Questionable: Back Story

el7 asked:

Say you have a character who had a life defining moment in their past that of course bears on their present because, life defining. How do you handle relaying that to the reader? There always comes a moment when they need to explain it to someone. Is the conversation enough to bring that across or should you go for the flashback? I always feel odd about it because it can break POV to do a flashback, plus I remember that conversation in Jaws where Quint relates a story about surviving a shipwreck during WWII and that was very powerful without resorting to a flashback. But then you have to go to monologue and that’s tricky in its own right. What’s the best way to approach that kind of moment in a narrative?

I had a life-defining moment on May 4 in 1970. I was nineteen years old, a good girl, a child of strict Republican parents who taught me to always obey authority and that the government was there to protect me. I was in school at Bowling Green State University, which is in northwestern Ohio, and on May 4, the National Guard shot and killed students like me at Kent State, another Ohio state school that was so close to us that when they closed Kent, the students came to our campus. The problem with a strict, absolute belief is that it can’t rebound from a blow, it cracks and shatters and there’s nothing left. I went from a 3.8 grade point to a .9, went from being a law-abiding citizen to a peace protestor, went from being my mother’s good girl to being a pot-smoking hippie who gave up her virginity without a qualm and never met an authority that didn’t make her say, “Hell, no.” That was a life-defining moment. Today the only time I think about it is when somebody says, “Kent State,” and for that moment the rage and the fear and the betrayal comes back, but only for that moment. Then I go on with my life because my world changed that day, but it was forty-four years ago. It changed me then, it doesn’t change me now.

And that’s the problem with back story. It’s in the back of the story, not at the front where the action and character arc and the change is. Using back story for motivation in the now isn’t just lazy, it’s useless. “He shot up his workplace because he had a bad childhood.” Yeah? Everybody I know had a bad childhood and none of us have shot up a Walmart. He didn’t do it because of his bad childhood, he did it because of something now. If it was because of his bad childhood, he’d have done it as a child.

Okay, that’s facile, but the thing about fiction is that it’s supposed to be better than reality. We go to fiction because the real world is chaotic and often meaningless, and good fiction gives us a rational world, and “This happened ten years ago which is why I’m doing this today” isn’t rational. Rational is, “This happened ten years ago and I changed and got on with my life and then THIS HAPPENED TODAY and now I’m doing this, in part because of my memories but really because of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED TODAY.” It’s not that our pasts don’t do a lot to shape who we are today, it’s that they don’t do anything to CHANGE who we are today, and change is what story is about, the day that is different. Your character isn’t what happened to her in the past, it’s who she is now on the page, how she talks, acts, treats people, handles problems now. If you want a shorter reason not to do back story, back story is telling, story in the now is showing. If your character wastes her story real estate in the now to moan about the past, she’s not doing anything.

So ask yourself, “Is that moment in the past really the defining moment in my character’s life?” Because if it is, that’s the story you should be writing. And if the story you’re writing now is another defining moment in the character’s life (most of us have multiple defining moments), then write about that one, not about the other story. Once again, pick a lane, but keep that lane, whatever it is, in its own now so you’re not hobbling your protagonist. There’s a reason Miss Havisham is not the lead character in Great Expectations: trailing around a mansion in a wedding dress from your aborted nuptials from thirty years before makes you an object of pity and revulsion, not a heroine. Think of your back story as a rotting wedding dress and let it go.

And now forty people will tell me I’m wrong and give me examples of great flashbacks. You know what? A flashback might be fascinating, it might be riveting (Quint is a good example), it might be amazing, but it’s never going to move story. So, no.

21 thoughts on “Questionable: Back Story

  1. A very insightful article.
    It has reminded me of those novels when someone is a SOB and explains ‘I’m cold-hearted b/c my parents did not love me’. And telling this story makes him or her behave better. So I guess that back story is used as a kind of psychoanalytic moment when speaking about that moment is the thing that happens now and make them grow up.
    Personally, I have never believed in those moments. I always prefer things happening and being showed instead of telling anything. I’m not very fond of psychoanalytic approaches to human behaviour.

  2. Some writers go crazy with the backstory. I get confused in the characters’ present, frustrated, and then abandon ship.
    Speaking of abandoning ship, I like to think of Quint’s Indianapolis story as flash-foreshadowing. You knew he wasn’t going yo make it after hearing that story.

  3. Yikes! My biggest issue when I write–I want to tell everyone’s story practically from the beginning of time. I call it “Mitchner Syndrome” because nearly every one of his books starts with the formation of the earth. Love to read him, but wow–the real story usually starts about 100 pages in. Lani and I are working on this on my current Women of Willow Bay book. First three chapters are for me, the actual book will start at chapter 4. I don’t know how to stop doing it, so I guess I’ll just write it and then pick where to start after the first draft.

    1. I have the same problem!
      We are not alone – Tony Hillerman said he always had to throw away Chapter One, even though he tried not to write a throw away chapter.

      1. I used to have to throw away the first thirty pages of everything I wrote. I figured it was like bouncing up and down on the diving board before you went into the water.

  4. The other thing to remember, if there is something that does really need to go in the now (and it’s not just a generic excuse like Jenny describes), is that the blow-by-blow action of what happened then doesn’t matter. It’s filtered through time and experience anyway.

    What matters is how the character REMEMBERS it, and how he thinks of it. Which is why flashbacks are often the wrong way to do it. Does it really matter if it was windy that day so we need to experience that wind, or does it matter simply that he associates it with windy days? Does it matter if he really was the innocent victim or does it matter that he BELIEVED he was an innocent victim, even if in reality he was part of the problem? Does it really matter exactly what someone said to him, or does it matter how he heard the words?

    Generally, it’s not what REALLY happened, but how he remembers it that affects decisions in the present. And if there’s a discrepancy that matters, it’s probably better addressed in a current conversation, where he says, “you always hated me,” and the other person says with genuine astonishment, “Wherever did you get that idea? Or something like that, only better. But usually it doesn’t matter that he misremembered, or what all the details are that he doesn’t remember. It’s the lesson he took from the event and how it changed him, and then it’s about the realization now that the thing in the past doesn’t rule him any longer, or perhaps he realized something about himself then, like “X is a hot button for me, so I must avoid X,” and that’s part of his reasoning in making a decision. But we really don’t need the details of the event that defined X as a hot button for him.

  5. Oh, yeah! You’re so right. Back-story doesn’t have place in the ‘now-story’. It always stops the action. If a writer wants badly to include back-story, to let the readers know, it’s better in small, even tiny chunks, like: “When I was in grade three, my classmate won a contest for the bushiest eyebrows. I still envy him.” And then the story in here and now continues

  6. The speech in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (the movie), when Smiley talks about meeting Karla, and the story explains so much about Smiley, is a great not-flashback. It tells the audience about Smiley’s marriage, and that Smiley respects Karla’s loyalty and brains. It’s a good moment with Guillam too. The little team solidifies.

  7. Think Agnes and the Hitman. The defining moment in the story is that somebody dies in her basement, NOW.

    An accidental death, sure, but it is a concern because she is known for being violent when betrayed. The defining backstory is that Agnes has been betrayed by various partners, and had to have mandatory therapy. But this is never monologued into the novel. That’s how past defining moments are worked into the NOW.

    1. I’m pretty proud of that. The only reason Agnes even tells Joey about it is because the police are coming and he tells her not to worry, it’s not like she has a record. So she tells him about the boyfriend she hit in college, and he said, “Oh, well at least it’s only one,” and then she tells him about the fiancé she hit when she was working for the newspaper, and that’s when he calls Shane. I think. She never even mentions their names, just, “Uh, I do kind of have a record.” VERY proud of how that worked. Thank you for mentioning it.

  8. While I agree that backstory slows the pace–and never do flashbacks in my books–I do believe we are profoundly impacted by past events. I believe we all have wounds, and because of those wounds we’ve developed ways to protect ourselves. Those mechanisms likely keep us from leading our fullest lives. So, I think wounds work powerfully in stories because we can’t have the thing we want most until we face that event in the past that created our wounds and finally heal. And the reward for that journey, in romance, is true love. Instead of telling the reader about the wound through flashback or lots of exposition on who treated her badly, I think we can show the source of the wound in the now of the story. So, if a character had a parent who left the family, for example, and that’s made her unable to trust, I like to put that betrayal in the now–maybe have the parent show up–Hey, I’m back, s’up? That parent becomes the antagonist of the story, forcing her turning points. It’s not the defining moment in the character’s life–but it’s the reason she’s making the choices in the book. And until she faces her demons, she won’t stop making those bad choices. In any event, I think you could relay that life-defining moment/wound at the midpoint, in a moment of intimacy with the hero. Sharing that hidden piece of her is a way of burning the bridge and forcing herself to move forward with him because she’s now shared a piece of her soul.

    1. Yes, but all of that is explaining in the now of the story instead of telling the story.

      We’ve been talking about Maybe This Time, so look at Andie. She’s unable to commit, she runs at the first sign of trouble, and she’s had a different job every year for ten years. That’s who she is, that’s the person the reader meets. I don’t explain any of that because why she’s like that (and I know why she’s like that) is not part of this story. The reader meets a smart, driven, bolted and accepts that and moves into the story; dwelling on why she’s like that is a waste of time.

      Or look at Bet Me. Min has issues about her appearance, but the reader knows that, not because Min has a soulful discussion about how her mother raised her, but because her mother is right there on the page harassing her now. You don’t know anything about Min’s childhood, but because you see her mother on the page, you can deduce all you need to know.

      As writers, we’re passionately interested in our characters, we know so much about them, and we want to put it all on the page, but if we do, we’re just slowing down our stories with exposition instead of action. If we include all the “here’s his wound and this explains why,” we’re writing character therapy sessions, not story. I see authors stop their stories in their tracks time after time and it’s always to explain something that happened ten years ago. That’s when I leave the story because there’s no story there, it’s all character theory and suggested motivation.

      Which is probably not what yours is. You can do anything you want, of course. Didn’t meant o criticize. Many roads to Oz.

      Back story kills story.

      1. I think it is safe to say, for you, Back story kills story, but you have the skill to pull that off 🙂 So glad you have new collaboration.

        For other writers, you use back story, or you need the trigger that set off the trauma from the back story, otherwise a lot of cop shows and forensic investigation shows wouldn’t be able to get you invested in 45 mins.

        1. I don’t think so. Most cop shows start with the crime in the now, and the continue with the investigation of the crime in the now. They don’t start with “Ten years ago . . .,” and when they do get to the questioning that leads to somebody saying, “Well, ten years ago . . .” they’re concerned with whether or not he’s lying and how that information feeds into the important part of the story which is catching the bad guy in the now. Also, I’ve seen very few stories that were motivated by back story. Yes, some of them are about the guy who finally got around to offing somebody who’d hurt him years before, the majority happen because of a trigger in the now. Also, the protagonist in those shows is usually the detective investigating the case, not the killer or the victim, so his back story can only gum up the works. Case in point: Arrow. Not a cop show but still a good guy against the bad guy show that had great action sequences in the now but kept going back to that damn island to show how Oliver got to be the Arrow. I fast forward through every one of those flashbacks, and it’s never hurt the story. Bad things happened on the island, fine, I don’t care what, tell me what’s happening with Oliver and Digg and Felicity now because it’s the now I care about.

          Also, it’s not skill that makes it possible to write a story with minimal or no back story, it’s hard work. It’s like head hopping; it doesn’t take any skill not to head hop, it just takes a lot more work to get the information on the page. Except that it’s really easier not to put back story in because then you don’t have to deal with all that unnecessary history, you can just tell your story. Back story is the harder way to write good story, it just seems easier because as authors, we’re all so fascinated with what happened before.

      2. I think this is part of the key, when Jenny said: “(and I know why she’s like that).”

        Backstory is important in that sense, that it exists and the author knows it, but we need to consider carefully whether the reader really needs to know it, or just the author needs to know to keep the character acting consistently and credibly.

      3. I want to hear your perspective on it! And I do confess to having a lot of deep convos in my books! We’ll see soon enough if readers appreciate them or toss my books against the walls!

  9. Basically, I agree with your view on back story, and I really try not to do it. But just last week I did what I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while now: I read “Lord of Scoundrels” because it’s been mentioned here time and again in a positive way. And this story only works because we know in detail what happened to Dain when he was a little boy. (It even has a prologue!)

    It’s interesting, though, that we hardly know anything about Jessica’s back story, and we don’t miss it. At least I didn’t, I just realized.

  10. I would like to carve this in stone and bash a formerly-favorite author over the head with it: “Back story kills story.” If you removed the tedious and repetitive descriptions and back-story from her recent novels, you’d be left with her dedication page. Very sad.

    1. There was a step pyramid on the Dogs and Goddesses collage. You Again has a stone terrace as a base. Wild Ride had a wide base that had the ice cream shop and the fortune telling booth and trees and figures on it. This is the first one made with wood, though.


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