Editing Tip #11

Don’t be Afraid to Fragment,

Pt. 2

Back Story

In the first installment we looked at the 5 senses and how they can enhance character building.  I hinted at the possibility of using your senses to also help with setting & atmosphere.  I won’t go into great detail (yes, it’s the right details that make all the difference) since the premise is the same as with character development.

I’d like to look at reducing back story.

I tried to read a self-pub children’s fantasy recently but had to stop by the end of chapter 4.  Yes, I had to stop.  I could not push myself to read on for a number of reasons, but the main one was that 3 out of those 4 chapters were back story.  Full chapters – I’m not joking.  The author didn’t see it that way and neither did the editor but for those of us who have been living and breathing great writing for much of our adult lives, this was painfully obvious.

So, what’s wrong with back story?

Nothing – as long as it’s used in the right way.

As authors, especially fantasy and science fiction authors, we need to build elaborate backgrounds in order to explain origins and early, key, character connections.  If we write 30 pages of this background, we should only be including a sum total of 5 pages throughout the entire novel.  Fragmenting or cutting up the chunks and strategically placing them in the right moments throughout your work takes careful editing.

Yes, that’s right – nearly 83% will never see the light of day… but that doesn’t mean this work was for naught.

One of the most difficult things to do is to critically consider what is absolutely necessary for the reader to know about what happened before the main action.  Then, we disperse it evenly throughout the book to allow reader to gradually discover through dialogue and interaction the most important information.

This takes time and patience.

You need to physically and mentally distance yourself from your writing (work on another project, write a later scene that’s burning up your brain, or simple take a week off and enjoy your other pursuits… X-Box anyone?).  Then, you need to arm yourself with a pen-knife so-to-speak.  Make a basic list of what the readers absolutely must know about your characters in order for the story to make sense: no more than 10 items, fewer is better.

Now it’s time to plan.

Make note beside each important point where in the story it is necessary for this information to be known in order for the reader not to get lost.  Then it’s time to weave in the information as I mentioned above – using characterization through dialogue and narrative when possible.  Only rely on direct exposition (telling instead of showing) when the knowing is more important than the finding out.  Work in a flash back or a couple of memory moments but nothing longer than a short paragraph.  Don’t forget to utilize the 5 senses to really make an impact with this important information.

Whatever you do – don’t write an entire chapter about an event that can simply be mentioned or thought of prior to a main event in the story.  This bogs down your writing slowing the flow, dragging the momentum.

It kills your book.

So, be wise, be critical, and be true to yourself and your characters.  No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Categories: Editing

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