Every story needs a beginning. That means as a writer, we need to know what happened to shape our characters before the story begins. What defines the character? Why do they react the way they do?
This is known as back story. How much of this character’s past do we introduce? When and how?
I have crafted a genealogy chart for some of my characters. I know the name of great grandfathers and mothers. I know when they were born, how many children they had and what their belief system was. I know this, but does the reader need to know this?
Suppose I began my story with: Albert fled the old world when he was sixteen. He married an Irish girl in the new world known as America. He was German. Their community shunned them because of their diverse background and because they were catholic. They had twenty children, only two lived. Of those two Floyd married Henrietta and moved to a new town. They joined a wagon train…etc. Two hundred years later, Caroline was born, by now; they had several nationalities mingled with the original two. It’s Caroline’s story that we are about to embark on.
Do you think anyone would buy that book?
I hear you…you don’t go that far back. So let’s suppose we start with Caroline. She was born to a single Mom. Despite her poverty, she achieved a high level of learning when she went to Dartmouth. She obtained a teaching degree. Ten years later, newly divorced, she finds herself raising her only daughter alone. Fortunately, because of her teaching degree she has a job, and benefits. We open in her class as a student threatens her…
Will you buy this book?
Now let’s try this again.
Humperdinky pointed a knife at my throat. “I told you Ms. Grape, my dog ate my lesson. I ain’t doin it again.”
I felt tension press against my temples. “Joshua, I understand your frustration. I am sure we can work together to fix this problem. Put the knife down, come and sit by my desk and we will craft a new paper together.”
Okay, now you know why I write fantasy. But you also get the idea even though I poked fun at an old excuse for losing our school papers. Tension, an immediate crisis, draws readers in. Fantasy is somewhat unique because you must start in the real world, introduce your character and then have them end up in the magical world of the story. You do this even if the magical world is their world. You start with something ordinary. But it shouldn’t be dull. You still need tension. You still need to let the reader feel what your character feels not relive their potty training years. Unless, of course, they are in their potty training years.
When do you introduce back story. I have heard people say zero the first 100 pages. Others say no back story for the first three chapters. I think the last is pretty accurate though it really depends on the type of story you’re telling.
How much back story should you introduce at any one time? As little as possible. In other words, no great long paragraphs unless you can put your character in the middle of the back story when s/he is reliving it. This makes the back story current in the characters life.
For example: In a scene that I have crafted in my epic fantasy, my character must go inside a cave and search for some important artifacts. She is terrified of enclosed places. This stems from a traumatic childhood experience. Instead of having her think about it, I have her relive it. But I still limit the amount of information:
From Chapter 7, of ‘The Treasures of Carmelidrium.’
For a moment she froze, memories arose, unwanted and hidden from her conscious mind. She heard the childish laughter, heard the old rickety door close and the wooden board lowered to secure it shut. She opened her mouth but caught herself before she screamed. She was an adult now. No school children to lock her into a dark room. She must face her fears and find the ‘Treasures of Carmelidrium.’
I have mingled this memory into her current situation in a cave. At this stage the reader is familiar with her name. I do use it in the chapter, just not in this particular scene. If you think it needs improvement you can tell me, I am still in the middle of editing.
I’d love to hear your experience with back story. Is it hard to know how much is too much? When do you begin to weave it into your story?