That wasn’t the case now.
The noise was harsh and very loud, but Bilyash wasn’t alarmed. In fact, nothing on this world could frighten him now, he thought with grim amusement, because young Bilyash had learned his lessons well over the past five hundred years. He and his kind were the monsters here. Araurrans were the ones to be feared, not the miserable creature bellowing outside his front door.
- In large helpings, in flashback. Flashback is the least recommended technique for revealing back story, for two reasons: first, dropping a scene from the past into the present of a story has a tendency to bring the story to a grinding halt; and second, leaping back and forth between present and past can jar the reader out of the narrative with a reminder that what he or she is reading is a purposely constructed work of fiction – and there goes the suspension of disbelief.
That being said, there may be occasions when it is appropriate to insert a flashback. I am reminded of a romantic suspense novel I once rewrote for Harlequin, which began with a plane crash that separated the lovers and ended several months later with their reunion. In between, the heroine was up to her neck in a cloak and dagger plot to locate some stolen microfilm that she could use to secure the release of the hero from the secret agents who were holding him. There was plenty of suspense in this story, but literally no way other than flashback to include any romance. I used the technique exactly three times in a 65,000 word novel, and always during a falling action: first when the heroine is delirious from exposure while bobbing in a life raft after the crash; the second time in the form of a dream just before she is awakened by the ringing of the telephone; and the third time as she is cooling her heels waiting for the kidnappers to meet her at the exchange location.
So, if you have a pressing and legitimate need for a flashback scene, wait until your character is in a coma, or has been drugged and is hallucinating, or is asleep and dreaming, or perhaps just daydreaming, before inserting it. Just remember to keep the scene short, and anchor the beginning and end of the flashback firmly in the present of the story. Doing that should keep the illusion of reality – and your reader’s suspension of disbelief – relatively intact.
Experienced authors are fond of saying that there are no rules for writing, because once you’ve learned the rules, experience teaches you when and how it’s okay to break them. I would argue, however, that when it comes to back story, there is one unbreakable rule:
Keep the present in the foreground and the past in the background.
And then, let the roller coaster ride begin!