Don’t Look Back: The Problem With Backstory

by
Benjamin Percy
11.1.12

I have 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.

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.

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. 

Flannery O’Connor rarely employs backstory. When she does, she likes to slip history into the predicate of the sentence. Let’s say your character hates her overbearing mother. She has done everything she can to distance herself from the woman—moving thousands of miles away, changing her voice to shake the Ukrainian accent she inherited, even telling friends her mother died of cancer years ago—but still, she is haunted by reminders. They share the same bulging knees, weak chin, brittle fingernails. And maybe, in a passage, you might write, “When she drove, she hunched into the wheel of the car and peered over its rim, muttering curses at the traffic around her, this white truck driven by an idiot, that minivan driven by a moron, furious at the whole world for doing her some injustice, with the same white-knuckled grip and scowl her mother wore when driving her pink Cadillac down country roads and gravel driveways, trying to sell bright, cakey Mary Kay makeup to any who would invite her in for lemonade and a makeover.” The backstory fills the adverbial slot—coloring the way the girl drives—and then the next sentence comes along and we’re back in the present, tearing along the highway.

If used sparingly—strategically—backstory can have a propulsive force. Consider the embedded scene. You already know that when reaching a section break or concluding a chapter, it is wise to cut away at a moment of heightened action, to send your reader into white space wondering what happens next. Rather than immediately satisfying the reader’s curiosity, you can heighten suspense by leaping forward in time and continuing to withhold information. In Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue (Harper, 2012), Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe are longtime friends and the co-owners of Brokeland Records, a used-vinyl shop in the borderlands of Oakland and Berkeley, California. They’ve got problems. A Dogpile megastore is about to begin construction down the road and will no doubt put them out of business. Archy and his wife are about to have a child, an event that depresses more than excites them, since she recently discovered his infidelity. And then, this afternoon, Archy and Nat come to realize that the teenage boy who has wandered into the store, who stands before them now, Titus Joyner, is Archy’s bastard son “from a girl who stayed around enough to wear Archy out, then went on home to Oklahoma.” Nat sees the raw panic spreading across his friend’s face and says, “I guess congratulations are in order.”

And then? White space.

The scene that follows begins with the line: “Archy stood in the front bay window of his house like a doomed captain on the bridge of a starship, pondering, as if it were a devourer of planets, the approach of his wife’s black BMW.” Chabon cuts away from the vinyl shop at the height of action, eliminates the transition, then flashes forward to a moment of reckoning. This is the first time Archy has seen his wife since she discovered he was cheating—and now he has an illegitimate fourteen-year-old child he needs to tell her about, a high-stakes situation made more suspenseful by the open-ended scene that preceded it. How did Archy respond to learning Titus was his son? Did he reject the boy? Hug him? Will Titus come live at Archy’s home?

It isn’t until four pages later, when the boy rides his bike past the house and eyes Archy with his very pregnant wife, that we learn the answer. “He had kept his distance with the boy in the store today, but he was careful not to be cold or unfriendly. The embrace they had exchanged was perfunctory and all but imperceptible to Archy behind the turmoil of his emotions. Now the boy pedaled past, eyes forward, expression blank, looking at neither Archy nor Gwen, neither left nor right, wearing his T-shirt do-rag. He was…going to ruin everything.”

William Gay uses the same trick in his haunting short story “The Paperhanger,” which begins with the line: “The vanishing of the doctor’s wife’s child in broad daylight was an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and now, the before and after.” How she vanished we don’t know until the conclusion of the piece, when Gay reveals that the wallpaper hanger, when working in the doctor’s house, reached out and snapped the child’s neck and tucked her into his toolbox and left. By carving away that essential piece of information, Gay creates such dreadful suspense: The reader hunts the whole story for that missing puzzle piece, not really wanting to find it. When the backstory is finally supplied—alongside the story of the seduction of the mother by the paperhanger—it has a vivid, poisoning effect.

I often make loud, growly pronouncements about things. Do this, I tell my students. But never do that. My hope is, maybe a week or a month or a year later, they will be seated at the computer, composing a story, and when they violate one of my rules, the screen will open up and my face will emerge and say, “Doooon’t doooo thaaaat.” Think of it as a more aggressive version of Microsoft Word’s squiggly green underline. The truth is, of course, that if you’re good enough, you can do anything. William Gay can use backstory, William Trevor can change point of view midscene, Alice Munro can write a short story that takes place over several decades. They can do these things not because they’re ignorant to risk, but rather because their writing is so good it transcends rules.

In other words, never use backstory—except when it works.

Benjamin Percy is the author of Red Moon, published in May by Grand Central Publishing, and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of stories.

Comments

clarification

FYI, a kung fu master is a "sifu" (Cantonese). The term "sensei" is for a master of a Japanese art (karate, judo, etc.).

It sounds like its the

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

Backstory

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.