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Don't Look Back: The Problem With Backstory

I’ve never kept a diary. I don’t flip through old photo albums. I haven’t watched a minute of the hundreds of hours of video I’ve shot of my kids ripping open presents, racing through sprinklers. When we ready the car, about to leave on a trip, I stalk through the house several times and interrogate my wife—What about this, what about this, what about this?—making certain we’ve remembered everything, so that when we’re blasting along the freeway, an hour from home, we don’t have to turn around.

Maybe this is why I get so irritated by backstory.

When you’re a beginner, stick to the rules. Listen to the sensei when he tells you to achieve some mastery of kung fu before you start trying to kick down doors—or you’re going to shatter your ankle and fall mewling to the floor. When my students ask me how much backstory they’re permitted to include in a story, I say, “How about none?” None is a good start.

It’s almost always unnecessary. A reader intuits the history of a character by observing that character act in the present. If you were, say, at a house party full of teenagers—hosted by a fifty-year-old still wearing his high school letterman jacket—you would no doubt draw your own conclusions independently as you observed his dyed hair, whitened teeth, the way he slides up to a girl who could be his daughter and persists in dragging her onto the dance floor even when she tells him no. He drinks so much he can’t count out the change he needs for the pizza delivery. He throws his arms around a bullnecked young man and persists in telling a damp-eyed, slurred-voice story about going to the state championship years ago. You don’t need me, as the author, leaning in to tell you this guy lives in a state of prolonged adolescence, that he was once the king of his high school, the captain of the football team, and though he headed off to college with big plans, he couldn’t take being a little fish in a big pond and ended up dropping out during sophomore year to return home and work for his pops at the used-car dealership. Now he buys the teenagers beer in order to relive those glory years, to get a taste of the power he has lost. If you explain all this, you are no different from the man himself, howling with laughter at some locker-room joke from twenty years ago, forcing the reader to look at the glorified past when the reader understands perfectly well the sad ugliness of the present.

This is the wrong move for two reasons. First, the impulse to explain will insult your audience. That’s their job—part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor. As a beginning writer, you’ve had more training in reading than you’ve had in writing—and so you succumb to your insecurity and you announce, you explicate, filling in as a writer those inferences you’re used to filling in as a reader.

Second, stories are about forward movement, and by interrupting yourself to explain history you have effectively yanked the gearshift into reverse. The story is no longer rushing forward—it’s sliding back.

At one time or another you’ve probably heard a writing instructor talk about the A-B-D-C-E structure of a story, an acronym for Action-Background-Development-Conflict-Ending. You open with some sort of gripping action—helicopters exploding, sharks fighting bears, whatever—and then you take us back in time to contextualize the trouble before revving up the engine again. I understand the formula: I know it’s used often and effectively. My problem, more often than not, comes when writers get stuck on B.

Sometimes the background goes on, and on, and on, until we forget about the dramatic present—in which case the writer needs to yield to the possibility that the past should be made present. In such instances, the history is the story. I’m thinking of a piece I recently encountered during a workshop, about a woman standing on the roof of a building, smoking a cigarette, staring out at a nighttime city, thinking about her mother. This went on for two pages, and then the story slid back in time and toured us through her whirlwind childhood. By the end, we returned to the roof, but not only was the backstory wildly more interesting than the frame, it also took up nine of the piece’s fourteen pages.

And sometimes the writer feels compelled to constantly remind us of the past, as if trapped in an A-B vortex. A character is drinking tea at the breakfast table when she notices a fissure in the cup—the tea is leaking from it, snaking hotly down her wrist—and just like that the present dissolves into a moment, years before, when her husband slammed shut the open dishwasher to get her attention and shattered half the glassware inside. Cut to the next scene: She’s in the shower, and as the room fills with steam she recalls the first time they hurriedly made love beside a pool at the Hampton Inn in Lawrence, Kansas. This is what I call the Scooby-Doo trick. The screen goes wavy—a harp strums three times—and we’re transported back in time. Not only does it feel artificial, not only does it continuously yank the narrative into rewind, but, as in this case, it typically points to a stagnant story, to characters given too much time to muse and ponder their cavernous navels.

I will say, by way of compromise, that this predilection for backstory works better in first person than in third. The first-person narrator should be more free-associative, more apt to digress. That’s how our minds are wired. That’s how we speak. Easily distracted, we loop away from the story we started. Unless you’re writing in close third—so close that the narrative bends around the character’s voice, the synaptic firing of the mind—the author is in control, and that makes backstory feel especially inauthentic and contrived. 

“When you’re a beginner, stick to the rules. Listen to the sensei when he tells you to achieve some mastery of kung fu before you start trying to kick down doors—or you’re going to shatter your ankle and fall mewling to the floor. ”

Reader Comments

  • ewent says...

    How on earth would you avoid backstory in historical fiction? Characters are developed by the writer. It's the readers we write for...not ourselves. Too many writers today are self-absorbed and have long ago (backstory) chosen to write what they, not their readers, like. Who really cares about forward story? Midstory? If you don't have some inkling of character motivation, your readers only see a monolithic character.

    Sorry...I will continue to insert backstory where it is necessary to the plot. Assuming all plot has to be in present tense without any reference to the past is like a story without descriptive adjectives.  In the words of Shakespeare in the Tempest, "What's past is prologue." All things of the past have value as a way of learning from the mistakes of others in past history. That's why backstory is important. I strenuously disagree.

  • timecat says...

    It sounds like its the explaining in the text he is against, not the existence of a backstory itself. A character is not so compelling without a backstory, however it is not necessary to explicitly tell the reader the past

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Don't Look Back: The Problem With Backstory (November/December 2012)
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