Friday, June 29, 2018

Backstory--A New Take on Its Usefulness in Memoir and Fiction

I "grew up" as a writer in the era of NO BACKSTORY ALLOWED.  I was given examples of stories and books that had zero backstory and engaged readers completely.  So I worked hard to eliminate any pesky references to the past--whether summarized as backstory (background of the story) or presented as flashbacks in scene.

I got published, and all was well in my writing life sans backstory for many years.  Flash forward to my MFA experience and advisers who began to cure me of my antagonistic attitude towards stalling out scene with flashback or inserting large swaths of the past as summary.  These writers hinted that backstory was important, even as an explanation of character motive.  Why people do what they do was becoming more interesting to readers than what they did.

My favorite books started having backstory sprinkled here and there, expertly placed, of course.  Sometimes, as a reader, I didn't even notice we'd moved to the past.  I also gained a lot more information and understanding of character from these little hints.  So I began to practice ways to do it myself.

It's like that old conundrum of "show, don't tell," which has been drilled into writers for decades.  Maybe it came about because writers do tend to "tell" their stories in their formative years.  But all "show" doesn't quite work either.  It has to be a balance.

Same with backstory.  So I was thrilled when I came across this article in Poets & Writers magazine about the uses of backstory, aptly titled "I Wasn't Born Yesterday."  It's the basis for your weekly writing exercise, if you want another view on how to insert the past more elegantly into your fiction or creative nonfiction.  Here's the link.  And if it doesn't work, go to and search for the title above.   (Thanks again to Alison Murphy for sharing this link.)

After you read the article, take a 10-page section of your manuscript, however rough, and underline or highlight all the backstory--anything that takes place before the story begins.  For instance, if we're in a hovel listening to a storyteller relate an event that happened fifteen years ago, the present-time story is taking place in the hovel and the backstory is the story he's relating.  You'll learn some interesting things about your tendencies with backstory.  At least I did!

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