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Craft of Writing, Criticism, Fiction, My Novel, The Writer's Life

I Got Them Backstory Blues

Oh baby, I got them backstory blues
Baby, Baaaaby, I got them backstory blues
Got me goin’ so damn crazy
Backstory gonna drive me to booze

Okay, so I’ll never be a blues singer.

But I’ve been thinking about the phenomenon of backstory in literature, the necessary evil that good writers struggle with every time they sit down to write. Theoretically, our characters enter our stories as fully formed people, with histories and motivating factors, as well as current dilemmas. But stories, we are told, should begin in medias res, in the middle of things, and move forward from there, so that the reader becomes immediately caught up in the tension of the narrative.

Ironic (to begin in the middle), but ultimately makes sense. We wouldn’t want to start every story with something like, “Billy was born in a log cabin…”

Looking behind the backstory curtainBackstory: I started thinking about this more seriously after reading Benjamin Percy’s article, “Don’t Look Back: The Problem with Backstory” in the November/December 2012 issue of Poets & Writers.[1] [2] He’s one of the best at intimating a character’s past while remaining in the present action[3], and he wrote that backstory should never, never, be obvious in literature. But soon after, I read several novels in which the author simply brought the narrative to a complete stop in order to back up the backstory dump truck and drop a load at our feet. You know the technique. It reads something like this:

John held the gun to Bob’s head. One more word and he would pull the trigger. John and Bob first met as teenagers in high school, when they showed up for chess club at the same time…

Any decent writer or editor would throw up his hands and scream, “You can’t do that!”

But apparently, you can. Novels great and small do it. I just wrote a review of Jacob M. Appel’s prize winning first novel[4], which is generally very good, but contains several long info dumps. The first fifty pages of Jeffrey Eugenides’ last novel consisted of one glacier-sized hulk of slow moving backstory. How do they get away with it?

The backstory taboo is largely a misnomer. Most readers, it turns out, perhaps overly influenced by today’s tabloid infested prurience, don’t mind backstory nearly as much as MFAs do. They seem to like learning about a character’s dirty secrets as much as what’s going to happen to her. That may be good news.

More backstory: The thesis novel I wrote for my MFA program took place just before the start of World War I. It’s been sitting quietly on my hard drive for a couple of years. But it recently dawned on me—duh—that the 100th anniversary of the start of the war is about 18 months away. What? Commercial possibilities? I’m now spending about six hours a day editing and rewriting the novel.[5]

Character development was the novel’s main issue. As I work towards making two of the three protagonists more sympathetic, I’m wrestling with their personal histories, which are critical to their motivations, trying to sprinkle clues to their pasts throughout the narrative without detouring into blatant backstory country.

Thoughts/advice on how you feel about this BS (oops, I mean backstory) are welcome.


[1] Backstory to this backstory: I’ve really been thinking about it for much longer, ever since my first writers’ group accused me of unauthorized info dumping.

[2] Unfortunately the article is only available in the print issue, not online.

[3] Read the first three paragraphs of this story by Percy, to see what I mean.

[4] To be posted on the Los Angeles Review book reviews page in March, btw.

[5] Backstory to the backstory 2: The book even had an agent for a few months, so it’s not in that bad shape. I expect to be ready to query in as little as a few weeks, and pray—based on publishing timelines—that it won’t be too late.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

26 thoughts on “I Got Them Backstory Blues

  1. Joe, you just hit the thing that’s been driving me the most batty for the last few weeks. My memoir is about 40% backstory and I move back and forth in time. Mary Karr does this like a champ in LIT — so well you barely know it’s happening — but as I learned long ago: I ain’t no Mary Karr. Margaret Atwood is also brilliant at this, as is Nick Flynn.

    It occurs to me that these writers are all poets. Hmmmm.

    Good luck sending your book out. Can’t wait to hear what happens!

    Posted by Teri | February 16, 2013, 2:23 PM
    • The guideline I’ve been trying to stick to is to only dip into backstory when it would be natural for the character to make the connection from the present to the past. But I think it varies from writer to writer as to how easily that connection can be made. For someone like me, who doesn’t delve into a personal backstory very often in real life, that connection is harder to justify.

      Another way to look at it comes from Bruce Holland Rogers, who says that kind of information should only be delivered when the reader can’t wait any longer to find it out.

      Best of luck figuring all this out for the memoir!

      Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 3:00 AM
  2. I guess I would say, “Success is the final test, and you can’t come up with a theory to suit the situation.” If it works, do it. If it works, then fine. If not, then you can’t. It’s seemingly as simple as that. I agree with Teri (your first commenter, above) that Margaret Atwood is good at backstory (but then, she’s good at almost everything). I don’t much like Mary Karr, though I know I’m supposed to, so I can’t comment on her, and I’m not familiar with Nick Flynn. So I stick to my own theory, which is “Whatever works.”

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 16, 2013, 2:47 PM
  3. Backstory? I like to think it’s easy to do (because the minute I start thinking it isn’t I’ll completely fail at doing it). For instance, in the novel I just finished the mother of the murderer is trying to “fix” the situation, and while sitting at her desk making phone calls she notices that the windows are dirty and thinks that the cleaning people never get them and the house was kept much better when her husband was alive and maybe her daughter would have turned out better if her father had lived. It’s maybe two sentences, but it gives not only that little piece of information, but reveals the woman’s views on men and child-rearing as well as the fact that she wasn’t in love with her deceased husband. Backstory doesn’t have to be info dumps, it can simply be a sentence or two in the midst of the action or description of a regular scene.

    Posted by robitille | February 16, 2013, 3:32 PM
    • And it’s certainly better that way. Those long instances of backstory take me out of the flow of the story. They seem more like author’s notes than part of the plot.

      Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 3:15 AM
  4. I agree with Robitille about not dumping but adding small pieces of information, a few sentences, a few details. What comes to mind is a bad guy, a murderer I wanted to hate but couldn’t because he regularly walked his granddaughter to the park. He held her hand, pushed her on a swing. It doesn’t take much to evoke sympathy. I don’t think readers need a psychological history (which would require a dump). Show a tender side, and our hearts will soften. Ah, he’s human.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | February 16, 2013, 4:49 PM
    • I agree. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in this book. The issue is precisely where to insert those bits of info.

      Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 3:17 AM
  5. I’ve always thought that backstory has to have a trigger in the present tense to explain it’s inclusion here. So planting triggers is key. Sort of like planting mines, I guess. I love this post, Joe.

    Posted by girl in the hat | February 16, 2013, 4:52 PM
    • I’m glad to hear you say that. I’ve been planting triggers throughout the first few chapters to set the scene for the flashbacks to come. That’s the beauty of revision… and revision… and revision.

      Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 3:23 AM
  6. Opinions R Me.
    Look, when you meet someone for the first time one of the biggest turn offs is their running auto-bio. I don’t like it in life and I don’t do it in a story. Certainly not at first meeting. A story is a sort of conversation between writer and reader. Let it start in the moment and move from there. At some time you’ll be reminded of that funny/odd/interesting thing in your past, and it will fit the conversation, and you’ll mention it. If it seems to move the conversation forward you might expand on it. If not, it will drop.
    In the entire course of my book, I never say a word about the married protagonists not having children. They just don’t, and that’s absolutely clear as things develop. All I cared about was who they were in the moment and where they went from there. Little flashbacks are useful, as long as they fit with what is immediately happening.
    A special trip into Backstory Land is usually awkward and obvious. I think if I need to have a lot of backstory, I’ve started the story too late.
    And yes, I love this post too.

    Posted by Jon Zech | February 16, 2013, 5:13 PM
    • Now that you mention it, I don’t recall reading any backstory in your book. Another author would have probably info dumped like crazy. You understood your characters so well, the hints to their past were built into their present actions. If there’s any lesson we can take from this discussion, that’s it.

      Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 3:33 AM
  7. Every now and then I’ll get on an anti-backstory kick, but it’s usually after I’ve read something where the b.s. in question is handled clumsily, doesn’t add anything to the narrative or character development, or might as well have been worked into the front story. Then I’ll read a great story or novel with loads of well-wrought backstory and change my mind. In the end, I suppose whether or not I like backstory (or, more accurately, a particular instance of backstory) depends on how entertained by a story I am.

    On a separate note, maybe backstory is so prevalent in popular fiction because every writer is constantly being told to begin with a hook — so the non-hookish details need to be filled in a few pages after the gripping opening passage.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | February 16, 2013, 11:17 PM
  8. You bring up a great point about the pressures of the commercial publishing world. What the salespeople want is rarely what the writer/artist wants. The idea of writing a compelling story has morphed in the commercial world to mean “if you don’t grab ’em in the first five pages, we’re not interested.”

    Posted by jpon | February 17, 2013, 11:52 AM
  9. I wrote this last book with almost no backstory, and have spent months now adding those scenes at my editor’s request. And the book is better for it.

    I think we take hold of these maxims as writers because we’re desperate for some kind of guideline to make all this a little easier. But the fact is, readers don’t give a fig about our rules of engagement. They want a good story with invisible seams, and if that means providing some context for the real-time events, so be it.

    Posted by Averil Dean | February 17, 2013, 1:31 PM
    • You’re exactly right, Averil. We follow the maxims like they were bread crumb trails out of the forest. And if one guideline doesn’t work, we’ll seek another, explaining why there are so many books on How to Write a Novel/Short Story/ Believable Character, etc. We want to have the magic How To Manual. There isn’t one. I think you can teach a good writer to be a better writer, but I am unconvinced that you can teach a non-writer to be any more than clear and not awful. Back story? Really good writers just know how to handle it, and they know it at an unconscious gut level. Same with dialog, plotting, setting as character and every other writerly thing. But I suppose this is a whole ‘nother subject: Writing, is it an art or a craft?

      Posted by Jon Zech | February 17, 2013, 4:35 PM
      • I love your point about the unconscious. One of the hardest things for me as a writer is learning to trust my instinct for what is and what isn’t part of the story, because that means discarding bad advice in favor of delivering the purest form of the story as I understand it. Sometimes, of course, the advice is excellent and the book improves. But in early drafts especially there’s a temptation to resort to dogma. (How to? How to???)

        Posted by Averil Dean | February 17, 2013, 5:06 PM
      • Something perhaps related: I watched a PBS/BBC program last night about Leonardo Da Vinci. Much like a good writer, he apprenticed his craft, and then took that experience and moved in directions never imagined before. One segment explained what made the Mona Lisa a great painting: it was a technique he developed over the years of layering the paints and varnishes. A white base paint, then a layer of paint, then a layer of varnish with just a touch of color, and over and over, until the skin of the Mona Lisa glowed like real skin. How like writing this seems to me. In this age of bare bones flash fictions, it’s something that resonated with me, and that I will try to incorporate into my writing.

        Posted by jpon | February 18, 2013, 11:34 AM
    • Very interesting on two counts, Averil. First, that your editor requested you add backstory, and second that you think the book is better for it. You’re absolutely right about readers not caring about writing rules and formulas, and about writers’ desire for something solid to hold onto as they scribble away. I guess it boils down to experience–writers learn (sometimes subconsciously) what works and what doesn’t. And how I recognize that as I go through the novel I mentioned and repair the damage I did to the narrative by trying to impress my readers, instead of communicating a story. And yes, I am adding backstory when it seems natural.

      Posted by jpon | February 18, 2013, 11:26 AM
  10. A story, like a sculpture, exists before it is written. The sculptor chips away at what isn’t. A writer assembles that which is. There is no magic to it. You know it or you don’t. When you hear and see your story, all that’s left is to transcribe your vision.

    Posted by Jon Zech | February 17, 2013, 7:09 PM
  11. Very interesting post. I’m actually not much of a backstory person. The backstory emerges as a surprise from the front story as it writes itself. But I get that this can be a big issue for many. Always provocative to get into the heads of other writers and see what goes on there! Thanks.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | February 17, 2013, 8:41 PM
    • Thanks. Don’t look too closely into my head, though. It reminds me of the incident with baseball great Lou Gehrig, who was once hit in the head with the ball and was taken to the hospital. A newspaper headline the next day reported “X-Rays of Gehrig’s Head Show Nothing.”

      Posted by jpon | February 18, 2013, 11:38 AM
  12. Joe, as always, love your work (and yes, that’s a much better Gravatar! ;-] ), have nominated you for the Liebster Blog Award: http://fpdorchak.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/spreading-the-love-a-liebster-blog-award/!

    Posted by fpdorchak | February 18, 2013, 10:35 AM
    • What a nice surprise. Thanks, Frank. And I see I’m nominated along with such fine blogs as “Wine And Roses From Outer Space” and “Thinking Banned Thoughts.” I’ll get to work on it.

      Posted by jpon | February 18, 2013, 11:47 AM

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