Prompt – What’s your best technique for working around backstory dumps?
Well, flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, recollection, summary, and exposition. Not in that order. And it really doesn’t matter. A cliché photo gaze isn’t a gagathon if it’s handled with finesse, the way Helen Simonson does, or woven into the character’s behaviors like Jennifer Egan. Finesse.
However – I waited a day for this one on purpose.
In John Dufresne’s wonderful book The Lie That Tells a Truth he writes about starting in the present of the story. Right now. Not when it started, because scene setting is also backstory, but right now, where the action is. Example –
Susie and Jill ground to halt in the gravel parking lot. Susie killed the lights on her Wrangler. Jill shuddered, Susie lit a cigarette. “This might not have been the best idea,” Jill said. … oops… Who the fuck cares? Needlepoint meeting? It was a dark and stormy night? What’s the point?
“Bitch!” A half empty beer bottle smashed into the chipped linoleum table-top, inches from Susie’s hand. Jill screamed. The jukebox continued to throb out a loud, melancholy country ballad while the man who’d broken the bottle waved the jagged glass hanging from the bottle’s neck in Susie’s face.
Okay, two sentences in and now we have a story. And AFTER the action, here’s the drop.
The cop wore his boredom like it was part of his uniform, as if a woman shooting a man inside Cap’n Ben’s early on Thursday night was business as usual. He licked the end of his pencil, set the tip on a blank page in his open notepad. “Now then, ‘zactly the hell were you ladies doin’ out here again?”
“I had a bad feeling about this when we pulled in,” Jill whimpered.
“Shut up, Jill.” Susie squared up to the cop. “Look. It so happens Jimmy Du-pree run off with Jill’s Amex and a sixteen-year-old from the Coutershine swim team. We been out lookin’ for ‘em. Somebody told us he was trollin’ hereabouts for some oxy to maybe help make her panties fall off.”
“That’d be the swim girl’s panties, not your friend there?”
“Who the hell do you think?”
“Mmm,” the cop scribbled on the pad. “So… you two didn’t call us, you just had to come out an find Jimmy yourselves? This was when, again?”
“Eight, eight-fifteen. We, me an Jill, we was set up at a table. He seen us before we seen him an he knew why we was there, so he walked up, broke a Modelo Dark bottle on the table, made a helluva fuckin’ mess that did, got beer all over both of us. An then him knowin’ I was the one was to give him some shit he stuck the broke end of the damn bottle in my face.” She pushed her palm right up on her face for emphasis.
“An you shot him for that, didja?”
“Goddam right I did.”
“Well, good for you,” the cop chuckled quietly. “He ain’t gonna die on account of it, anyways. Maybe he’ll come away smart enough to at least leave teenage peach be.” He folded his notebook, stuffed it back in his shirt pocket.
“An maybe smart enough to stop stealin’ credit cards from a friend of a woman carries a Glock in her purse.”
“Honey,” the cop looked Susie in the eye, “now you know better’n that. Man’s a pussy an trouble magnet, has been his whole life. Your friend here’s not Jimmy’s first, won’t be his last.” He spit tobacco on the gravel, hitched up his equipment belt, laughing silently again. “That is, lessen that swim girl’s momma gets a holta him ‘fore he’s full on mo-bile.”
The point – anything before the event is extraneous. We know all we need to know about both characters without pages of build up (backstory) and Jill crying at Susie’s kitchen table about Jimmy the perv lothario and us ‘splainin’ everything. As readers we know all that, don’t we? From their behavior and the cop interview, which is part of the action, not a sidebar, or a preface or a flashback.
Flannery O’Connor said: “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.” By extension, readers don’t need all of it, either. Start some shit, drop it in gear, get on down the road.
FYI – Storyform is a made up word from Dramatica and has been adopted as trendspeak. They make up a lot of shit over at Dramatica for people who have never studied rhetoric or the classic canons of argument and want to write topical, trendy argument disguised as fiction or sermon specific non-fiction. The difference between backstory and background is purely semantic as they are interchangeable synonyms in major dictionaries.
From the OED
backstory – noun: backstory; plural noun: backstories; noun: back-story; plural noun: back-stories
a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program.
“a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory”
a literary device providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series.
Last two – Backstory the noun was first seen in use in 1982. Prior to that ‘backstory’ was discussed by the various devices used for recollection and dramatic revelation in literature going back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Which is a great read. There’s also some great stuff on Writer’s Digest.
The Big Chief Tablet version is here –https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-write-a-killer-backstory/
Curious what other hoppers use? Check it out here