(iv) FEEDING THROUGH A BACKSTORY
One method is for the author simply to tell what happened.
Five years ago, Denny had had an affair with …
The house had been inhabited by drug gangs, and a brutal murder had occurred just months before Vee and Lorrie moved in …
If you kicked off your first chapter with a dramatic scene, telling some backstory could be a way of starting your second chapter. Old-fashioned, but simple and economical.
For a writer nowadays, the obvious method for feeding through a backstory is to have a main character remember the past. It’s effective so long as it doesn’t look like a cheat. The only thing worse than a character standing in front of the mirror and thinking about his/her appearance is a character standing in front of the mirror and remembering about his/her past life and recent history. So corny and clichéd!
Please, can we have a character’s memories genuinely prompted by something that happens, something that’s said? And when they are prompted, can they look like genuine memories rather than a plot synopsis?
When we remember past events, we rarely run through the full story—this-led-to-that-led-to-the-other—which we already know. We zoom in on the emotionally charged highlights and the bits that are relevant to us right now.
I reckon backstory memories often seem more plausible when they’re questions rather than statements. We don’t pore over the detail of past events merely to re-state them to ourselves, but we do when we’re puzzled or uncertain about what happened. We might run through the whole chain of cause and effect if we’re trying to spot something that doesn’t gel, something that doesn’t make sense to us.
Dialogue can be a great method for feeding through backstory. Whereas internal thoughts easily fall into a kind of monotone, to-and-fro dialogue can remain lively for any length of time. The minimum required is one character who knows and one who doesn’t, or—often better—two or more who half-know.
But it has to be real dialogue of course. Beware the tokenistic prompt!
‘Tell be about your journey so far, captain.’
‘I believe you had some difficulty with the steering, Enrico?’
‘And how did you escape from that deadly attack?’
The handing over of information should only be a part of the scenario—you want interesting character interaction too. Perhaps Harris is accusing Enrico, or Lois is trying to impress, or Melissa is reluctant to reveal more than she absolutely has to. There are a million possibilities, and they can all be read off from the dialogue itself, even when your characters aren’t well established yet.
If that causes the backstory to impact on the present story, all the better! The accusation or reluctant revelation will have consequences that advance the action.
One last method for feeding through backstory is to insert blocks of text in the form of official reports, newspaper articles, transcripts of interviews, letters, etc. You don’t even need to give a context or provide a connection to your main story: just drop in the material as a discontinuous block.
I guess it works because these texts are as if already written and floating about in the world of the novel. The author doesn’t have to take responsibility for turning them into words. Simple!