Don’t take my back story!

I have a problem. I love to examine motivation. I love to determine just what happened in a persons life to bring them to where they are now. I’m pretty sure it drives my husband crazy and I missed my calling as a psychiatrist. This quality of mine is the most apparent, however, in my writing. And it bogs my work down.

Here is the beginning of the first Chapter of my recently finished draft:

The drive home was unreasonably fast. There were very few cars on the road. Of course everyone was trying to pretend that live was going on as normal and this would all be sorted out soon. Many people were still working, but no one worked overtime anymore. No one took business trips, and most people with long commutes quit work all together to be closer to home.

Colleen didn’t notice though. She was thinking about her ex husband Mark. Mark and she had met in college and fallen in love. They got married when they graduated and he got a good job as an engineer. She had gone on to medical school and the plan had always been to have their first baby when she got a good residency.

But medical school was demanding, and so was Mark’s job. And her internship was even harder, and they hardly saw each other at all. When she finally got into a good residency program, she couldn’t imagine putting everything on hold for a baby. She was in one of the best programs in the country, and then she got her fellowship.

Now, if this was a story about Colleen lamenting over the break up of her marriage than maybe, maybe this would be appropriate. But its not. Not even remotely. This is a story about an apocalyptic plague. So while it may be relevant to know that Colleen was married before the reader doesn’t need to know all the details of her early marriage and the contributing factors to it’s demise, and they don’t want to know it right away before they even really know what the story is about.

So why is it there? Because I need to know it. When I wrote this, I was getting to know my character. I was learning that she was driven to a fault. That she put her career over everything else. That she had no time or patience for other people, even those she loved the most. Colleen has an interesting back story. She is an interesting person and how she came to be the woman who is introduced in chapter one is important. It shapes how she is written through out the rest of the book. It makes her growth as a person rewarding.

So it hurts to cut it all out. When I first started editing seriously I clung to these little back stories because I felt like they were the life of the novel.

What I had to realize is that it is okay for me to keep them for myself. Many writers work up full profiles for their characters in a separate document. I have found that, for me, it works better to let them develop in the story but when it comes time to rewrite, these are the first things to go. Details can find their way in, here and there as the story progresses, but four paragraphs on the science fair project she created in fourth grade does not add to the story. It just crowds out the actual story.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t take my back story!

  1. If you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I think you should take a look at Emily St. John Mandel’s Station-Eleven, which is also a character-driven novel about the introduction and aftermath of a virulent plague. She does a marvelous job of intertwining discussions of her characters’ pasts with post-apocalyptic reality of the book’s plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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