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Backstory can detract from the primary plot

 

Katherine Neville (The Eight, The Fire) is generally credited with pioneering the quest/adventure novel in which the current-day and primary plot is greatly influenced by past events. Dan Brown made the style famous in The Da Vinci Code and related novels.

The Da Vinci Code had a compelling plot that kept readers engaged in spite of the fact that great swaths of text were instructional in nature, that is, one character tells another character about the history and symbolism as a device to inform the reader what the current-day plot means.

I’ve just completed reading three quest/adventure novels that, while they kept me reading, spent too much time in the backstory. I won’t mention the author because my intent here is not to trash her books. We have current-say plots which are exciting, but the meaning behind them comes from memories of part events or past lives that might have occurred many centuries ago. In general, I liked the books. However, she spent too much time with the backstory.

Imagine this. A character is trying to puzzle out a mystery and it’s kind of a page-turner. Then, the next chapter is titled Accra, Ghana, 1578. Suddenly the current-day plot is put on hold and the reader finds himself/herself reading about people s/he’s never heard of from many centuries ago. In some cases, they’re living heroic lives; in other cases, they’re everyday people doing about their daily tasks.

Then the novel switches back to the current day for a chapter before the author delays the mainstream plot with a chapter called, let’s say, Constantine, Algeria, 1830, and now we’re suddenly following a French soldier at the beginning of France’s occupation of the country.

While these past events usually factor into the reader’s understanding of the mainstream plot before the novel ends, the past-history events are a distraction. For one thing, they stop the present-day story and introduce new characters. For another thing, they drag on for multiple pages when all the reader wants to do is get back to the primary story. In each case, the novelist would better serve his/her story by cutting the number of words in each of these ancient history chapters.

It’s interesting, as it was in Neville’s and Brown’s novels to see the influence of the past, but it becomes a tedious distraction when past events occupy a large portion of the novel. Even if we learn, let’s say, that our protagonist name Dan actually was that French soldier in a past life, it doesn’t justify (in my view) spending ten pages in Algeria while the primary plot sits in limbo.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Special Investigative Reporter,” recently released by Thomas-Jacob Publishing.

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