I Wasn’t Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory

by
Eleanor Henderson
8.31.13

Novelists, of course, can afford to spend a greater proportion of their pages in backstory since they are under less pressure to make each word matter. Furthermore, the grander scale of the novel, the necessary architecture of plot and subplot, often require a more detailed attention to the events of the past. But even Chabon’s short fiction is soaked with backstory. 

His wonderful story “Mrs. Box,” from Werewolves in Their Youth (Random House, 1999), about a bankrupt optometrist named Eddie Zwang, is as good an example as any. In an effort to both outrun and salvage his past, Eddie takes a detour down memory lane, paying a surprise visit to his ex-wife’s senile grandmother, Oriole. Chabon paints a terrifically detailed picture of Oriole’s sour-smelling apartment, in which every trinket, photograph, and piece of furniture tells us volumes about her very long life. Halfway through the story, Oriole’s necklace, an anniversary gift from her dead husband, begins to take on a literal weight. But Chabon doesn’t just let these objects speak for themselves; he uses them as a departure for his character’s own associations:

“I sleep with it on, you know,” she said, “though at times it lies quite heavy on my windpipe.”

“Seventy-two years,” said Eddie, enviously, too softly for Oriole to hear. He and Dolores had been married thirty-one months before parting. There had been an extramarital kiss, entrepreneurial disaster, a miscarried baby, sexual malaise, and then very soon they had been forced to confront the failure of an expedition for which they had set out remarkably ill-equipped, like a couple of trans-Arctic travelers who through lack of preparation find themselves stranded and are forced to eat their dogs. Eddie had known for a long time—since his wedding day—that it was not a strong marriage, but now, for the first time, it occurred to him that this was because he and Dolores were not strong people; they had not been able to bear the weight of married love upon their windpipes.

The backstory continues for another full page, in which we learn more about Eddie and Dolores’s disastrous end. Is this summary explaining? Maybe. But I can’t help but think that, if this backstory were amputated, the story would feel incomplete, unrealized. I might feel pleasantly involved in decoding the mystery of this family through the clues around me, but in the end, I’d feel locked out of the room, disregarded. In the margin, I’d write Why

A more cautious writer might shy away from such an obvious use of symbol-as-memory-jogger. This is the third kind of “recognition” in Aristotle’s Poetics, the one that “depends on memory when the sight of some object awakens a feeling.” In Chabon’s hands, the technique is subtly effective, and realistic: We do associate objects with memories, after all. And this summarized backstory doesn’t interrupt the narrative; it enriches it. If the past is on a character’s mind—and in this story, the insufferable weight of Eddie’s past is the whole point—why shouldn’t we have access to those memories? Why play a guessing game?

Chabon’s short story “Along the Frontage Road” gives us one more powerful example of backstory. The background we get here, about a page into a father and son’s visit to a pumpkin farm, is carefully controlled, the restraint matching the numb state of the narrator:

But we had both wanted to get out of the house, where ordinary sounds—a fork against a plate, the creak of a stair tread—felt like portents, and you could not escape the smell of the flowers, heaped everywhere, as if some venerable mobster had died. In fact the deceased was a girl of seventeen weeks, a theoretical daughter startled in the darkness and warmth of her mother’s body, or so I imagine it, by a jet of cool air and a fatal glint of light. It was my wife who had suggested that Nicky and I might as well go and pick out the pumpkin for that year.

I can’t help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Ele-phants,” also about the distressing effects of an abortion. That story offers us nothing but surface clues; it is a guessing game of sorts. Part of the pleasure of reading it is figuring out what kind of “procedure” the couple is talking about. Here, the pleasure isn’t in figuring out what—Chabon’s narrator has graciously filled us in with a swift summary—but in understanding how: how the family got to this point, and how they will manage to move on. This example also teaches us that backstory doesn’t have to reach back to childhood; it can simply reach back to last week. It can even reach back to this morning, when the eggs were burned at breakfast. Good backstory comes in countless forms, but it always establishes the emotional stakes on which the present action hinges. Chabon’s command of backstory reminds us that characters very often live in their memories, and by allowing us a peek into their memory vaults, he invites us to bear witness to the wistful, bittersweet connection between past and present, which happens to be, as much as anything, what his work—and so much of literature—is about. 

The world would be a bland place without backstory, and yet the story doesn’t stop there. There are a thousand and one ways to use backstory in fiction—just as many ways as there are to manipulate time. Indeed, the term backstory assumes a profluent, primarily linear story with a clear “first narrative”—another concept Genette examines in his classic Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1983)—and a traditional relationship between that narrative and the important events in the past. Thankfully, literature offers as many exceptions to that rule as the rule itself. Some stories don’t flow forward at all; some flow backward. For example, Lorrie Moore’s wonderful “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” from Self-Help (Knopf, 1985), operates on what Genette calls “retrograde movement.” Some stories operate on “Switchback Time,” a term proposed by Joan Silber in The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes (Graywolf Press, 2009). She holds up Alice Munro as a master of this mode, in which the narrative time periods are so interdependent that no single one is dominant; instead, two or more related periods of time “switch” back and forth, like a winding mountain road. Edward P. Jones’s intricately woven and obsessively backward-glancing stories, many of which span three generations in thirty pages, belong in this category as well. Yes, a story can capture time, moment by moment, but it can also compress it or extend it; it can flash back or zoom forward; it can walk; it can skip; it can circle the block until it finds a parking space; it can haunt; it can expect; it can forget.

To assume that all narratives must flow forward, then—and that backstory is a sandbag to narrative velocity—is to limit a story’s potential for interpreting the experience of time passing. And writers have been taking important advantage of anachrony—a disruption of a purely chronological narrative—since the Iliad. “We will not be so foolish as to claim that anachrony is either a rarity or a modern invention,” writes Genette. “On the contrary, it is one of the traditional resources of literary narration.” 

Benjamin Percy concludes that you can do anything if you do it well. Here we can wholeheartedly agree. But backstory is not a technique so advanced you need a black belt to attempt it. You just need curiosity, control, and an appreciation for time travel—that Gatsbyesque desire to repeat the past. In real life, we may not be able to go back in time, but in fiction? Why, of course we can. 

Eleanor Henderson is the author of the novel Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco), which was named one of the Top Ten Books of 2011 by the New York Times and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. She is an assistant professor at Ithaca College.

Comments

What do you think? Read

What do you think? Read Benjamin Percy's "Don't Look Back: The Problem With Backstory" then weigh in with a comment of your own. Does the impulse to explain a character's history "insult your audience," as Percy writes, or do you, like Henderson, crave "the weight of history, the magic of motivation" that backstory provides?

¶ In paraphrase, it seems

¶ In paraphrase, it seems Benjamin Percy has declared, "Goodbye historical ficiton1" 

¶Human enlightenment and much human pleasure would be erased or evaporated.  Life is too short to have to learn every step of (what would have been) the gurus secrets of life dangers and successes for oneself.  Hemight as well have said "Goodbye to fiction!"  Andthere is more: we were each told that every scientific invention is built and the inventors stand on the shoulders of giants.  Does he mean, "Goodbye to giants!"

¶It is a mere notion, a fantasy.  I like fantasy, too: it is written in obeisance to what is imagined, to what is past.

too much is too much

I subscribe to the late Elmore Leonard's rule #10: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." Yes, we need to know how Ramona learned to make the untraceable poison that killed Fidel. No, we don't need the 5,00 year old history of that poisonous berry.If Ramona's great great-grandmother was hanged as a witch, and both women have one green eye and one blue eye--keep that detail.

Arlene L. Mandell, Santa Rosa, CA

In praise of multiple time frames

In her unforgettable and gorgeous first novel, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy takes us into three time frames in the first four pages, and continues to move among front-, back-, and middle-stories throughout the book. Stripped of this technique, the novel would lose a great deal of its richness - and the reader much of its pleasure. This is only one among countless examples.

As Henderson points out, any technique can be well- or ill-used. A thriller may need no backstory to be excellent. Many stories, however, certainly need it to be at all effective.

Backstory

I'm so grateful that Eleanor Henderson has taken on this topic. Anytime we limit ourselves in any aspect of our lives, not just as writers, we put unnessary restrictions on our movements. I want many options, many tools to work with, and backstory is one such tool. Hourra pour l'histoire arrière!

http://lilyionamackenzie.com/

I read a lot of "do's and

I read a lot of "do's and dont's" about writing, but the bottom line is what works for that writer. The best advice I ever heard was an analogy to finances: Don't squander it all up front. Use your capital (action and character) to build up interest. Only when you have adequate reserves can you tap into those for a little backstory; then build up more interest. Try to incorporate the backstory as much as possible into dialogue, internal reflection, or something that shows character as well as motivation. For example: "Remember Prague?" Joe asked. Jim grimaced. "How could I forget? I almost bought it there. I'm just lucky, I guess." Unless someone from Prague is after Jim, we don't need any more detail. We know he's a spy or a criminal, and he has become somewhat desensitized to danger. I've read a number of novels (not just classics) where virtually the entire background is given in narration up front; they lost me. On the other hand, I totally agree with Eleanor. Once you have hooked me into your story, give me a little of the past as needed, or somehow explain motivation, or I will again lose interest in that character.

Flashing Back

Readinto

Last summer at a workshop led by a well known author, I submitted one lesson using flashbacks. She buried me before the class. She categorically denounced flashbacks en toto. In my fight or flight mode, I retaliated with far too much vigor, I regret. After a restless night's sleep, I realized that unfortunately, the workshop, for me, had become a waste.  If she had approached the subject with views of each side it would have been OK. We both could have marched on with undamaged swords. 

Incidentally, at age 81, I am mentally and emotionally immersed each day with the backstory of my life. It balances me. It provides me perspective -- as a person and as a writer.

Reading the original article,

Reading the original article, 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. I think this is what Percy is saying. Now "not necessary" does not mean "not allowed" so of course writers can explain the past if they do do artfully and without losing the reader's interest.

Backstory

"No backstory?" I say with the same incredulity that the editor used in response to little Virginia's letter asking if there was a Santa Claus. Why not do away with all parts of speech except present tense active verbs? I'm a Southern writer (living in New England), and our way of storytelling is hardly ever direct from point A to point B. Within each story are other stories, like Russian nesting dolls, and all hold meaning that enriches the entire set. I love the structure of flashback and bookending, so, you'll get no agreement from me to eliminate backstory. Nosiree bob.

Percy uses the restriction as a pedagogical device.

Restricting beginners from doing things they normally do badly forces them to be more creative in solving the problems restriction creates, and improves the final product. I see nothing wrong with that.

Giving students a free hand to express themselves leads them down the watercourse of predictability and cliche.

The more restrictions the writer sets for himself the better the resulting product. That is what the rules are for. So that we learn how to break them better.

Backstory

I once heard William Matthews tell his workshop students they must become so familiar with the rules that they will be able to successfully break them all, including the "show, don't tell" rule.  That was so many years ago, he may not have known (or didn't care because he was a poet), about the contemporary prejudice to avoid backstory.   Another time, I heard Grace Paley talk about how rules come in and go out of fashion.  Sometimes, she said, you just have to wait for the fashion wave to catch up with you.  

the writer and reader 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.

Thank You

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.