does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Story – When Is It Appropriate?

How Much? How little? Where and how to insert? When to use the flashback form versus ordinary summary? How to avoid making the current action stop cold?

These are the questions troubling me as I write my work-in-progress novel. While I am writing the text, I am not aware of how much back story has crept in. It just feels like a natural telling of the story. Then I’ll do my first read and realize that the sections marked Back Story (BS!) are piling up dangerously.

That’s terrible, I tell myself. I know enough not to start the novel itself with back story or to go for pages on end with it. But at some point, don’t I have to demonstrate that the characters and present action are not sui generis? That means introducing back story, doesn’t it?

So, to see how they used back story, I checked out two masters of the writing craft: Pulitzer-Prize-winning Marilynne Robinson and Nobel-Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez. And I was shocked.

Marilynne Robinson not only won a Pulitzer, but she is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Surely she would be a model for how to handle back story. Imagine my surprise then when I picked up her latest novel, Home, and discovered that in the first ten pages, all but the first paragraph and opening lines of the second paragraph were back story.

I then read Gabriel García Márquez’ short story collection Strange Pilgrims to examine what he did with back story. My thought was that, if there is a medium in which back story has to be used economically, surely it is the short story. Imagine my surprise again when I discovered that he was a heavy user of back story, frequently in its flashback mode. In one 33-page story, for example, most of the first 16 pages were back story. In another 18-page story, all but the opening and closing paragraphs were back story.

I realize that one has to learn first the rules of writing craft before attempting to break them. I also know that Marilynne Robinson and Gabriel García Márquez no longer have to prove to anyone that they are capable writers. Still, it gave me pause to observe just how heavily they used back story. I mean, pages and pages of it! And a lot of it in the beginning of a tale.

So now I am confused. Do I use a heavy hand excising the back story I have identified in my current work-in-progress? Or do I grant myself, at least a temporary, freedom to revisit later the appropriateness of those sections? Ordinarily I would say yes to this last question, except that what I decide now will affect subsequent unwritten material because the information in those back story sections is critical information. So do I leave them in or take them out and hope I can find an appropriate entry for them later?

I would love to hear from both readers and also writers of fiction about how they feel about back story.


Judy Croome said...

Judy, I'd suggest in your firts draft you put everything you want to in. It's far easier taking out, shifting around, re-arranging than it is havng to add in details later.

Very interesting observations about the wo famous writers. I often wonder once a person is published and known whether there is more leniency allowed for them in the "rules" of writing.


Brent Robison said...

Definitely leave the backstory in, since it feels natural to your telling of the story. Ask yourself: do you like reading well-crafted backstory? Did you find Robinson's or Marquez's work suffered from their use of backstory? Write what you love to read; to do otherwise seems inauthentic to me.

I don't put much stock in "rules." If you're writing in a genre with no aspirations beyond, then rules may equal marketability. But if you're aiming at a higher literary truth, follow your heart.

Personally, I love backstory because it gives depth that makes the story feel true and the characters fully human. Lack of backstory is for me a worse sin than too much. I don't even mind the current action stopping for a backstory digression, if the author has gained my trust (which comes partly from adequate backstory).

Normally I don't give advice, in part because my tastes seem rather outside the mainstream, but this is something I feel strongly about. Most writing rules are about commercialism, not truth.

Sun Singer said...

If the backstory reads well and is just as interesting and exciting as the novel's "present-day" story, there's probably no reason to worry.


Anonymous said...

I taught fiction writing for many years, and I always taught my students not to start with back story. That said, my first novel starts with back story! Sometimes, it is appropriate. For talented writers, it isn't a problem. If it sounds natural in your book, I say go for it. The only real rules for writing, as far as I'm concerned, are rules of punctuation. And come to think of it, my favorite author, Jose Saramago, doesn't follow perhaps there are no rules anymore.

Judith Mercado said...

Judy, Brent, Malcolm,Smoky, there seems to be a consensus here. I will allow the back story in for now. When I review it in the next draft, though, the fact that I have already flagged it will encourage me to take a good hard look as to whether having the back story is appropriate. Thanks so much for your input.

Nevine said...

Backstory is a tricky thing to work with. Somehow, if it isn't done right, the writing comes out awkward and "put together". I would go with continuing to write the novel as it comes to you, backstory and all. And then you will have the time to edit and move things around to the places they belong when you have the whole work in your hand. At the end of the day, you will know whether or not it's reading "right" to you when you have a whole novel to work with.


A Cuban In London said...

What a fab post. I love flashbacks, but you have to have your finger pressed on the "edit" button quite firmly. I've read novels (especially in Spanish) where the back story takes up so much space that I lose sense of the plot.

At a personal level, I'm not Gabo's biggest fan, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that his masterpiece "One Hundred Years of Solitude" left me unsatisfied. I liked "Love in the Time of Cholera" better, especially the beginning and the end and that was choc-a with back story. The middle bit was unnecessarily long. Probably my favourite Gabo's book is "El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba" and that's back story from beginning to end. Huge chunks of it.

Great article. Good luck with your back story(ies). :-)

Greetings from London.

Mayowa said...

Great questions.

I think "narrative momentum" is the main reason writers get so many warnings about backstory. Going back in time can cause a loss in narrative momentum so it's great that you're aware of that as you go along.

The other commenters have it right. Write freely now, edit firmly later.

Great post.

Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, Cuban, and Mayowa, thank you for contributing to the discussion. The consensus still remains to leave the backstory in for now, which is what I will do. Thanks again.

A Cuban In London said...

Thank you very much for your comment Judith. it's interesting that the first two posters to comment on my article straddle the bilingualism line, too. :-)

Have a fab weekend. I look forward to your column tomorrow.

Greetings from London.

Sheila Deeth said...

I've been reading a story recently where there was definitely too much backstory. I suspect it works best if it has both immediate and general purpose--not just the character musing on memory for memory's sake, and not just memory for the sake of fleshing out the past at the expense of the present.

I really enjoyed your post. Thank you.