Part the Veils of the Past

Authors tend to think of background stories as a one-time event. You want to cover how the heroine’s father was never around, so you tell a story about missing the opening night of her high school musical. Problem solved, check Dad off the to-do list. Yet you can be more flexible, employing strategies that enable background to become dynamic in its own right.

One very effective technique is breaking up a skein of background information into increasingly larger parts. With this method you are employing background in the fashion of an unfolding mystery. At first the reader knows only a little, and as the book goes on, he learns more and more. The first background piece can be short, setting up as a single sentence early on that intrigues the reader. For instance, the hero thinks: “He never figured out what Kelly found so repellent that she would divorce him.” That’s it. The reader reads that line, and the wheels start turning. What the heck was that all about? I want to find out more about that.

In another thirty pages you drop the next piece, a paragraph this time: “Kelly only wanted the good life. She couldn’t understand why he was so lacking in ambition. He supposed it stemmed from their different backgrounds. He grew up pretty well off—not rich but his father had a good job, his parents never fought about money, and they lived in a nice suburb. Kelly came from Revere, one of those northern Massachusetts towns that time spat out long ago. In college the difference was charming, like Ryan and Ali in Love Story. By thirty it had become more of a horror story. That’s when she first started dressing like a porn star.”

Then a plot event—Kelly shows up in his life again—can tip off the main back story, the one in which the character suffered trauma. We learn the full sad saga of how Kelly fished after young executive types, embarrassing the hero repeatedly at parties, and finally ended up with a fast-talking salesman who held the hero underwater in the surf until he nearly drowned—while everyone laughed their heads off at him. Then she remarried, had three delightful children, and drives around in a BMW 325i, while our hero is groveling for dimes.

When parceled out this way, the back story can generate a good deal of emotional power all its own. That’s because you’re employing a standard storytelling technique—whetting our appetite with a glimpse, sharing a little more of the secret, then delivering the full juicy goods. You’ve also created a plot progression of a form. Even though the background information is static, because it already happened, the way in which it is told is dynamic.

Exercise: Review the background pieces you have in your story. Is any one of them crucial to understanding the protagonist? Now consider the possibility of breaking it into stages, showing the reader more and more. Could you break what you already have into such pieces? If not, think about what the crucial element is. Could you write a new background pieces that employs the step-by-step strategy?

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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