Writing Observations: Backstory

I finished reading a slim, hardboiled novel the other day of 142 pages and marveled again about how much story these good writers from the ’50s could cram into a tiny space.

One of the things I liked best was that the backstory wasn’t front loaded into the plot. I think a lot of modern writers would have spun it out twice as long and shown us a bunch of scenes of the youthful years of the character as he experienced the things that shaped him. Instead, the story starts with Jake Wade’s new identity already established, then the threat to that identity is introduced. The story is in motion from the very start and anything we don’t know acts as an enticement to find out the secrets behind it all. Boy do I love that style more.

I wonder if it says something about the era in which I grew up, where as a boy I admired and emulated men who had still waters that run deep, and didn’t talk about problems. Not that I was successful, because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, but I aspired to be more like that. Those were the models I saw around me and those are the models I saw on television and in the movies. Of course those models had some things wrong with them, too — the inability to communicate, for instance — but I still admire the habit of not spewing your problems and backstory over everybody you meet. Maybe the tendency to do that in some modern fiction is a backlash against being too closed in.

Anyway, two thumbs up for The Law and Jake Wade, and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie now, which is supposed to be a pretty strong old western.

It’s not until page 134 (of those 142) where we finally get a little window into how a man who’s good now ended up running with a bad bunch in the past, because it’s necessary for Jake to try and explain himself to the woman he loves over breakfast before he makes his final goodbye. Here, I’ll excerpt this text from Marvin Albert’s book:

Jake wanted a smoke. He wished he’d bought the makings. It would have given him something to do with his hands. He picked up his fork and began fiddling with it.

“I don’t know,” he told her. “My folks and all the people I grew up around, were straight and hard-working. I remember my father working around the clock to get a little spread going for us. Only he died when I was a kid. My mother tried to keep the spread going, but I guess it was too hard on her. She died a few years after my father.”

Jake felt awkward and foolish, telling someone else things that had meaning only for himself. No one else could feel what he did about it; all his life he’d watched folks work themselves into the ground and end up with nothing in their hands but the callouses of old blisters.

I think the most interesting part of this is probably the third paragraph from its start up until the semicolon, explaining how Jake feels awkward explaining something that’s only important to him. These are his concerns, not anyone else’s. Of course the very problem with that kind of thinking is demonstrated by the denouement, because when Jake explains himself his girlfriend’s loyalty deepens. On the other hand, if he’d been talking about it sooner not only would we have had a shorter story, we’d also have had a whiny character who wasn’t very self-sufficient.

Good stuff. Once again Marvin Albert delivers. I’ve yet to read a single book by him I haven’t liked. Maybe I haven’t seen him yet deliver an A+ book, but there’s really something to respect about a guy who always provides a B or better. He’s dependably good.

12 Comments on “Writing Observations: Backstory

  1. That best way to show backstory is as you described, as the story moves along and only as necessary. It’s cliche now but the worst offender, I think, is the fantasy world building where the author dumps the entire world on you at the beginning.

    Compare that to how Glen Cook drops readers into the deep end. I know some readers find that disconcerting but that’s how it is for the characters. You don’t wake up on a given morning and start running through the entire history of the world, or even your own past. You live in your world, the characters live in theirs. When the moments are right, that is when backstory can be revealed in bite-sized pieces.


    • Whew, yeah, those backstory infodumps that are alleged world building are snore fests. Thankfully I haven’t run into many of those lately…

      Definitely I like your discussion of bite-sized pieces. There’s an anecdote where Roddenberry’s talking to his writers about his new show, Star Trek. He said that a policeman doesn’t pick up his gun and explain how many bullets it has and how it launches them, he just uses it. That’s what he wanted his writers to do with phasers. He said the audience would figure out what they did when they saw the weapons in action.

  2. “The story is in motion from the very start and anything we don’t know acts as an enticement to find out the secrets behind it all.”

    Yes! I totally agree wit h this, Howard! My biggest problem with modern short fiction is simply that: Bad openings, i.e. bad lead. In Robert Silverberg’s WORLDS OF WONDER (one of the textbooks that taught me to write), he examines several stories from the masters of sci-fi, and he points out again and again how important it is to GRAB YOUR READER FROM THE START. Which the Golden Age writers knew–they couldn’t sell a story if it didn’t grab the editor (i.e. the first reader) from the first couple of paragraphs. That seems to be a dead tradition these days. 90% of the short stories I read DON’T have a good lead, i.e. a reader hook. And I don’t have the time to stick around to see if the story gets interesting (or not). I still feel firmly that a story should grab you (somehow–anyhow!) on the first page–if not the first paragraph. It’s amazing to me that even the highest-paying markets publish stories with boring/uninteresting leads. I don’t even thing people think about “leads” anymore–except maybe journalists. And that’s sad because time is precious–if I don’t see a reason to keep reading, I’m not going to keep reading. So I always try to give some kind of hook in the first half of the first page. As for NOVELS–the first CHAPTER has to hook you. But so many of them don’t. Every time I encounter a story with a missing/boring lead I can’t believe that somebody published it. Perhaps the art of writing a good story lead is a dying art. But it really shouldn’t be. The best writers still do it. I just wish more writers in general would do it.

    • Absolutely. You read this good old stuff where they were playing by these rules and the stories just leap to life and grab you. They had to do that, because there was so much competition on the newsstand. If you didn’t like THAT story, you might set down the magazine and buy the one next to it.

  3. Oh, and that whole thing about giving out backstory over the course of a story — as it comes up organically — that’s just good writing. Info-dumps are usually a bad idea. I have a single story where I did a kind of “info-dump” but I did it intentionally, to see if I could get away with it (i.e. make it interesting enough that the reader wouldn’t mind). But overall, we should get to know characters as the story progresses–NOT halt the story for flashbacks and retro-visions that slow everything down to a crawl. If the flashback doesn’t move the story along in some manner or fashion, then we don’t really need the flashback.

  4. I want to try this as a tabletop RPG experiment. Have the players come to the table with the thinnest of backgrounds…. like one sentence. “Elf with no name…” And then as the story unfolds, we get to fill out those spaces. Like the stats, skills, powers come organically out of the story and the needs of the character. Along with the baggage.

    Not quite sure how to do this, but I think there is a kernel of an idear there.

    • That could turn out really well, depending upon how good the role-players are. I’ve had some that would role with that and do all kinds of things, and others who’d be completely helpless in those conditions!

  5. I just watched Fury Road last weekend. (Twice!) And that movie doesn’t waste a minute on backstory and exposition. When the heroine Furiosa is introduced, the very first thing she does is getting into her car to execute her plan that makes up the whole plot of the movie. Not a single second is spend on presenting the problem, exploring her motivations, or developing a plan. All of that gets mentioned later in small snippets, because it’s a very simple plot that doesn’t need much explaining to be understood.

    That movie is a masterpiece in narrative efficiency, and I haven’t seen worldbuilding and backstory introduced so seamlessly in any story since Star Wars.

    • Martin, that’s a really good observation. I saw Fury Road once, a couple of years ago now, and I wasn’t even thinking about it that way. You’re absolutely right. Forward momentum, we learn the reasons as we go, and we’re invested in the characters pretty fast so that we want to see how it all turns out.

  6. I wish there was a way for people to bring back these guys like you’ve done with Harold Lamb. I love Khlit and am slowly (very slowly getting the books). Some of these guys are lost treasures and when I am looking in used books stores, I walk right past these beaten up, weathered old books like this. Too many of these old books suck. What can a new fictioneer do to find these diamonds in the rough as one would say?

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