I Wasn't Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory

by Eleanor Henderson

The Literary Life

Posted 8.31.13

September/October 2013

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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.”

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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.

Moore Bowen says...

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.  

bonalibro says...

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.

darleneolivo says...

"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.

timecat says...

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.

Readinto says...

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.

DonMaker says...

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.

lilyionamackenzie says...

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/

savitzour says...

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.

poetessxyz@sbcg... says...

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

Russ Williams says...

¶ 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.

klarimer says...

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?

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