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I Wasn't Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory

Stories are built on the premise that the past shapes the present. Regret, nostalgia, guilt, grief—they are the building blocks of fiction. Ever since Lot’s wife glanced back at the city she was fleeing, the characters we’ve encountered in literature have been unable to keep themselves from looking to the past. It’s human nature, after all. Despite the warnings—don’t look back or you’ll turn to salt—we are preoccupied with our own personal histories, and with our inability to change or reclaim them.

So I was puzzled when I opened the November/December 2012 issue of this magazine and read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Don’t Look Back: The Problem With Backstory,” in which he argues that backstory is “almost always unnecessary.” Almost always unnecessary? I scratched my head. I might have scoffed. I felt like Jay Gatsby, breathless with disbelief. “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!”

Sure, there are writers who manage to tell knockout stories with virtually no backstory. Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, and J. D. Salinger all wrote deeply involving stories without offering backstage access to their characters’ histories. These kinds of stories, often told in objective or nearly objective points of view, over compressed periods of time, offer a special kind of pleasure—the pleasure of intuiting what lies beneath the surface of the iceberg.

But fiction offers endless other pleasures. What about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), a book that defies genre and redefines time? What about Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (Amistad, 2003), a novel that leaps forward as frequently as it flashes back? What about Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which, perhaps more than any other work of fiction, seeks to capture the act of remembrance? All of these works have only a token relationship to any present, and any emotional effect achieved there depends upon the backward glance. To dismiss backstory is to dismiss a powerful technique, one that deserves closer attention.

I share Percy’s frustration with poorly dispatched backstory. I too have read my fill of workshop manuscripts that interpret backstory exclusively through the aptly named “Scooby-Doo trick,” the clunky device borrowed from television and film, which too often form the frame of reference for young writers. Here is a story about John, beating the crap out of his kid. Space break, and cue flashback to John’s dad, beating the crap out of John. Got it. At its worst, backstory is reduced to diagnosis, a lame game of connect-the-dots. 

But I’m even more disappointed with the workshop story that has no sense of the past whatsoever. Page after page, John goes around beating the crap out of people with no rhyme or reason. John’s author has not chosen to cleverly reveal the past through dialogue or action or some other objective correlative, but has left it out altogether. Why? I find myself writing in the margin. What happened? What about his father? When I ask the author these questions, I discover that John indeed has no father, that he sprang from the mind of the author alone, in middle age. This is unfortunate. I’m left craving backstory, the weight of history, the magic of motivation. Too many amateur stories are built on the thin and faulty foundation of the present. Well, characters weren’t born yesterday, and neither were most readers. 

What do we mean when we say backstory? Sometimes we conflate this term with flashback, but they’re not quite the same thing. To use the term of French literary theorist Gérard Genette, backstory is any incident of analepsis: “any evocation after the fact of an event that took place earlier than the point in the story where we are at any given moment.” That evocation can come through either scene or summary. Janet Burroway and Elizabeth and Ned Stuckey-French, the authors of the very good textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (the eighth edition of which was published by Longman in 2010), acknowledge that “many beginning writers use unnecessary flashbacks.” But they also write that “Flashback—in either scene or summary—is one of the most magical of fiction’s contrivances, easier and more effective in this medium than in any other, because the reader’s mind is a swifter mechanism for getting into the past than anything that has been devised for stage and film.” The authors equate the word backstory with background. I tend to use flashback to refer to scene and backstory to refer to summary.

It’s as easy to write weak backstory as it is to write a clunky and obvious flashback. No reader of fiction wants to read biography, and yet many beginning writers believe that the fastest way to develop a story is to hand over a character’s résumé on a silver platter. This is generally a bad idea. We don’t need to know the answers to the character’s password-protection questions—the name of his first pet, the city where his father was born (though, off-page, the author should have some idea). We all know that we should resist the impulse to tell, to explain.

But backstory and flashback are no more vulnerable to the threats of bad writing than frontstory—if I may argue for this handy term. Bad backstory explains. Good backstory uses the same tools available at any other point in a narrative to invite the reader into a world more three-dimensional than the present alone.

Benjamin Percy seems to suggest a reasonable kind of compromise: a restrained, summarized slice of history tucked surreptitiously, here and there, into a briskly moving frontstory scene, like a little shredded carrot in the banana bread. He also says that backstory can work when arranged as the answer to a cliffhanger, as in Michael Chabon’s newest novel, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012).

I agree that these are skillful methods of managing backstory, and that Chabon is a master of this particular trick. A closer look at Chabon’s body of work, however, reveals dozens more backstory flavors. I could offer examples from all over literature; finding stories and novels without effective backstory is the challenge. But Chabon’s fiction is a great place to start. Indeed, it proves that backstory isn’t a burden to be managed but an opportunity to be mined.

Sometimes backstory simply demands the primacy of flashback. Indeed, if it’s showing we’re after, why not go for broke with the immediacy of a full-fledged scene? Chabon does just this in Telegraph Avenue. Twenty pages into the novel, after getting to know Luther Stallings and Chandler Bankwell Flowers III in the 2004 frontstory, we suddenly climb into their DeLorean and travel back three decades: “On a Saturday night in August 1973, outside the Bit o’Honey Lounge, a crocodile-green ’70 Toronado sat purring its crocodile purr. Its chrome grin stretched beguiling and wide as the western horizon.” There’s nothing parenthetical about this backstory. It’s a wholly formed scene with seven luxurious pages to develop, enough time for a gun to be introduced and for it to go off. 

Could the novel survive without this scene? Probably. Perhaps Chabon could simply allude to this night in casual conversation. But what a shame that would be! We’d be deprived of the chance to see these characters in their reckless youth, to breathe inside that Toronado with them, and to fully appreciate the road they’ve traveled together since that day. Traditional flashbacks are used to equally dazzling effect in many of Chabon’s other novels. What would The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Random House, 2000) be, after all, without the return to Joe Kavalier’s epic escape out of Prague in the Golem’s coffin?

“I’m left craving backstory, the weight of history, the magic of motivation. Too many amateur stories are built on the thin and faulty foundation of the present. Well, characters weren’t born yesterday, and neither were most readers.”

Reader Comments

  • Eleanor Henderson says...

    Thanks for continuing the conversation!  I love these comments, especially the ones from an 81-year-old writer and a Southern writer, both of whom value backstory for their own reasons. Since I'm now writing a novel set in the South, largely based on the setting my 81-year-old father grew up in, I'm suddenly interested in the way backstory might have a special place in this book.  So thanks for making that connection for me.

  • Michael Ryan says...

    I enjoyed both Percy and Hendersons’ perspectives and believe a crux to the question is:  The reader or the writer?  In most works, the reader knowingly or unknowingly meets the characters immediately, whether through their current actions, dialogue and those of others, and/or through the narrative that depicts their speech, behavior-  past or present.  Both are affective in the hands of a good writer.  Both have an immediacy to continue the plot curve.  I do appreciate Margaret Atwood’s take on the role of memory and nostalgia, telling stories of ourselves in her interview with Razia Iqbal, while exploring a contemplative future.  The setting initially, followed by the conflicts of the characters lead to the climax and following resolution, either positive or negative, and presents to the reader, the theme.  The human condition IS conflict, so who cares if it comes from the past, present or future?  Think and enjoy . . . and write.

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