Somewhere along the way during the thirteen years between starting to write fiction and publishing my first novel, I learned about in media res and about backstory. I might have read about it or it might have been in one of the many critiques or classes I sought out, trying to make my writing the best it could.
In media res is the term for starting the story in the middle of the action, not at the very beginning. And backstory is what came before the start of the story for the character, or the events leading up to the start of the story.
Dumps are bad
Twice last week, in two different genres I was pulled out of two books by backstory. In the first chapter of the first book from a small publisher, it is clear that there has been a murder and that one of the two characters who happened to be in place, was going to be investigating. Then inexplicably, chapter two goes back in time and for the next eighty plus pages we are subject to the witty chit chat of the characters discussing their relationship and what brought them to this place where the murder occurred. I don’t know if they ever got around to solving the crime because I stopped reading.
The second book was a thriller from a large publisher. Early on in the dangerous story, we are introduced to a what appears to be a secondary character and the author dives into the previous three of four years of his life showing the difficulty of his love life. Later as the action picks up, we are exposed to another, ten plus pages, discussion of this same secondary character’s love life. We already knew enough about the issues from the original backstory dump and now we have another in the middle of the story. The second back story dump stopped me dead trying to figure out what it meant for the story which seemed to be occurring without this character for the most part. I did finish the book but my attention was split and rather than focusing on the overall story I was trying to figure out why the backstory was important to the plot. Reader, it wasn’t.
Why Use it?
Used properly, sprinkled in small doses, backstory can help the reader understand the character and their motivations. In both the books I’ve described, it seems to have been filler.
I think about backstory a lot in relation to my NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery Series. My goal is to make each book standalone so the reader can read them in any order. To do that, I’m always weighing how much the reader needs to know from the previous books and how to bring it in without stopping the flow. It’s not easy.
What about you?
Have you encountered books bogged down by backstory? How do you handle it in your own books? In your series?
In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.