This method of keeping the middle of your book from sinking involves how you manage potentially three differing story lines and where you allow them to intersect.
No, I’m not referring to subplots.
Novels can have up to three story lines. These are
the ongoing story,
the back story,
the hidden story.
Although the midsection of your book is not really the place to start thinking about them, it’s often where one of them may appear or where more than one will connect.
So let’s define them before I elaborate on how to put them to use.
Ongoing story is your book’s main plot. It’s the central line of events built on your protagonist’s story goal. Ongoing story features the plot events you’ve been working with from the beginning of your manuscript. Sometimes referred to as the “present story,” the ongoing plot is what’s happening onstage in front of the reader, and it’s dramatized in plot units called scenes or sequel/reactions. It’s part of the story’s present in that it doesn’t deal with past events.
Back story involves past history or events that have already occurred. Back story may center on old feuds and quarrels, on past relationships, on secrets, on long-resented troubles. These are part of your story’s background or part of your characters’ backgrounds. What’s most important to remember about back story is that if you don’t need it for your main, ongoing plot to make sense, don’t use it.
Hidden story is the action taking place out of sight while your dramatized scenes are played for readers. It’s happening simultaneously to the ongoing story, but it’s not shown.
Some plots simply don’t need a back story. Sometimes, what’s occurred before a story opens has no significance whatsoever. As an example, John Grisham’s legal thriller, The Firm, represents a highly successful novel almost totally lacking in back story. The book contains a brief reference to the protagonist’s brother who’s serving a prison sentence for an unspecified crime. That information informs readers of why the hero Mitch probably went into law, but otherwise it has no bearing on what follows.
The book also mentions a prior FBI investigation into two unexplained deaths of attorneys, and that’s all. Grisham’s fast-paced thriller doesn’t need meandering through old family histories or in-office squabbles. He wisely keeps his story focused on the present plot events.
So what is back story good for? It’s the source of character motivation. It can provoke extreme character reactions–extreme, that is, for whatever is happening in the ongoing story. Characters who overreact can inject drama, unpredictability, and added texture. Readers’ curiosity is piqued as to what lies behind such an overreaction.
Back story can also turn a moderately interesting plot into an exciting one. Even in plots where the action/conflict is almost entirely in the ongoing story, injecting a plot twist or some complication arising from the protagonist’s past can heighten the drama.
The swampy, dismal middle of a book project is a good place to inject trouble from the past. Very often, the shocking central event comes straight from back story when a terrible secret is revealed, or violent action is taken in revenge for a past wrong, or a character springs into drastic action due to motivations stemming from old history.
With all that in mind, how do you determine how much back story is necessary? How do you know if you should use just a little or a lot?
Genre affects this decision. For example, a mystery is all about delving into back story to uncover motive and opportunity, to break alibis, to sift old hurts and rivalries, and to bring truth out into the open. A thriller, depending on whether it’s an action-heavy techno thriller or a psychological crime book about serial killings, may depend heavily on the back story for understanding what drives a killer to strike again and again or may not need to delve into the past when there’s plenty of present-day danger for the protagonist to cope with.
If your story hinges on back story and your plot relies heavily on dredging up past secrets, then you need to plot and outline that past history with care. That will take time and thought to ensure it makes sense and is plausible. After all that work, however, understand that you won’t share all of it with readers.
The back story outline is a tool to assist you the writer. It will help you decide exactly which secrets will be revealed. You’ll select which old conflicts can be hashed out and finally resolved.
The middle of the book can be where action slows down and explanations are shared between characters, revealing some relevant pieces of the past that help make what’s happening in the ongoing story more understandable. It doesn’t mean you will bring your ongoing story to a halt while you dump endless pages of background on your hapless reader.
I’m always advising fantasy writers to avoid showering background explanation on readers in the opening pages of a book. Therefore, after all that restraint, the middle is an appropriate place to share it–but only a little.
Keep your perspective and understand the difference between what readers need to know in order to understand your story versus what you need to know in order to understand why your characters are behaving the way they do. Only supply readers with the minimum to comprehend and follow your plot.
As helpful as back story can be, please heed this warning that it carries pitfalls. You can become caught up in past events and sidetrack yourself. If this occurs, you run the risk of splitting your book’s focus. You might not think that matters, but a split focus makes it nearly impossible to end a book plausibly.
If your back story proves intriguing enough to readers from the small bits and hints that you drop across the middle act of your novel, you could eventually be asked by an editor to write a prequel. Then you can really let yourself go and have fun developing the back story in enough detail for it to morph into an ongoing story line.
Remember that back story can be inserted into your manuscript’s middle in two or three paragraphs of swift narrative summary. You don’t have to make a long production of it, but it can keep readers hooked until you reach the third act and start plot dominoes tumbling toward the story climax.