The Tricky Question of Backstory

Challenging my views of writing!

Challenging my views of writing!

Following on from yesterday’s request for advice and opinion, I need to ask about back-story. It’s the bane of my life, and Class Act is littered with it. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was, too, in the early drafts, and I solved the problem by starting the novel six months earlier.

That will work to some extent for Class Act, (lovely – another massive re-write! 🙂 ) but there are two incidents in the female protagonist Rebecca’s early life that impact on her current personality, and I don’t know how to integrate them. At present they’re written as flashbacks. Shudder. Unfortunately I actually like how they’re written so it’s easy to become attached to the scenes rather than put them in the bin where they should be.

The problem is I get defensive of my characters and want to explain why they have the flaws they do. But how much detail is necessary or desirable, and when should it be revealed? In The Radleys, by Matt Haig, the back story is cleverly integrated and is also overlaid with the character’s perception, so you start out with a half truth that colours your view of a character’s actions, and that view evolves and changes towards the climax of the novel. Masterful stuff. I’m pretty certain I’m not skilled enough just yet to pull it off without getting in a muddle.

The other problem is defining the novel’s inciting incident. Really, both bits of backstory are. Or the moment where the lead protagonists meet, which is where the novel currently opens. Baby Blues originally started with when the love interests meet, too, and after the rewrite that scene ended up a third of the way through the book. I like it, because you get to know the characters first, but then it blows wide open what the first turning point should be. We make decisions every day which, with hindsight, turn out to be inciting incidents. The job we take,   or the bus we catch that breaks down or gets blown up.

Incidentally, Jami Gold has a great post on the importance of getting these elements or ‘beats’ right in a novel and how defining them isn’t always straightforward! See Why Story Structure Matters. Unfortunately, even with her helpful Beat Sheets, getting the right elements into a story at the right time is (for me) the hardest part of writing.

So, right now my options are revelation through phone conversations with a friend (tricky), adding a prologue (generally advised against), or vague hints that might be missed or misunderstood. It was much easier with Claire in Two-Hundred Steps Home, as she didn’t really have a back story that mattered!

What are your views? Any great examples of how inciting incidents in childhood or early adulthood have been successfully integrated into a story? How much do you need/like to relive past experiences that have influenced a character? When do you need to know the details? Do you need to already care about a character, or do they help you care? Sometimes it feels like I’ve forgotten how to write a novel!