Teasing out a Tale: Weaving Back Story ~
It’s one thing to have someone say, “you’re telling too much of the back story” or give the general advice to, “just give your reader little hints along the way.” But putting these ideas into practice is more challenging than you might think and examples are needed for clarity (first mentioned in Editing Tip #31: Page Turners & Pacing).
As I dig into writing book two of my science fiction series it’s apparent that my protagonist, Taya, had undergone a dramatic change in the 5 weeks since we last saw her at the end of book 1; and in my first (fast) draft I didn’t adequately touch on why her personality was altered so much.
The book opens with Taya having a nightmare about being tortured (a true event from book 1). It then jumps to her getting ready to leave her apartment for the first time in a month. Initially, I told the reader that Taya didn’t want to be surrounded by the other people in this new place where she’s hiding from the government (who tortured her) – not only did she not want to relive her terror of book one (during the day or at night) but these people somehow thought she was a healer or incarnated spirit of one of the sun gods (all very preposterous in her mind).
But that’s just back story. Sure, it gives important and relevant details about Taya’s choices and why she feels reluctant to leave the apartment but it’s not engaging.
This is how I decided to ramp up the tension, add some suspense and tease out the idea:
I don’t tell the readers anything.
First, I show how Taya’s apartment is no longer a mess from having slept on the couch ‘by accident’ (since she’s been avoiding sleep) that night. I show how when she splashes her face with cold water in the bathroom she looks gaunt (isn’t eating right), has bags under her eyes, and literally doesn’t recognize herself (she underwent a procedure to change her appearance at the end of book 1). [I’m setting up the fact that these nightmares are frequent and they’re having a killer effect on her.]
Next, I have her check the time (but not just once – three times before she even gets out the door several paragraphs later). I have her look at a home-made calendar where she’s been tracking days (how long she’s been stuck in hiding and we learn about how often she’s had a chance to see her love interest from book 1 – virtually never). On today’s date there is a large star and a time; it’s an appointment she’s changed twice before but has to keep. [I’m showing the reader her nervousness about going outside.]
Then, I drop a simple little thought about ‘not wanting to cause another incident.’ And I leave it at that, as she contemplates whether or not to wear a cloak to hide or try to blend in to the morning crowd without being noticed. I say nothing more about the incident.
As Taya nervously makes her way to her appointment, on a relatively nearby street, I spend a little time reintroducing the reader to the town where she is hiding out and other small nuances [connecting book 1 with book 2 as should be done in a series]. I mention the incident in another passing thought at this point; once more it comes up when she speaks with the woman she’s meeting for the appointment; then it happens – “Oh, no. Not another incident.” she begs. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt again.” [This perks the reader up and tugs them along to see what happens and learn more about this incident.]
However, as disastrous the situation is that occurs, it’s not as bad as the incident – no one was ‘hurt.’ So, while I show compelling evidence as to why this once strong woman is hiding herself in her apartment for weeks on end, I make viable this drastic personality change AND I reveal more about the incident but we still don’t know ‘everything’ that happened. At the end of the chapter I leave the reader with a lot more information than they started with, but haven’t solved the mystery for them yet. I’ll leave that for a later chapter (maybe chapter 3 or 4) when it come up as part of an argument.
By drawing out that one little idea of back story, something big happened between then and now, I’m able to tease the reader along with just enough information and intrigue to allow me to sneak in grounding moments between the two books (this works well for a first book setting set-up too). Having the full incident revealed in a heated argument a few chapters later not only keeps the reader looking for that information but gives them an exciting moment full of heat to feel Taya’s honest reaction to what happened and why it bothers her so much.
This kind of pulling along or teasing out of a tale(tail) can happen over the course of a few chapters, half your book, or the entire novel. The key is revealing just enough at each instance when it’s brought up to satisfy, yet keep, a reader’s curiosity. How your character(s) react to these revealing moments will show much about who they are and how they deal with things – expanding their depth in the process.
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