In trying to write my first novel, I find keeping the back story from lapsing into a dull narrarive is difficult. I am trying to keep the back story to a minimum but need a bit of it (say 20%) to explain motivation. Any tricks for keeping the back story as dynamic as the front story?

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Well, I'm not sure of your writing style, so I'll just say what I do. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The characters will comment on what's happening around them during the slow moments, like the recent scandal with the mayor, or the new construction downtown that's uprooting the shanty town. Maybe they'll comment on the police brutality hearing, or their own run in with the law when their brother Bill drank that extra fifth of whiskey. Basically I filter it through them instead of constructing it around them. My theory is that it keeps the reader involved, advances the subplot, and keeps things moving.
Try to scatter the backstory throughout the entire novel. Just a few lines every now a
and then. Keep it interesting and keep the reader anxiously awaiting more lines
about the backstory.
That's what I've been trying to do although it still feels more static.
Another thing you might do is to give the backstory its own chapters (or scenes and whitespace). If there's serious, direct motivation that needs explanation, there's a story there and you shouldn't dance around it. So, if it becomes its own story, you can have an arc and a resolution that results in present action.

Backstory that seems static almost always needs actual scenes to explain it. Exposition is dull, dull, dull for the reader.
I think with back-story the less you say the better. You don't have to spell things out, you can just allude to them obliquely and move on.

With back-story less is definitely more. As Ian says, if it can come through the characters, a line here, a line there, it's going to be a lot more dynamic.

And when it comes, back-story should always be relevant to what's actually going on at the time, not appearing out of context, as if by magic.

Don't I sound like such a know it all?

I just finished reading a novel that spends about the first hundred pages setting things up - basically 100 pages of back-story - before the actual plot kicked off.

Will I read another book by that author?

Probably not.
That is similar to what the late Michael Gilbert once said to me. "Write the book and when you are editing it, simply cut out the first chapter. You'd be surprised how better the book would be for it. If only some writers did that today."

God bless him.
A good example of doing it with chapters is Tess Gerritsen's "Vanish."
I echo what others have said about weaving in the backstory throughout the book. Also, Karen Dionne had some excellent points about the opening sequence. I try (and usually fail) to use no more than a line or three of backstory in the first two chapters. This really keeps things moving.

If your asking this question, however, it sounds like you are on the right track.
Gosh, this is like the greatest workshop ever.
There's no back story until Chapter Four or Five. And when my husband read
that chapter, he sent me back to the drawing board. It's better now, but it's hard to
make a scene set in childhood as dynamic as the ones set in adulthood.
(I have to leave out the sex and violence to some degree).
I also find it harder to show and not tell in the past.
But these are some great ideas and a confirmation of what my instincts tell me.
patti, you said a scene set in childhood. is this a flashback? or an entire chapter/chapters set in a different period of time?
I agree with what's already been said. The less backstory the better. It's important that we know the story, but usually isn't that important for the reader. It's been a while since I read Silence of the Lambs, but I'm not sure there was any discussion as to why Hannibal was a cannibal, just that he was and his criminal backstory came out naturally, through Clarice's investigation. Most readers don't need a lot of motivation, just a sentence or two that will give them a reason to believe.

I think of the character work I did as an actor. I knew where the character went to school, to church, if his parents were still alive, all sorts of private details. The playwright didn't tell me those things, and the audience never heard about them, but it helped me play the part, just as it will help you write your character.
I agree, I think the most important part about including backstory is that it spawns from the front story. If the character's mother died of cancer, going to a hospital would probably freak her out. If the character was a Vietnam vet, he'd probably have nightmares and flashbacks, getting some of that backstory on the page.

I see backstory as another form of character development. Knowing about who these people are and where they came from makes readers care for them more.


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