Rerun: Ease up on the backstory, tiger

Full disclosure: This is a repost from my former blog, which talks about snakes. There are no actual snakes pictures in this post. Don’t be scared.

I, Jackie Hames, blogger, writer and quasi-journalist, am guilty of writing too much back story. My professor told me so.

I know! I know, you all didn’t realize I how low my lows really were. But, there it is; I begin at the beginning, and sometimes, that just ain’t right. No, really. It isn’t. Allow me to demonstrate.

Which of the following seizes your interest immediately?

  1. My friend and I went out to Prince William Forest Park today to take some pictures. We got there, parked, and found a trail we both thought would be idyllic. The day was sunny and warm, and we were in high spirits. We were walking along the trail, taking pictures of random shadows and mushrooms, when we came upon a snake.
  2. My friend and I were out taking pictures in the park. We followed this one trail that was down by the water, and soon came upon a snake.
  3. “SNAKE!” I bellowed. “Holy Moses, it’s huge! Take a picture!” Friend gestured with her camera. “I hate snakes! You take a picture!” “Fine, I’ll take the pic—OH MY GOD IT MOVED! Get a park ranger!”

If you didn’t say C, I think I may need to have a chat with you. Let’s analyze this, shall we? Excerpt A, while detailed, is pretty much unnecessary. Yawn. I don’t care how sunny it is if you found a king snake. Snakes are much more interesting than idyllic, sunny trails.

Excerpt B is decent, but there’s still a little too much back story in this instance—the idea here is to grip reader’s attention.  And excerpt C does that (or I think it does, at least). I mean, if someone yells “snake” at the top of her very capable lungs, aren’t you going to be paying attention? It conveys urgency. And, through the dialogue and small-detail narrative, you can piece together generally where these two are, and what they may be doing.

Once your characters have moved past the main action, there will be time for a bit of back story. But keep the mystery going, don’t reveal too much at one time, and reveal it through different venues: narrative, dialogue, action, that sort of thing. Of course, if you need to reveal a key detail before proceeding with the story, do so. Just remember that too much back story may make your readers lose interest.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and some writer’s masterfully place the back story right in your face and are successful—mostly because the back story is full of action. But, if you stick to revealing the past gradually, and through the characters’ actions or dialogue and interaction with each other, readers will stay interested longer. Which is the central goal: keep readers entertained.

I can’t tell you how many times I was guilty of excerpt A, or how often I still find myself doing that sort of thing. It’s a nasty habit to break, but that’s what first drafts are for, after all. Bad habits.

When I discover way too much back story, I cut it out and save it as reference for character development. Or, repurpose it and insert it elsewhere in the story. That seems to work well for me. How do you all deal with excess back story or other bad habits?

PS: All this talk of snakes reminds me of a cool book from gothic artist Brom, called “Plucker.” It’s like a twisted version of “Toy Story,” with voodoo and king snakes.

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