Paddling Against the Stream

You can regard a novel in terms of rhythms that are created in the ever changing interplay between character and plot. That’s because these elements create different tides in a novel. Present events in a plot push a story into its future, the part we don’t know. Yet a background story is designed to fill out character, and it exerts a pull in the opposite direction. That’s because the events have already occurred. For this discussion I'll leave out a back story in a mystery that reveals all in the end.

If you think in terms of story rhythm, background stories create retrograde motion—because they push the book into the past. Depending on how much strong pacing plays a role in your novel, you need to be careful about where such pieces are placed. A back story placed right in the middle of a dramatic sequence, for instance, means you are pitting two story elements against each other—and the result usually is reader impatience to get on with the action.

Getting up a good head of steam in the present will make the reader more receptive to pursuing the byways of the past. For that reason, background pieces often function best when following a strong action scene, which creates strong forward momentum. The background then falls in the lee of the wind, so to speak, when the reader wants to take a breather anyway. Thinking of this technique in musical terms is helpful, since any composer knows that a crescendo rises out of silence.

When judged according to rhythm, you can make better decisions as well about how long a background piece should be in any given case. If the piece is a paragraph long, say 5-7 lines, that can fit in all but the most energized sequences. If you double that length, say to a half page, now you have to be more careful. That sort of piece probably will function best early in the chapter following a strong forward push in the plot. And what about pieces that are longer—a page or two or even a chapter? You most likely need to have provided a truly disturbing story twist, one that leaves the reader shaken. So you let the reader relax, slip into your alternate current, take them on a new ride. When the back story is over, they're ready for more propulsion.

Exercise: Look through your draft merely for background pieces. Place each in a chart that lists: which character it describes, what page(s) it’s on, how long it is (in lines, if you like), and a brief synopsis of what in the past the story covers. Now look at what immediately precedes the background piece. Has the reader been pushed forward by the ongoing plot? How strong is that push? The stronger it is, the longer the back story you can insert.

“We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us.”
—Samuel Johnson

 Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.