We know that back story is important. We know how to create it. Now where do we put it? Brace yourselves. You may not like this:
Back story isn’t part of the novel, it leads up to the novel. You’ll make references to it throughout your story, but it doesn’t need to be included. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we don’t need to know why Mr. Pevensie is in the army or how the kids ended up at Professor Kirke’s house. C.S. Lewis needed to know it, but it’s not vital to the tale that starts when Lucy steps into a wardrobe.
For many new writers (myself included) it’s tempting to start with back story. I did this with my first manuscript. I wanted readers to know why Addie went to Michigan, why she got nervous around men, and why she liked alcohol. I wrote many beautiful chapters explaining her motivations. I showed the incidents that led up to the actual plot – her new job and new love. I’ve since cut the first five chapters from the novel because that technique doesn’t work. Here’s why:
1. Back story drags. I know it’s your baby and you’re proud of all of the details you put into it, but most of it is just boring.
Think about the people you know – there’s at least one person you dread talking to because he can’t tell a short story. If you want to know where he buys groceries, he’s going to tell you about every grocery he’s ever bought and why he shops where he shops. You can’t ask him a yes/no question without getting a ten minute commentary.
That’s what you’re doing to your reader when you start with back story. Hold on to that information. It can be your little secret.
2. Don’t give away the milk, or no one will buy the cow. Back story not only propels your story, it creates mystery. Take romance novels. They’re pretty formulaic. Boy meets girl, they fall for each other, but they can’t be together until the end of the book. Kiss.
People don’t read romance novels because they don’t know how it will end (spoiler alert: the boy gets the girl). People read romance novels to find out how the couple meets, why they can’t be together, and how their love will prevail.
The answer to those questions? Back story.
In the movie Penelope, Penelope can’t be with Max because she needs a blueblood to break the family curse and relieve her of the pig snout and ears. Max can’t do it. We assume that he, like everyone else, can’t love a pig-faced girl. If the movie started with back story, however, we would know that Max is really Johnny, a gambling addicted musician. He can’t break the curse because he isn’t a blueblood, not because he can’t love Penelope. If the movie started there, we would have no reason to keep watching the movie after Max walks out. We already know why. The mystery is gone.
As you write your novel, back story will drive the plot. You’ll reveal bits and pieces of important information to help your reader understand your characters. For the most part, however, it’s for your benefit.
Don’t be afraid to write something that people will never read. By taking the time to create detailed back story you’ll be able to write a believable, engaging novel that people will want to read.