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.