This week I would like to descend into the mine and take a moment to talk about the use of backstory in fiction. Narrative exposition is a controversial topic, and in reality, even though there is no right way to do it, there definitely is a wrong way, which we often hear called the “infodump.” It’s perfectly acceptable for the author to feel as Mr. Cendrars describes above whilst we are working on our draft revisions, but most readers won’t appreciate the dim light and the coal dust corroding their eyes.
Modern mainstream fiction seems to have an aversion to backstory: everything should be immediate and action packed—scenes and dialog, scenes and more dialog. While this is all fine and good, the fact still remains that our characters need their backstories: the world needs its backstory. Otherwise, our fiction becomes as thin and transparent as tissue paper. Good for spitball but not much else. Past life emotional and situational experiences, cultural shifts, catastrophic events -- past knowledge and past mistakes -- are the foundation stones of our characters’ motivations. Nothing frustrates me more than reading a book and wondering, “Why in god’s name did that character do that?” and being offered no answer. Flat character arcs are just as bad as flat story arcs. Stripping your story of its past is not a good way to go about dealing with your story’s spatial relations. It’s all about time management really, dealing with space and time.
Now this doesn’t mean that we have the luxury of endless pages to devote to our characters’ trials and tribulations. We still have to make sure that we keep the backstory relevant and well integrated with the main narrative. Subtlety is the key, and methods for incorporating backstory will vary from story to story based on that particular story’s narrative rhythm, aesthetics, and pacing. We want small relevant amounts to be delivered to the reader at the right moment so the reader can share in the epiphany and yet not lose any momentum. The right way answers readers’ questions with more questions to ponder. To do this, we must be scrupulous in what we reveal, and that is never more than is absolutely necessary for the moment.
I hear a lot that the modern reader has a short attention span, and I wonder about that sometimes. Is it that attention spans are short, or is that writers have forgotten how to write engaging exposition, which would include backstory? We also hear that modern readers want something to “happen.” I’ll agree with that, but happenings vary from emotional epiphanies to a buildings exploding, not to mention, I also think modern readers want to understand the why, the how, and the what for when it comes to the happenings. We talked about engaging the reader’s intellect in a previous post. Backstory engages the reader’s intellect if done properly. It also connects the reader to the story through character life experience. We, as readers, understand the characters, and so we are more likely to develop some sort of an emotional connection: love or hate, it doesn’t matter as long our readers don’t feel indifferent.
So, there are a few ways we can address backstory:
- Start the story earlier than you had planned or use a prologue.
When deciding to use a prologue or begin the story earlier than planned for deeper emersion into the backstory, we need to be absolutely sure that the backstory has power. We have to be sure that we are not just “telling” all the relevant details so we can “move on” but that the details we are revealing are indeed as potent as the main narrative and affect the main narrative in a significant way. Backstory should not feel static, and we should keep it lively with action, dialogue, conflict, theme setting, and foreshadowing.
Next are the flashbacks. I love flashbacks, and because my stories are generally told by extremely reflective narrators, flashbacks work almost seamlessly. However, lengthy forays into flashback mode destroy the pace of the main narrative. The key again here is brevity and relevance, but I think flashbacks are truly unique in that they are, by their very nature, emotionally internalised. Flashbacks should be spare on objective detail in favour of emotional detail. A flashback is a psychological event which manifests itself usually when a character/narrator is under duress of some sort. Whether the character is overwhelmed by nostalgia, happiness, love, hatred, sadness ... doesn't matter. Something triggers the flashback, so the right tone and the right time is of the utmost importance, and be careful you don’t cross over into the melodramatic. As far as transitioning for a flashback, many writers have individual ways of working this out: some use white space, some use chapter breaks, and some use punctuation or a subtle tense shift. I prefer a more integrated approach and try to avoid the choppiness of white space and line spaces if I can help it. Whichever you choose, all of these methods prevent the reader from becoming disoriented.
Then we have dialogue. Backstory in dialogue is often recommended to novice writers, but more often than not, it comes off as contrived. People don’t tell their life stories to people in lengthy detail. Conversation tends to be choppy with shifting focus. When people are together and talking in casual situations, conversational triggers thrust us into a flashback, but what comes out of our mouths tends to be nothing more than a few disjointed sentences connecting our life to theirs. Anything more than that and the characters appear to be lecturing each other for the sake of dictating a historical memoir. So be very, very careful here. When written poorly, this technique is by far the most embarrassing.
Lastly, we can interweave the backstory into the main narrative. Interwoven backstory or rather integrated exposition says what isn’t said. This technique relies a great deal on inference as opposed to the direct reveal, so you have to be careful not to overdo it as the reader will have to decode your intent in order to get an accurate picture of the past and the present. The danger in this is that it gives assumption a wide berth.
An engaging and fulfilling story, especially when it comes to literary fiction, brings the reader full circle. Our characters were born, but they weren’t born yesterday and certainly not emotionally cogent. The best stories use a balanced mixture of exposition and scene. Expository narrative can have just as potent an emotional charge as a scene, and I think all good stories use a blend of techniques to reveal their character’s dogmatic proclivities. Those are best revealed over time no matter how you choose to do it. Hold back; let your characters revel in a bit of mystery. Your readers will appreciate it, and as you work through your draft revisions, the right technique for your narrative will become apparent. Don’t force the backstory. Gentle and Subtle. What the reader doesn’t know will only intrigue them more.
In closing, I have been asked which approach I favour in my own work. Well, the short forms are a little more restrictive, and so I like a blend of flashback and integrated exposition. My stories tend to demand this approach. It’s a rare occurrence where I reveal backstory within character dialogue. I like to keep dialogue to a bare minimum at best anyway, and so I tend to reserve it for critical moments and conflicts within the narrative, not so much to reveal their past per se but to reveal the emotional state they are in at the moment. As far as prologues go, I have only used a prologue once, but the prologue was the present, and the subsequent linear narrative was the backstory in its entirety. So my approach varies, and things often change during revision as I become more aware of the story's thematic elements, but, no matter what the story dictates, I try to keep the old adage in mind: “If it isn’t the story, get rid of it.”
Cheryl Anne Gardner
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