Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Zoë Sharp ― Holding Back The Story

This week I'm delighted to have a guest post from the uber talented Zoë Sharp talking about creating back story for characters.
If you're a fan of action thrillers and you haven't read her Charlie Fox novels then you are missing out big time.
So without any further ado here she is.
Zoë Sharp ― Holding Back The Story

I’m a short-fuse reader. There, I’ve admitted it. If I pick up a book looking for slow leisurely narrative and wonderful detailed descriptions, then that’s fine. But if I pick up what purports to be a fast-paced page-turner, I expect it to hit the ground running and I get fed up pretty quickly if it doesn’t live up to my expectations.
This means I don’t want to be waylaid by the main characters going through long introductions. I don’t want to be shown snapshots of them as a child, graphs of their family tree, and framed copies of their university degrees before we get stuck into the meat of it. I should be able to glean enough about them as people at this stage by what they do and say, how they carry themselves.
After all, in fiction as in life, how people react under pressure defines them, and conflict is what drives the narrative forwards. Doesn’t matter if it’s physical, emotional or psychological conflict, as long as you’ve put your characters up a tree and thrown some kind of rocks at them.
Choosing the right jumping-in point has always been one of the hardest parts for me when I’m starting work on a new book. The opening page is never where the story itself starts ― that began way before the body was washed up by the tide, the mysterious client knocked on the PI’s door. Or, in the case of DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten (due out in October), Charlie finds herself handcuffed to a briefcase on one side, and Sean on the other, while a running gun battle takes place around her on a crowded street.
Well, I did mention I like to hit the ground with a bit of momentum, didn’t I?
Finding the ideal situation to show off your character to their best advantage is never easy ― that intersection between the past and the present, at a point where your character’s motivations, strengths and flaws will be demonstrated to full effect. The temptation is to concentrate on the story and not how your main protagonist fits into it. I think this may be one of the reasons that there’s so often a massive info-dump in the early chapters. It’s tempting to get all that pesky scene-setting out of the way up front, and then you can get down to it.
And, I have to confess, that’s exactly what I felt Stieg Larsson did in his Millennium trilogy. It took me several attempts to read the first book because the opening section seemed to be entirely taken up with a long explanation of how Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist acquired his nickname. I’m sure there are plenty of people who can argue the merits of this approach, but it didn’t really work for me. In the end I practically had to take a run at it. It was worth the effort, though because once I got past that dollop of back story, I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the series. But had that initial book not received such a massive build-up, I may not have persevered. Can you take that chance with your own work?
I’ve always tried to drip-feed the back story in relatively slowly, to make the reader interested in finding out more before I ram it down their throats. I sometimes liken it to getting onto a bus and sitting down next to someone who immediately starts telling you their life history. At this point you don’t care, and may even get off a stop early just to escape. But if they greet you quietly, have something about the way they observe the other passengers, check out the scenery, when they do finally start to open up a little, you’re desperate to know.
Some of the best advice I was ever given with regard to including back story at the opening of a novel was to make a second pass through the typescript purely for pace, and see if you can lose a chapter or two from the beginning.
I tried this out with HARD KNOCKS: Charlie Fox book three. The book starts with Charlie attending the funeral of one of her old army comrades, Kirk Salter. There’s a brief flashback detailing how Charlie got the news of Kirk’s death, but originally that meeting happened in real time and it then took me a couple of chapters to get to the funeral. Eventually I realised that everybody would know whose funeral it was because of the information they picked up from the jacket copy of the book, so why bother including it for real? I was able to rip up the first two chapters and restart the story from three onwards.
So, I’m a firm believer in less is more — and leaving out the bits other people skip. Otherwise it can quickly turn from back story into holding back the story.

What about you? Do you like a lot of scene-setting before you get settled into a book, or do you prefer to maintain an air of mystery until you’ve got to know the characters a bit more.
Whichever method you prefer, happy scribbling and good luck with it!


Zoë Sharp is the author of the bestselling crime thriller series featuring her ex-Special Forces turned bodyguard heroine, Charlie Fox. Sharp opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen before becoming a photojournalist in 1988. She wrote the first of the highly acclaimed Charlie Fox novels after receiving death-threat letters in the course of her work. 

She has been nominated for Edgar, Anthony, Barry (twice), Benjamin Franklin, and Macavity Awards in the United States, as well as the CWA Short Story Dagger. The Charlie Fox series was optioned for TV by Twentieth Century Fox.
When not welded to her keyboard, Sharp is a fan of fast cars — and faster motorcycles — sailing, shooting, house-building, self-defence, and reading just about anything she can get her hands on. Zoë Sharp blogs regularly on her own website, www.ZoeSharp.com, on the acclaimed group blog, www.Murderati.com, as well as wittering on Twitter (@AuthorZoeSharp) and fooling around on Facebook.

DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten

In the sweating heat of Louisiana, former Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, faces her toughest challenge yet.
Professionally, she’s at the top of her game, but her personal life is in ruins. Her lover, bodyguard Sean Meyer, has woken from a gunshot-induced coma with his memory in tatters. It seems that piecing back together the relationship they shared is proving harder for him than relearning the intricacies of the close-protection business.
Working with Sean again was never going to be easy for Charlie, either, but a celebrity fundraising event in aid of still-ravaged areas of New Orleans should have been the ideal opportunity for them both to take things nice and slow.
Until, that is, they find themselves thrust into the middle of a war zone.
When an ambitious robbery explodes into a deadly hostage situation, the motive may be far more complex than simple greed. Somebody has a major score to settle, and Sean is part of the reason. Only trouble is, he doesn’t remember why.
And when Charlie finds herself facing a nightmare from her own past, she realises she can’t rely on Sean to watch her back. This time, she’s got to fight it out on her own.

Feel free to leave any comments you may have and do yourself a big favour and grab a copy of one of Zoë's books. You won't regret it. Graham




  1. Great post! I'm glad I'm not the only one who kept thinking, "When is Larsen going to tell his frickin story?" It wasn't just the nickname either, the whole lawsuit could have been done in 500 words.

    I'm glad to hear how you took out the first two chapters. I write short stories that bring me to the starting point, just to get it out of my system. A largely cathartic, but cleansing, exercise.

    I've just finished Charlie Fox #2 (Fantastic writing, great story) and ordered #3. Now you have me wanting to toss aside daily responsibilities and catch up to #10 in a hurry! :)

    Peace, Seeley

  2. Hi Seeley

    Thank you for the kind words. No writer ever minds being told such things, as I'm sure you know :)

    I hadn't thought about doing the backstory as a short story. Usually I try out new characters in this format that serves as a character sketch and introduction.