Writing Tips: Problems with the Back Story

Almost all novels have a back story. The author will probably have been mulling the plot over for some time: days, weeks, months, even years, and part of the mulling process is to decide ‘Where to start?’  OK, there are some writers who plunge straight in, having little more than a dramatic picture in their mind and content to let the story go where it wants to, but most of us need to know rather more about the story – even it it ends up somewhere different!

Elizabeth lecturing at Caerleon on a topic of writerly interest

Writing a series featuring the same characters, brings with it a number of other technical problems, and I’d like to start by looking at this.  Last year, I was sent the third novel in a saga series to review. The setting was the Second World War, and I hadn’t read the first two books.

The author had plainly done her homework and how the various characters coped with the ferocity of the Blitz made for a gripping read. Chapter 1 had engaging characters and I was soon absorbed in the story. The story opens in February 1939; war looms on the horizon and two young girls from different backgrounds are experiencing the delights of being grown up at last and tackling the problems that come with attractive young men…

But then came Chapter 2. The story jumped to April 1941 and, suddenly, the characters I’d been following in Chapter 1 disappeared (apart from a couple of mentions). Instead, I was faced with twenty-seven new characters in the next 16 pages, all of whom, I swiftly realized, had been in Books 1 and 2.

I was soon overwhelmed by so many new characters, all telling me who they were and what had happened in books 1 and 2. It wasn’t easy to keep track of either the plot orwho was who and which boyfriend/husband belonged to which young woman. So, one tip I can offer is that it is a mistake to have too many characters on stage at once. If you’ve already read books 1 and 2, why would you want to be taken through it again?

In my view, this approach didn’t work; I wanted book 3 to be a stand alone book. So, if you have a large cast of characters from previous books in the series, you might consider giving your readers a ‘The story so far’ preface. If I hadn’t been reviewing the said book, I’d have stopped reading.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are some excellent saga writers around who do things differently. I particularly enjoy Jean Fullerton’s series which usually comprise about four books. She offers us a splendid story in Book 1 with a wide range of characters – she’s very good at villains – and one of her minor characters (who we know has problems and whom we like) will become the heroine for Book 2.

BUT, and this is important, the action and setting in Book 2 is a side step away from Book 1. The venue may be different; it may be several years later, or whatever.  The main characters from Book 1 appear occasionally – but they don’t interfere. Their presence enhances the setting but that’s it. By the time we get to the last book in the series, the story may well be about the next generation and set somewhere slightly different.

The result is that her books are part of a series but they can also stand alone.

The Cabochon Emerald by Elizabeth Hawksley. This book is scheduled to be out in e-books in August.

My novels stand alone – though I confess I occasionally mention something from another novel (if the time and place are in alignment) which an attentive reader might pick up. For example, in The Cabochon Emerald, my heroine Anna, who comes to London as a child refugee escaping from the French Revolution, finds herself in Somers Town (behind what is now King’s Cross) where many French Emigrés chose to settle because it was cheap. Anna’s ‘aunt’, Madame Bonnieux, starts a pãtisserie which becomes very popular – particularly her brioches.

‘Frost Fair’ by Elizabeth Hawksley came out in e-books in December, 2020

Four books later, in Frost Fair, my heroine Emilia, is searching for her retired governess in Somers Town and stops to buy some brioches before visiting her publisher, Mr Robinson, in Paternoster Row near St Paul’s Cathedral. He offers her coffee, which Emilia accepts, then remembering the brioches, offers him one. ‘To his credit he didn’t bat an eyelid. Being offered cake by strange women obviously happen to him all the time.’ 

So far, two readers have picked up the clue and identified the pâtissière (correctly) as Madame Bonnieux!

I, too, had problems deciding where to start with The Cabochon Emerald and I want to take a closer look at this.

Take the blurb from the dust jacket: ‘There is a fortune at stake. The cabochon emerald, heirloom of the de Cardonnels has disappeared in the chaos of the French Revolution. The young Anna de Cardonnel, fleeing from the Terror, finds herself living in London with her English relations.

Then a mysterious stranger arrives, but is Laurence Redbourn all he seems? Could he possibly have got wind of the missing emerald? And what of his brother Luke, a respectable City businessman? Both of them profess an interest in Anna, and one of them will stop at nothing.

The problem was that this was the point, with a grown up Anna in London, where I wanted to start the book. But, somehow, I had to convey the background to the story above, before I could even begin. I tried it with flashbacks. I tried it with one character explaining what had happened to another character, and neither  worked. All that happened was that I got very bogged down in explanations (not unlike the second chapter of the saga that I’d been struggling with – though without so many characters)!

Flashbacks create various technical problems. When you break off a scene to go into flashback, it immediately halts the forward thrust of that scene, and shoots backwards in time to somewhere else, often with different characters and a different setting. And when the flashback ends, the reader has to shoot forward again and try and pick up when the story left off. The result is that the dramatic tension tends to drop, which is the last thing you need, especially at the beginning of the book when you want to grab and hold your reader’s attention.

Eventually, I realized that I had to start the book in Paris, at the Prison de Carmes, during the Terror, with a frightened and vulnerable Anna, aged 7, visiting her mother who is awaiting trial. It was important to set up the story of the cabochon emerald being smuggled out and let the reader know how Anna and her father managed to escape. I also needed a bit about the early life of the villain and how he gets onto the trail of the emerald. So I had to write it in sequence.

I was worried about opening from a child’s point of view but, to my relief, it worked surprisingly well.

In fact, the back story took the whole of the first chapter – about 20 pages – which, incidentally, got me over the First Chapter blues very effectively because, by the time I’d dealt with all the backstory in proper scenes, I was into Chapter 2. But, and this is the important thing, the scenes were not in flashback which meant that the readers could be kept guessing as to whether Anna would escape from the Terror   and what, exactly, the villain was going to do.

In other words, the action did not get bogged down in explanations, and doing it in proper scenes kept up the dramatic tension. So, this then, is my second suggestion. Turn the important parts of your back story into short scenes and start the book with them.

Some authors use prologues as a way of coping with the back story. As a reader, I have two problems with prologues. Firstly, I resent becoming involved with a set of characters and a situation which then stops – which means that you have to start all over again in Chapter I with a whole set of new characters and probably in a new setting, as well. Secondly, I often find that once I reach the place in the book where the Prologue came from – I’d completely forgotten why it was so important anyway!

Elizabeth Hawksley

Twitter: @Hawksley_E

Below: links for ‘The Girl Who Liked Giraffes’ which came out on Feb.1st

Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08VHCFFKD/





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6 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Problems with the Back Story”

  1. It is a perennial problem, especially with a mystery series. You don’t want to give away the plot or ending of earlier books but it’s natural for characters to refer to them.
    I agree about swathes of backstory interfering with the ongoing story, and equally too many characters on stage at once. Very confusing. Great piece.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth – I was sure you’d know exactly what I meant!

  2. Brilliant post. My rule of thumb question is: Does the reader need to know this in order to make sense of the current story? If so then I try to add in the very minimum information rather than chapter and verse of the previous plot.

    1. Welcome to my blog, Jean. You are spot on – and very succinctly put, if I may say so! Every Saga writer should have your comment pinned up next to the computer!

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