Spend a little time in a fiction workshop, and you’ll hear someone advise a fellow writer to cut the backstory. It’s yanking the reader out of the “now” of the story, one person says. A chorus takes up the refrain: It’s breaking the momentum, dissipating tension the writer has worked so hard to build. Privately, the writer is thinking, But my favorite authors use backstory all the time! Munro! Chabon! Egan! Insert-name-here!
Like any element of craft, the successful use of backstory depends on the mastery and care we bring to it. When it shows up as skillfully deployed intimations of a character’s past, a reader barely notices he’s being fed a bit of backstory. That isn’t where backstory gets its bad rap. It’s the clunkers, which come in varying degrees, from itching minor annoyance to the hatchet job of a ham-fisted surgeon.
I once heard author Lee Smith refer to a certain kind of backstory exposition as the “‘As You Know, Bob’ Device.” Picture it: A character injects into dialogue an awkward recap of some event or convoluted relationship. That image still helps me remember what not to do.
Then there’s summary, delivered in the unaffectionately dubbed info-dump. To readers, it’s as fascinating as the average resume.
But there are passages of Dickens or Munro that sing, in what Andrea Barrett and Richard Bausch call “elegant summary.” Backstory, obliquely hinted, allows readers that marvelous gift of fiction: participation. As they accumulate cues about characters—occupation, family dynamic, diction that reveals class or education, bearing that suggests the haughtiness of someone who has always gotten his way, wariness of one instructed by hard-knocks—readers engage in the creation of story. And when backstory is divulged in a richly drawn scene it can be absolutely transporting.
So yes, flashback, summary, and exposition, when overused or carelessly written, can be slow, distracting, and clunky. But there’s a reason we rely so heavily on these techniques: It feels natural. It’s how we recount stories aloud, moving back and forth in time, inserting events, recapping webs of connection. Writers who keep at their craft (despite excellent reasons to do something else) eventually learn that oral tradition and written literature play on different playgrounds. Stage vs page. Live breathing body vs coded symbols. Reality TV vs…
Real time does move forward. The chugging engine of plot demands that contemplative passages, reflection, associations of past experience, get out of the way. And yet. It’s not just being a Southerner that makes me agree with Faulkner’s notion that the past “is not even past.” What originally enticed me to fiction, both the reading and writing of it, is its power to build worlds. The worlds I’m interested in don’t exist on one plane, spatially or temporally. Far from a ponderous weight to be eschewed, backstory is for me a cavernous mine I can dip into gingerly or explore deeply. Returning to the surface, to the ostensible “now” of a story—which is itself a construction—I can “load every rift with ore” (as Keats advised Shelley). Then begins the work of sifting and assaying and polishing the narrative into its own particular glimmering self.
Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville, winner of the Elle Lettres Prize. You can continue to explore the world of backstory in fiction with her in her class, Mining Backstory, starting this Wednesday, Sept. 16th, at StoryStudio Chicago.