Less Back and Forth

One common issue in story structure concerns the balance between the ongoing story and the background pieces that fill out the characters’ past. Since authors tend to insert background work early in a novel, the problem is made more acute. So much time can be spent in the past that the present-day plot never has a chance to generate the momentum needed to pull the reader through the book.

While the imbalance can be be addressed partially by paring back the background stories, I find as an editor that most of that sort of work is worthy of inclusion. It is important to make characters as distinct as possible, and limning their childhood, for instance, is a solid way to do that. So how can these two imperatives work in better harmony? 

A first step is reviewing the background pieces, especially entire chapters. How many do you have? Using a rough count, add up the number of pages devoted to background as well. Then count the number of present-day chapters during that same early stretch, along with its aggregate number of pages. 

If the count is roughly equal, one method of lessening the drag of background pieces is seeing if you can combine them to create fewer of them. This is particularly effective if you are trading back and forth, one for one, between present and background chapters. When you make longer chapters by ganging them up, you are jerking the reader back into the past fewer times. 

That raises a new issue, of course. Aren’t I creating more emphasis on the past by allowing the reader to dwell there longer? That can be addressed by several strategies. First, increase the length of your present-day chapters, ganging them up if necessary, in order to maintain a preponderance on that side. Also, because you generate more tension in chapters in which readers don’t know the outcome, you can create stronger momentum in the present-day chapters by making sure they end on a tense note that the reader wants to see resolved. You leave them hanging, in other words. When you create a tense chapter ending, the reader will have a strong desire to return to the present.

Once you have done that, return to the background pieces with an eye toward cutting them down. You’ll find that the background chapters want to be more compressed, not covering a flashback second by second, because you know the reader is waiting for you to get back to the good stuff in the present. 

Exercise: An efficient way to parcel out background information is use a ladder concept. That is, which character is highest on your ladder in terms of importance? The protagonist should get the greatest volume of background work early on. If you have stories about supporting characters, they can be pushed back later in the book. Just look for stretches where their roles in the present become more important.

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.” ―Zadie Smith

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.