This morning while I’m writing I’m in a situation where I need some back story. I hate back story for a couple of reasons: it usually ends up coming out as an information dump, which I try not to use, or I find myself reaching for something that is not there. I read a quote from author Stephen King that has stuck with me through the years. “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” It’s true. Look back on your own life. Yes, you have some interesting stories to tell, but if someone was to read your life story, what would make you stick out as interesting? What is it that would make anything in your life worth writing about? I don’t say this to depress anyone, simply to prove a point. At some point, all our characters need back story. As a writer, we feel the need to include it so the reader can understand the character better. As a reader, we demand back story so we get a full picture of the where and whys of the story.
As most characters are, at least to some degree, based off of us as the writer, I keep making the mistake of looking to my own past to fill in the details. However, Stephen King says, our lives for the most part are uneventful. I remember when I was young, maybe early teens, while on vacation I met a girl. She was pretty and seemed just as bored as I was. We became friends for a very short period, then never saw, or heard from each other again. I never thought much about it until I started writing my current book. I merged that memory with a more recent one when I visited an abandoned military base. I remember thinking how cool it would be to find some secret about the base that had been lost or forgotten. The two memories combined to give me a good jumping off point. What I didn’t have was a history of these two things being intertwined in any way. Hence, the problem of back story.
So, if my own back story wont suffice, then it is time to create one. Not only to create one, but to create it, and install it in such a way that the reader is only getting bits of information here and there, but enough that the whole picture becomes clear. The only way I can move on with this today, is I am going to go a little outside of the box, not too far, just a little. Normally I will just let a story tell itself. I am not one that has white boards covered with writings and post it notes reminding me of the direction I am “supposed” to be going. I prefer just to start typing and see where I end up. That’s what revision is for anyway.
So, my out of the box task for today is going to be writing a short summary, or short story about my character’s past. If I was writing another book it would be the prequel to the current book. I need to figure out the how’s and whys before moving on. I don’t usually change-up my routine. We don’t like change, it’s uncomfortable. But there are times when it is necessary to carry us on to the next page. In creative writing, we do what we must so the curtain still goes up and the show goes on. If I could leave you with any wisdom from my own writing, it is for you to do what is necessary to get your story out. Don’t wait for it to magically fix itself. Gut it out, and get it done.
As a final note, whether you are a Stephen King fan or not, his book has some amazing insights. You can find his book here.