We writers have a real dilemma. Modern readers don’t have lots of time for us to waffle on, they want us to get straight to the action. Screenwriters are advised to go in as late as possible and leave as early as possible, and it’s very good advice for novelists too. Readers want things to happen. They don’t want to hang around with lots of description. So, based on this, start your story with the conflict or crisis and go from there. Easy, yes?

Actually, no. Not easy. A problem, actually. Readers want to launch straight into action… BUT… they also need to know who our characters are. They need, above all, to care about our characters. They need to have an investment in whether our character gets what she wants/solves the problem/etc. They need to understand why this conflict or crisis is such a big deal for our character. (This last point doesn’t apply to every crisis. For example, we obviously don’t need to explain why our heroine wants to escape a burning building. But we might need to explain why this pregnancy is a problem. Or why she really, really, needs this job and so the redundancy notice is totally devastating rather than merely problematic).

So we have a couple of choices. The first one is to begin the story with the back-story (as it’s called). Take as long as you need to explain who your character is, where she lives, what her life circumstances are and so on, and then introduce the crisis. The danger with this – and it’s a big danger – is that you risk losing your reader’s interest. They’ll allow you maybe two or three pages to set the scene, but much more than that and they’re likely to get bored and switch off.

The obvious solution is to use flashbacks. Begin your story with the crisis, and then flashback to the back-story. The reader is more likely to remain hooked because she wants to know how the crisis will be resolved, so you’re not risking boring her. The problem here, however, is that you risk frustrating her.

‘Never mind that!’ she might be thinking, ‘is the heroine going to escape the blaze? I don’t care that she was the most popular girl in school or that she wanted to be an actress. I just care if she gets barbecued or not.’

Stories are forward-moving… a flashback is backward looking. It stops the story dead.

A third solution, and it’s my favourite one if the story permits it, is to explain the back story through dialog. Have your heroine (or hero, of course) tell her or his back-story to somebody. I used this technique in my first novel Looking Good. I had my heroine Grainne and her friends at a dinner party, and there was a stranger there to whom they all told their life stories. Briefly and succinctly as you would to a stranger, giving just the salient points. (Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts). Because the dinner party was happening in the ‘now’ of the story, it’s not frustrating the reader by going backwards. And I made sure that the dinner party itself was integral to the story, rather than just a device for explaining the back-story, by using it to foreshadow what was to come. It wasn’t very integral to the story – if I could, I would have had more happen at the dinner party, but I couldn’t, and I was pleased anyway with the way it served its purpose.

Be careful with this device, however. You need to make sure it’s not contrived. The information should flow very naturally from whatever situation you’ve created. Avoid, at all costs, something really clumsy, like: “Hello, I’m Jane and I’m 33 and I live alone but I used to have a boyfriend but he left me and I’m very sad about it but I’ve just met a new man and…”

There are times you need to use flashback, however, and also scene-setting. But be aware that each of these has a price, and use them as little as necessary.

So, in summary, there are three ways to provide the back-story:

  1. Begin with it (i.e. scene-setting). 2. Flashbacks 3. Current dialog 4. A mixture of the above three.

And which one is best? As I have said, for choice I would go with dialog, but it isn’t always possible.

Apart from this, finding the best solution is up to yourself. It’s part of the balance of writing and outlining your stories. It’s part of the challenge of writing, and sometimes there have to be compromises, and it’s part of the skill you bring to the job how you manage these issues. Wouldn’t it be boring if somebody could tell you: ‘Always use x to get your back-story told’?

Don’t forget, however, that you don’t have to – indeed, you shouldn’t – tell all about your character when we first meet her. Just tell enough to make us care for her and what’s going to happen to her. (And also don’t forget that the reader is on your side. She’s picked up your book and is reading it, she’s predisposed to liking the character and caring about what happens. Just don’t blow it!).


About Tracy Culleton

Best-selling Irish author Tracy Culleton shares her expertise and advice at http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com. She also has a comprehensive website reviewing various novel writing software products.