One thing that drives me nuts as a reader is the overuse of backstory in a novel, especially when the genre is not literary fiction.
What instigated this rant at this time is Alex Kava's "A Necessary Evil", which I'm about one-third through. It introduces a number of characters, some of which are detectives or investigators and such, and some are perpetrators. But what I find in chapter after chapter is a story slowed to a snail's pace as the author plunges into the character's miserable past or dysfunctional past relationships. For example, the main character, a female FBI agent, must work with a local female detective on a murder. But in the past, the detective had made a pass at the agent, and now their working relationship is strained. Added to that, the detective once saved the agent's mother from suicide. But also, the agent had once rescued the detective's father from a serial killer. Can you say contrived? But that's just the start of boring backstories whose purpose seems mainly to fill page space and give the impression of conflict.
My opinion is a murder mystery or suspense thriller is about the story, the plot. It's certainly mandatory to create compelling characters in a genre novel, but that can be done by showing their actions and relationships in the now - often through dialog - not by contrived family backgrounds. I'm not against giving a bit of a character's history, such as explaining how the protagonist became widowed, or how she inherited wealth from her industrialist father. Just weave it naturally into the story - a paragraph here and there - rather than constantly dropping into several paragraphs time after time.
And, of course, the worst sin is filling Chapter One with backstory. Arrrgh! Does anything make a reader gag more that that? Yes. Finding even more in Chapter Two!
I was having lunch with a few writer friends recently, and one author described a novel of his where the plot seemed to rely on a series of implausible character and family relationships that would do any TV soap opera proud. I cringed at the inevitable pages of backstory it must contain to untangle all the mess. And, in the end, would it have any discernable plot?
So, I'm not going to bother finishing the last two-thirds of "A Necessary Evil." I find myself skipping past paragraphs whenever a hint of backstory creeps in. It just isn't worth it, wading though all that to try to get back to the actual story.
Many good articles exist online that discuss the evils of backstory done wrong and how to do it better. So I won't attempt to expound on that here. Suffice it to say, it's a disease that plagues aspiring writers as well as experienced, published authors.
And please ... don't get me started on flashbacks. But, that's for another time.
Steven Houchin -- 6 April 2017