By Ane Mulligan
When I first started writing, I did what most new writers do. Believing the reader couldn’t understand my story or like the heroine without knowing her back story, I loaded the first chapter with all that information. It didn’t take too many critiques to learn the error of my ways.
But why is it not necessary? I’m so glad you asked. Okay you didn’t, but here’s the scoop anyway. Are you ready? Because the reader doesn’t care about the character…yet. But isn’t that why we want to tell them the back story? So they’ll care? Nope. The reader opens a book with expectations to be drawn into a story. They don’t want that forward movement stopped to be told back story in the beginning.
Another way to look at it is like this: let’s say you’ve walked into a party and you’re hoping to meet some new friends. A woman walks toward you, but the minute names are exchanged, she launches into her life history and that of all her eleven first cousins. Your smile wanes, and you inch your way toward the door. Anything to get away.
That’s what back story within the first 40-50 pages is like.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t slip in a tidbit or two, but do it a way that whets their appetite for more. Mystery in a book draws readers onward. A short reference within dialogue works. Something like this:
Jane twisted her hankie. “I’ve decided I’m going home.”
“You’re running away, again. Just like you did in St. Louis.”
Jane raised her chin. “I am not.” She turned her back and stalked off.
Now you want to know what happened in St. Louis and is this a trait of Jane’s? Is she repeating her history? But if the author stops the action to take us back to St. Louis before you are invested in the character, the reader will close the book, and most likely never pick up another book by that author.
After the reader has had time to get to know the character by what happens in the here and now of the story, then they will be ready to learn bits and pieces of her back story. But dole it out a bit at a time. Too much too soon will give away the end.
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Ane Mulligan writes Southern-fried fiction served with a tall, sweet iced tea. She’s an award-winning novelist and playwright and resides in Sugar Hill, GA. You can find Ane at her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.