Back Story Does Not Go in the Front

  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
    –Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • I had a lot of fascinating back story in Lagunitas, my childhood memoir not-in-progress. My father was on Hawaii when the Japanese attacked, and eight months later sent to Leavenworth for desertion. My mother had danced for a Sally Rand, who hired pretty girls for her shows in Las Vegas. When my sister and I were born, they were written up for having five children under the age of five. Then my mother got TB.
  • “We don’t need any of that,” Laura said in the workshop. after I made everybody surround the ping pong table to be taken through the interesting beats of my back story.  She bikes over from Berkeley, and arrives in colorful outfits topped by special bike raincoats that shone fluorescent green.  Today I decided her raincoat was stupid. Her remark was so hurtful! If I’m interested in how my parents met, and the even more, now that I think about it, compelling facts of my own birth, so I can hardly deny my readers the chance to hear all about them.
  • She said it nicely, and goddamn it something didn’t finally clock. Although I’d obsessed over that back story for years, I swept the contents of the Ping-Pong table into a box (promising myself that I could shoehorn in flashbacks later.).
  • Try hard not to fill us in. People who are now married must once have met. Adoptive parents can be presumed to have first tried to have their one child, and to have wanted to be a mother or father. No explanation necessary. The mother of a two-year-old must have given birth. That a person about to set aside everything in her life to spend a long-dreamed-of year in France may be assumed to like the idea of France.
  • That’s my student Shoshanna Kirk. Her story, briefly, is this: she and her husband find themselves between jobs, and they can rent their house in San Francisco for enough to finance a year in France. Voila! Before they go, she finds she’s pregnant, and decide to go anyway. She’ll have the baby in France, with the help of the excellent and progressive French medical system.
  • She started out as we all do, wanting to include all she knew about her love of France, and dream of living there for a year, including taking French in high school, and marrying a young Frenchman, and the stretch in San Francisco. Chapters of that!

We don’t need it. Just get your damn self to France.  She cut it all out (painful, I know) and now her very funny book, for which she is currently seeking a publisher, shows our French-struck narrator colliding with the reality of living in France:

  • I had a vision of waking up each morning, throwing open the shutters, taking a deep breath, and, as the morning sun hit my cheeks, wondering aloud, “Ah, what shall I do today?” Then, I would enjoy a croissant and a jus d’orange in town as I skimmed a French news.
  • At first, this formula worked well. The bedroom windows did, in fact, feature shutters that I would throw open as if I lived in a Merchant Ivory film. Or at least, I would throw the right one open and curse the rusty hinge on the left one, shoving it hard until it suddenly gave way, scraping my hand on the stucco as it banged clumsily against the outside of the house. Then, I would brush the errant millipede, disturbed from his morning slumber, from my hair, peer down at the scrubby looking bushes home to no small population of insect life, and waddle off to pee.

We don’t like being given a lot of background about someone we haven’t even met yet. The author is the one who wants the back story in. This is why we have to keep shooing the author away. Fiction writers don’t start with their character’s childhoods – memoirists shouldn’t either.

Sometimes I think that back story is a rest stop for the writing. It’s tiring to keep driving a story forward –it takes energy, imagination, grit. How much more pleasant to pull into the equivalent of the rest stops that dot the highways, stop the car and write about something you already know well and feel comfortable yammering on about.  Just today, as I write this, my student Melody read a scene from her memoir -n progress that opened on the waiting room of the welfare office, where our cash-challenged young mother of three is applying for food stamps, though accepting charity makes her feel like crap.

Great first paragraph: Then comes the rest stop:

I missed my friends in Germany then…I missed Kirsten who spoke fluent German, and Heidi – and all my friends.  I missed the life – what was I doing here anyway?  Robert, Kirsten’s boyfriend, had warned me about this and I should have listened, yes, I should have.  But I didn’t believe Robert.  I was working the Monte Carlo nights dealing black jack at the NCO/EM and Officer’s Clubs – mainly because I was Kirsten’s best friend, not because I was an experienced black jack dealer or anything.  It was fun and Kirsten had even found a lovely older German lady to watch my kids because their father couldn’t be trusted to take care of them, and he hated me working those Monte Carlo nights.


What has this to do with applying for food stamps? Nothing. It’s a rest stop in the demanding task of writing a scene. Staying in the room – that’s one of the hardest things, isn’t it?

Of course, you’ll need flashbacks

The emotional back story is vital to understand why the character makes the choices he does. By “emotional,” I mean we remember the turning points: a time, say, when you were lost on the streets of Hong Kong, it was cold and dark and very step seemed to lead you to a stranger, more dangerous-looking cul-de-sac. Worse, you don’t know the name of your hotel. Then you forced yourself to calm down and think back through the turns you’d made, and realized you had a darn good visual memory of the rights and lefts you’d made.  Then years later, you are lost again –let’s put you in the twisting roads of Rome this time, a place with no high landmarks to guide one. Also, no cabs, and you don’t have your phone. This time you are calm from the get-go. You trust yourself to find the way back.

The excellent Story Genius by Lisa Cron has a lot of illuminating things to say about back story.

“It’s remarkably easy to overlook the fact that everything about your protagonist stems from her past.” The past, she explains, determines what will happen in the plot because the narrator’s reactions are driven by how she sees her world. She says, “You can’t write about how someone changes unless you know, specifically, what they’re changing from.”

One way to look at it: What does she come into the first page already wanting? It’s not the first page for her, after all.


Try this: Suspect that you have been taking those rest stops? Mark up three of your scenes in two colors: one color when we are in scene, the other color for when we are romping in the fields of yesteryear.  You need the flashback only when eliminating it injures our understanding of the unfolding story. 

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