Friday, August 13, 2021

Kill the Backstory. By Josh Stallings

Q: How do you deal with backstory? How much do you need, and where do you put it? How do you know what to leave in, and what to take out?

I just finished reading Heather Levy’s debut novel, Walking Through Needles, it takes place in 1994 and 2009 from the point of view of two teenagers and later, adults. It is a hard book handled brilliantly. By jumping time frames she makes backstory feel immediate. It made me think, backstory must drive the story or be dropped. 

I’m editing my newest book and I hear in my head, “Dude, your research is showing.” You know those paragraphs you put in because you spent hours to discover the exact military vehicles bought by the LAPD in 1984? It’s the Vietnam era Cadillac Gage Commando V-100, or M706, if you’re wondering. I could give engine specs, but this info dump has slowed the essay down enough as it is. How about I go with  “LAPD was the first American police force to use tanks against its citizenry.” Readers don’t care about the rabbit hole I fell down to research the novel. 

Backstory is often things I discovered about characters in early drafts. My job in editing is only keep backstory where it is absolutely necessary. Tricky is the story of a detective trying to discover what happened the day of a shooting and more importantly who the suspect is. In many ways the book hinges on discovering Cisco’s backstory. What keeps the mystery going is how the backstory is doled out, and the fact that most witnesses that tell about Cisco’s backstory could be lying. I wrote entire chapters set in the past, used them as research and then tossed them out. I needed to write them, readers didn’t need to read them.

Tangent alert: Some research facts are needed, as proven brilliantly in Throw Mamma From The Train. A woman from Billy Crystal’s writing class reads from her MS, “"Dive... DIVE" yelled the captain through the thing. So the man who makes it dive pressed a button, or something, and it dove. And the enemy was foiled again!”

My backstory: At sixteen I moved to LA to study acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute. To build a character I was trained to start with biography. Know a character inside and out. Then forget it and simply be. 

No one needs to know that Detective Madsen’s grandfather was a Texas Ranger, and the truth of the Texas Rangers is darker, more racist, and evil than the myth we have been fed. Well no one except me. I need to know it to write honestly about Madsen. To understand a character I need to understand their backstory. The hat trick is to figure out what readers need and when? Early into Tricky I show a printout of Cisco’s rap sheet. It is the police record of an evil SOB. It is part of his backstory. I also introduce believable characters who swear Cisco is a good man, and incapable of doing the things they say he did. The tension in Tricky is delivered by this simple idea; are we our backstory or is real transformation possible?

I broke somebody’s cardinal rule by starting Young Americans with a flashback. A young girl works to open a safe while her grandfather times her. She is a safe cracking prodigy. I needed the reader to believe this fact from the get go. Next chapter she’s in her early 20’s, living in Humboldt dancing for a living. A character mystery is set in motion, why would a safe cracking wunderkind end up working in a low rent club in the sticks?

Catriona McPherson’s thrilling novel Strangers at the Gate hangs entirely on backstory. Discovering what really happened versus what people say happened is the difference between life and death. McPherson’s skill is such that I never once felt a writer’s hand on the mechanisms of suspense. It was scary as hell and felt natural and believable. 

Could you live without a backstory? The crime fiction trope where an amnesiac wakes to find a dead body in their bed, is fascinating and terrifying. The question of who are we without our history, is universally fascinating. 

Backstory can be used as a deception. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl gives us two compromised visions of the backstory, both factually kinda true, both leaving much out. Who do you trust, when you can’t trust your narrator?

When dealing with backstory remember, “show don’t tell.” My least favorite note, until on my 6th book, when I finally understood it. Now I’m starting to see how it applies to backstory. 

A Telling) “Johnny Killjoy grew up on a farm in Driscoll county… blah blah blah…”

B Showing) “‘Boy, grab that calf’s feet and pull.’ Johnny was seven and felt the mortal weight of the newborn animal’s life in his hands.”

Both of these examples give you the information that Johnny grew up on a farm, but only one of them makes you feel what that did to him, how it affected his world view. You know, the stuff we actually care about.

“But I want the readers to know Declan grew up in Belfast.” I say rather stridently to myself. 

“Why?” Myself asks me. “Irish isn’t a character trait.”

Oh… So once I really know who the character is, I can discern what information is actually needed to deliver that person fully alive in three dimensions. Why didn’t I say that to myself in the first place?

Now I’m starting to worry that I got this whole idea wrong. Maybe backstory simply means a character’s biography… If that’s true, and it doesn’t enlighten or amuse, or move the plot or widen the mystery… Then leave it all out.

Four pages into James Crumley’s The Wrong Case, Milo Milodragovich lets us know that he is broke, and when he turns 52 he'll inherit his family’s fortune. Pure backstory and yet it explains why he acts like a man in limbo, a true slacker, before that term came to be. I love it even if it ruins my “leave all backstory out.” So I’ll amend my earlier statement, leave all backstory out… unless it works.


Catriona McPherson said...

Hey! High praise and a laugh-out-loud reminder of THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN. Thank you, Josh.

dhowardx said...

Interesting essay, Josh. I'm working on a project now that starts with backstory, jumps to present, goes to other backstory, and my donkey brain says it all works. I can only hope it serves to "enlighten or amuse, or move the plot or widen the mystery."