Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Back Story: Take it or Leave it

by Heather Moore

How much back story should you give when you introduce a character? Does the reader need to know your heroine’s date of birth, list of allergies, and favorite teacher in third grade? ONLY if it’s essential to the story. In my critique group we call this info dump. Novelists who are just getting their feet wet often make the common mistake of characterizing by writing back story—lots of it. Your reader really doesn’t need to know whether a character prefers one aspirin or two. This is not characterization.

There’s plenty of time to catch the reader up with the essentials, so don’t do it on the first page, or in the first chapter.

Recently I attended the URWA conference in Salt Lake City. Two agents attended.

Their pet peeves on submissions were:
1. Too much back story
2. Too much internalization
3. Lack of place
4. Adverbs in dialog tags
5. Over written 1st page—too much description
6. Actions not consistent with characters
7. Villain who is not motivated, but insane

At the same conference, Karen Robards, author of multiple NY Times Bestsellers, said this about chapter one:
1. Start your book at the moment where something major happens
2. No background in first page
3. No scenic description
4. You can put some back story in the middle of the first chapter: make it short and vivid
5. End your chapters with a cliffhanger—no conclusion, or you are giving the reader a reason to put the book down.

Take another look at your first chapter. See if you have overdone the back story. Hook the reader then drop in nuggets of back story along the way, but only what is necessary.

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