Most writers occasionally find themselves battling backstory. This is a battle you can win. Let’s start by defining a few key terms.
What Is Backstory?
Remember the timelines that decorated your high school history text? If you were studying World War One, the timeline began with an assassination and ended with the Allied victory.
Your book can be mapped in a similar way. The first event in the book is the starting point of your timeline. The final resolution of the plot is the end point. Everything that happens in chronological book time between these two points constitutes your plot.
Here is the simplest definition of backstory: every relevant *event* that occurs before your book’s timeline begins is backstory. If the event can be plotted on your book’s chronological timeline (like the battles of World War One in the history text) then the event is plot. If the event precedes your book’s chronological timeline, it is backstory.
Confusion over backstory sometimes results from misunderstanding this definition and confusing bacsktory with narrative summary.
What Is Narrative Summary?
Narrative summary is a technique for compressing events within the book’s chronological timeline. We use it to avoid writing a scene that would focus on relatively minor details.
For example, let’s say your heroine’s car breaks down and prevents her from catching a plane to meet the hero. Perhaps writing a car repair scene with the heroine and a mechanic would slow down the pace of the romance. So we compress these events in narrative summary at the opening of the next scene:
Five hours later, Susan stashed her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment of the wrong flight. She had a new water pump in her car and was finally on her way, but her wallet was five hundred dollars lighter. Damn the mechanic for not letting her call Marco from his shop. She eyed the plane’s in-flight telephones, praying that she would soon be able to reach Marco.
This paragraph weaves details from the current scene on the airplane with the previous skipped breakdown events. The summarized details of the breakdown might have been dramatized in a scene--Susan begging for assistance, worrying about Marco and her flight. These events might even result in a dynamic scene, and would have fit within the plot.
Regardless, the narrative summary is not backstory, even though it contains event information that happen outside the current scene. The events themselves still take place on the chronological time line of the book’s plot. People sometimes use the term “backstory” to describe narrative summary, but that is merely shorthand. The two elements of the narrative remain separate creatures, no matter how they are described.
How To Fix It
Whether you are using narrative summary or backstory, the effect is the same. The forward momentum along the timeline is broken, and the reader is removed from straight narration in to exposition. But the editing fixes are slightly different.
Think again of our timeline analogy. Narrative summary does not interrupt this flow, but merely compresses events on the timeline. If your readers complain about narrative summary, the fix might be creating a new scene to dramatize the compressed events. Alternatively, you might be summarizing irrelevant events like showering and eating. These don’t require summation and can be cut.
If your readers complain about too much backstory, examine the backstory in relation to the current scene. Ask yourself how the *action* of the current scene would be different if the backstory did not exist. If the answer is, “not at all,” then cut the backstory. Backstory is only relevant if it qualifies the current event on the timeline.
If backstory is necessary to explain current plot events, then you cannot cut it. Instead, trim it as much as possible. Give the reader just enough to allow them to comprehend how the past event is linked to the current event. Use a minimal number of words, and return to the story timeline as quickly as possible. The story, after all, is what keeps the reader turning pages.
Special note for romance writers: Internal conflict in romance often has roots in the characters’ pasts, which can lead to misplaced emphasis on the past, even when the current scene provides ample conflict to drive the plot. The fix here requires re-balancing the scene to focus on what is most pressing at that moment on the plot’s timeline. Minimize or cut background information to achieve this balance.
Sequels (rather than scenes) are a more natural place to develop backstory because sequels tend to rely on interior monologue and exposition feels more natural when blended with interior monologue. The key, again, is to use a light touch. Let the character ponder the backstory, but balance the backstory against the current plot, much as you would balance background information.
Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.