Back Story – When should it be Front Story?

Hey there dear blog reader, how ya doin? All fine and tickety-boo? Good to hear it. I know I haven’t been around much lately to bring you my usual brand of snarky comments and witticisms, but I have an excuse. I’ve been writing and editing my novel, The Range.

The lure of Imaginationland is hard to resist and ever harder to leave behind once you’ve bought the ticket and enjoyed that first ride. If you’re a writer you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, there are places in Imaginationland that are murky and thin, where the lights aren’t as bright and the path to the next ride isn’t too clear.

So I cry your pardon and hope you’ll assist me with a conundrum.

Draft Four of my novel ran to 74,000 words and near the middle I had a chunk of back story, small but forgiveable, or so I thought at the time. Without giving too much away (you’ll have to read it when it’s published!) the back story is told between 2 characters. One part is told in dialogue by the guy, I’m happy with that bit. It’s a short chapter and the conversation flows well so it shouldn’t take the reader away from the current set of events.

But when the guy’s companion tells her story it isn’t dialogue. She (or I as the author) is telling the story to the reader. In Draft Four her story spanned 2 chapters. I thought that was okay. Maybe I was pushing it a little in asking the reader to journey back from the current story and take on her past, hopefully understanding that it had bearing on her future problems.

I’ve read a lot about back story and how it can disrupt the flow, annoy the reader, and be a lazy tool of an amateur writer, or professional writer for that matter. When I’m reading I don’t mind a smidgeon of back story here and there so long as it doesn’t impact on the flow. I’m aware of the pitfalls of back story and the questions that pop in my head when I read it.

  • Why isn’t THAT bit at the start?
  • Why am I having to read back story when I just want to know what happens next?
  • Do I really need to know all this stuff in order to enjoy the story?
  • Er…there’s been so much back story I’ve lost interest by the time I get back to the present.

Uh-huh. I hear ya, dear blog reader. I’ve kinda answered my own question, right?

Well, yes and no. You see I thought my little bit of back story worked. My beta readers didn’t have too much to say about it. Some suggested it could be at the start. Some said it worked fine and wasn’t too intrusive of the flow. I let that issue simmer for a while and got to work on my latest edit, Draft Five.

And here comes the conundrum.

I changed the start of Draft Five to include a better first chapter. I don’t do prologues. They’re messy and pointless. Google “why prologues suck” if you want to know more. I was happy with the new start and continued with my edit, changing stuff, adding stuff and so on. Right now I’m half way through and have added more back story. A lot more.

Oh-ho! Now we’re getting to the tricksy bit, right?

At present the word count is a slither over 90,000 words, 21,000 of which are back story, and that will likely be around 25,000 words when I’m finished. The central character is telling her buddy all about her past and how she arrived at that moment. This section has been playing on my mind since I finished Draft Four. It felt too short, too rushed as if I was way too eager to get back to the present and have the characters moving again. Now it covers 6 chapters instead of 2.

There are good reasons for fleshing out this section – to give the main character a better reason for her actions and state of mind, to reinforce the start and end better, to give more weight to the title – The Range is a place which whilst mentioned here and there isn’t described all that much until the back story.

Wizard of Oz Syndrome!

Honestly, right now I feel like I’d be cheating the reader, like that horrible ending:

“He opened his eyes and realised it had all been just a dream.”

Blergh. It’s not that I’ve gotten carried away with writing these extra chapters. I feel they had to be written and I’m 100% positive the story will benefit from them. I’ve always written for myself, first and foremost, and I always will. But I’d like to share this book with a wider audience than my beta readers, and because of that I want to get it right. I’ve got pretty thick skin and I know you can’t please everyone all the time. To make the wrong decision and have readers slam me for it, knowing I should have done something about that icky back story mess…well, that would be a jagged little pin to swallow.

Is back story a crutch?

I know that it seems like I’m using back story as a crutch for the rest of the plot. I can see that now but not at the time. And now I’m struggling with continuing my edit without first resolving this problem. I guess it might sound silly but until I get this straight and I’m happy it’ll be niggling away at the back of mind throughout the rest of the edit. Ain’t nobody got time for dat!

So now I’m wondering if those 25,000 words over 6 chapters should be at the start, not in the middle. It makes sense to keep maintain the flow of time in the right order and having it at the start would certainly build momentum and link better to the current chapter 1 which would become chapter 7. Actually, as I write this I feel like I’m close to deciding that it does need to be at the start after all.

Ack! The story needs this section to be told. It drives the story forward, enhances the characters and mood of the story. I’ve been writing long enough to know this doesn’t feel right yet I can’t come to an outright decision on it!

And so I humbly request your opinion, dear blog reader. What would you do? I value the input of anyone who stumbles across my blog, and regular readers alike. I’d especially like to know what other writers think.

So there it is folks, when should back story be front story?

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12 thoughts on “Back Story – When should it be Front Story?

    • I like that “tell us the story in the way that makes sense to you!” and that’s certainly what I’m leaning toward now. I was okay with the way things worked in draft 4 but now it needs changing. Thanks for your positivity Joss!

      • You are a wondrous teller of tales and, although you’ll likely never be totally satisfied with this first novel, I can tell you that you will pull people in and mesmerize them with the telling. You’re that good!

        • Gosh! Thanks Joss! I’ve often lacked a little confidence in writing longer stuff compared to my shorter works I’ve published on my blog. I guess it’s that striving for perfection that I worry about most. I thank you kindly for giving me the lift I needed!

  1. When you’ve run out of sequels and the only thing left is prequels? ;p But really, it does sound like a prequel wants to be written when you’re done with the current book.

    • It’s funny you mention sequels because I started work on a second book after I’d finished the 4th draft of the first one. But I put it on hold to concentrate on getting the first book right. As for prequels, well, I have written a whole slew of short pieces based around the events in The Range, different styles and characters and how their own story connects to the plot.

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  3. Well I have the attention span for a Blog reader, and if it was anyone else but you Dave I would have clicked off after 3/4 of the way down. Always rember K.I.S.S Keep, It, Simple, Stupid…sorry about the last one but that what they would always say in the Military. In my opinion only, get to the meat and potatoes of what your trying to say if you want to write William Faulkner stuff then go for it write 200 million words. One of my top 5 books to read is called Lights Out by David Crawford, Meat and Potatoes style it’s a great fast read and he hit the nail on the head home run the first time.

    • I’ve come to realise that with my current edit I’m feeling quite stupid as it’s no longer simple. And if it doesn’t feel simple to me than I reckon the reader will think the same. My fiction writing style isn’t full of fluff and vast stretches of beautiful prose and character building stuff. I like to get to the point and drive stuff forward. The back story (now to be the front story!) has been changed to more action based, building momentum with more fluidity than before.

      Glad you reminded me of the K.I.S.S thing. It’s certainly helped with my conundrum!

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