Why Back Story Is Often the Wrong Answer
It comes up a lot in fiction workshops as we work to make stories better. I want to know more about the girlfriend (lover/husband/dog). And it’s an honest reader reaction. But whenever I hear it, I ask a follow up question: why? Which is to say, how would background information about that character enhance your experience of the story?
I ask that follow-up because I’ve come to see that more often than not when readers make that request, they are really asking for something else – something deeper – and that writers who respond to the surface request will leave those readers unsatisfied. Most often when I ask the why, it turns out that readers aren’t fully resonating with the protagonist’s journey; they are seeking to understand the significance of one or more key narrative moments for the protagonist, and coming up dry. What they are asking for is emotional context.
Emotional context is what helps us understand the “so what” of a story’s critical moments. A climax or epiphany or collision of forces is a meaningful reading experience only to the extent that we readers understand such a moment as important in the protagonist’s life. That’s emotional context.
Broadly speaking, there are four way to provide it.
Back story – What in the protagonist’s history sheds light on the current moment so that we understand why it’s significant?
How the moment matters – What response or reaction it produces in the protagonist. Does the main character recoil in horror, dance for joy, weep quietly? The combination of action, gesture, speech, and thought a character produces in response to a critical narrative moment gives us insight into its impact.
Why the moment matters – What circumstance(s) it affects and what that effect is. A teenage boy listens to one parent trash talk the other parent and realizes their separation is not temporary, but the new permanent state of his life: he is no longer part of one family, but a moon to two planets moving in different directions.
Motif – An image, metaphor or other symbol that provides an analogy for what the moment is like. A young man in a hot summer works two dead-end jobs, one on an outdoor construction crew and one working the grill at a diner. At either job, he cooks – and is cooked. Later in the story when he talks about being “fried,” we understand – in the terms of his daily experience – what he means. We feel it.
Back story (I want to know more about the girlfriend/lover/husband/dog) is the common first impulse but, in my estimation, usually not the best impulse for providing emotional context. It can often be a dodge to avoid staying with the key emotional moment in the story’s present and making that moment matter to and for the protagonist. That is the work that makes the story sing. History only matters if it has direct bearing on the present. The ultimate goal is to cause the present moment to ripple with meaning. And the most direct way to do that is to stay in that present moment and show us how and/or why it bears on the protagonist’s dilemma.
So when you hear a reader (including yourself) ask for more about the girlfriend/lover/husband/dog, before you go writing back story, ask yourself if what’s really needed is to linger in the present moment and make it resonate through emotional context for the protagonist’s experience.
Ron MacLean is author of the story collections We Might as Well Light Something On Fire and Why the Long Face? and the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies. MacLean’s fiction has appeared widely in magazines including GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and has been a proud member of team Grub since 2004.See other articles by Ron MacLean