I review and edit a lot of unpublished work and one of the common beginner mistakes is what I said above: back-story.
Here's an example of back-story: A woman is running for her life through the woods, her stalker close behind, she finds a house in the clearing that looks like a cabin where she used to camp as a child. Now, instead of keeping the flow going, the writer decides to stop the action and instead, write about the camp and how her family went to the lake every year.
What!? Why would the reader want to know about that? And then?
Back-story is vital in a novel. We want to know the background of the main character, we want to know why a character drinks a lot or why they chose to be a mortician. But, don't stop action to write paragraphs of unrelated narrative. You WILL lose the reader.
Here are some things to remember about back-story:
- Don't bring in back-story until the novel's action is underway. I don't like to add more than two sentences of back-story into the first chapter.
- Layer in the back-story as it arises but let what happened in the past effect what happens in the story. For example, in the story above, the woman comes across the house in the clearing and instead of running inside for help, she keeps going. Why? Because - as you write in the back-story - her abusive grandfather lived in a cabin similar to that one and she has bad memories there. You don't need to go into all the memories but knowing a bit about her past will explain her current actions.
- Tell the back-story in a variety of ways.
Tara from Midnight Ink is hosting a Secret Blogfest. Check out the other stories. Now for my "secret" blogfest entry. (This is a scene from a novel I wrote for my son. It's a superhero story - with a twist. I'm sorry, it's only the first draft. It needs editing.)
About two floors down, Xochiel decided it was a mistake. Reality set in. The realization that she was a few moments from death. Conscious or not, instinct kicked in and her arms flew out like a bird. She flapped like mad - trying to fly. Nothing.
Gravity pulled her down and pushed whatever last memories she expected to pass before her eyes - out. She never thought of Roman and how he asked her out for the first time on the same paper as the answers for the chemistry quiz. She never thought of her mother and the time just the two of them drove to Niagara Falls for the weekend - just because. Or her grandmother cheering her on at every Taekwando tournament. Instead she watched in stunned silence the sidewalk below come at her like a literal brick wall. Three floors before the end, she closed her eyes and waited for death.
Death came instantaneously. When she opened her eyes, instead of the ground getting closer, the sky approached instead. So that's it? No pain? Life's over and straight to heaven? No goodbyes, no closure? No.
"No," she screamed towards the stars, "this is not what I want!"
And just like that, she stopped - midair. She moved her arms around, trying to regain balance and realized she couldn't move. Someone held her. She tried to turn her head to see what immobilized her but the grip got tighter. Within seconds, she stood back on the roof. The grip loosened.
Quickly turning, she stood face to face with The Masked Palantino. He saved her? "I didn't ask to be saved," she told him, shaking the imaginary dust off her clothing. Palantino said nothing; he began to pace on the roof, scratching the mask that fit tightly on his head.
Why doesn't he fly away? she thought. Fly, man, fly away. Shoo. Leave me alone! With that, she began to cry, her violent sobs drowning out all other sounds filling her head. It felt wonderful, the release of all the pressure, the sounds of the cries interrupted with intermittent bouts of laughter. Was she going crazy?
The last person on earth she wanted to break down in front of stood there watching her - in horror. He came towards her and she backed away.
"Just leave me alone, go back to wherever you came from," she yelled at him, backing up until she hit the wall at the edge of the building. Peering over the edge, she contemplated going over again to get away. When he realized what she wanted to do, he grabbed her arms and pulled her in.
"Okay, okay, let go of me, I'll be fine. I'm going home now." Taking her arms back, she headed for the roof door.
"I'm sorry I failed you," he said quietly as she shut the door behind her. She froze. Turning around, Xochiel again kicked the door open, the door flew off and landed with a crash on the roof.
"Wait! Dad?" she yelled towards the figure flying off into the sky. "Wait." With a run and a flying leap, she jumped off the roof's edge towards him. She jumped thirty feet in the air, arms and feet grabbing at the air. And again, down she went. "Crap."
Within seconds, she felt herself being lifted up towards the roof. "I wish you wouldn't do that - jump off the building." Palantino gently lowered her again down to the roof. She turned around to face him and with tears in her eyes, began punching him in the chest with her might.