NVDT #78 – But Before All This Happened, I Was Like, Nefertiri, You Know, In Like a Previous Life


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?

Okay –

“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

Published by

Phil Huston


16 thoughts on “NVDT #78 – But Before All This Happened, I Was Like, Nefertiri, You Know, In Like a Previous Life”

  1. Yeah, Redneck Pirate. Been inundated with shit for grammar as spoken from high dollar sports announcers, government leaders, news anchors, athletes and millionaire coaches. I coulda just ran with it straight you know, be be be be because nobody woulda seen no uh, no uh, diffrince, right?


  2. I used to read the Writer’s Digest, then switch to Poets & Writers. But that was back in the day when I wrote poetry. Is the Digest still a good publication?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Back in the dark ages my father bought Writer’s Digest and markets every year. Good is subjective, but their “advice” tends more to both feet on the ground useful information as opposed to the shifting sands of this week’s trend speak as espoused by a good hair headshot with an English BA and their secret formula they found in Homer or Plotto or a rhetorical textbook or even on Silva Rhetoricae that they’re banking on nobody ever having seen transposed into hip vernacular. Damn that was a long sentence! Yes, they have some good information presented sans fanfare. But it’s all a bit like goldmining, you know?


    1. Present in the story. Sans Barbie and Ken getting dressed and all their emotional baggage and backstory lead-in dropped because instead of telling how it started, or using a flashback to Jimmy stealing the credit card and all that we use another backstory device, summary, in dialogue, to remove the need for storytelling OR flashback on page one.
      Relentless present tense requires too many glue words or serious iceberg simplicity, and beyond simple verb forms, too many -ing verbs. And I am not a first-person author. However, third person present isn’t quite as bad, but still heavy on -ing and adverbs are required unless one is looking to bump word count. 3P present – He (name) plays chess (every day) (daily) with the old men in the park. She eats (with a great deal of noise) (noisily). Hemingway FP – He talks. She eats. The barman stands (is standing) obediently at the bar. The whores are laughing (raucously) on the patio. He begins to perspire, swats at a fly. She is chewing.
      Then there’s the Hunger Games version which is first person everything present except for in the beginning there’s about an every third line recollection (literary device for background/backstory.)
      Which is why, in third person omni, present progressive, the cheat is in -ing verbs forcing a sense of “now.” Elmore Leonard’s third person omni gets next to first person present by tightly controlled POV and -ing. Randall saying now “What the fuck I need you for?” Bert fumbling, “Maybe fifty percent is a little high, in your case. So maybe we can talk thirty?” On his feet now Randall, a big nickel plated revolver in his hand,saying “Done talking, Bert.” That bit run in the middle of 3P omni, present prog or past.
      Or, using -ing verbs period in a 3P omni limited. It makes my skin crawl but is not illegal or wrong. Bob pushed the door open with his foot (past). Jumping through the opening, he fires once, twice. The fat man falls. Bob’s gun jammed. The fat man’s partner scrambled for the exit on all fours. I see that mixed up crap all the time in Doc Savage/Nancy Drew/Mac Bolan genres. The -ing puts the action in an artificial now which is barely perceptible to the reader but like adverbs, it’s still a directorial author injected hiccup.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I dislike rules. I dislike slop even more. Weird, huh? So I subscribe to this – I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. -Elmore Leonard.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll await those. People my age who spent 3.5 years in Viet Nam are living under bridges with their dogs and their nightmares. It’s nice to see parts of the world realize it’s time to move forward!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Never ceases to amaze me how many pictures I get from characters just talking. Do you think that too much backstory doesn’t work nowadays because it’s just simply not the style, so it sounds awkward? A book like Wings of the Dove by Henry James, for example, is pages and pages of inner thought. If that were cut, the book would be a pamphlet and would lose the whole point. But I don’t think it works in the contemporary world.

    I think there is a difference between backstory and background. Backstory to my brain suggests the narrative threads that the main story is picking up on, whereas background suggests the larger context of the whole story including but not limited the backstory (e.g., history, setting). I feel like the backstory has a background but not vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would say it’s cultural on several levels. The pop reading public isn’t as well read as previous generations, so rumination on social or moral issues, grappling with the unseen opponent in head time isn’t “gratifying” and requires one to think along with the character. Ew, right? The other thing is back in the late 70s first person went from thoughtful to screen play dialogue in many genres. And the head time in longer works was replaced with density of background and soap opera backstory. You can’t read a detective novel by Colin Dexter without pages of interpersonal and persoanl demons, who’s screwing who, who’s gay, who’s a drunk. More character study than serious character thought. I think it’s also the redundancy of modern headtime, wherein a character merely replays what has just happened looking for that aha moment, the author explaining the situation in case we missed it, not exploring. The same thing is true of adverbs. Without them Alcott would have been on page one of “LIttle Women” for days using tags and convo to ‘sketch out the personalities. So now we go for overly detailed density of description or a scene from “Get Shorty.” Because thinking is painful. And I’m guilty because I bypass the moralizing and too much being splained even in MacDonald.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I never thought about all this. My 20th century literary knowledge is…poor. Actually it’s all poor, I’ve just read more books prior to that. You have a lot of insightful information here for me to chew on. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

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