Monday, April 02, 2012

A-Z B is for Backstory

This is me thinking. Except I'm not a man, nor naked!
As writers we've all heard the adage, "start in medias res (in the middle of things)". All very well, but not all writers do: Lord of the Rings doesn't, Lolita doesn't either, nor does the Harry Potter series. And, of course, James Joyce starts A Portrait of an Artist with his little moo-cow.

However, I suppose if we want to be published we should start in the middle. After all, it does make for more exciting reading, doesn't it, when the whole caboodle is being let loose right at the start?

This means we have to include backstory or flashbacks. And those rule-mongers amongst you must be so happy that there are rules about this too: don't stick whole chunks in, and never start with a prologue  (although I had a prologue in Perfect Score, ahem). 

In terms of grammar, we all know the past perfect: ex: When she got home she found that someone had burgled her house: had+past participle, used here to show that someone had been in the house before she arrived home. If it was simultaneous, it would be: When she got home, she found someone burgling her houseSome people call the past perfect the past of the past.

In "Perfect Score" it's used when Sam is asked when he last cried:

On his first night as a street kid, that's when he'd last cried. He'd found a warm-air grid to lie down on, certain with twelve-year-old optimism that the night would get going fast. He was out of luck. Less than ten minutes passed before nicotine-yellowed fingers that looked as if they'd been peeled by the switch-blade they held hauled him by his neck off the ground. Too many hands to count pinned him against a damp brick wall and a knee or three kept him upright. 

Notice that once it's used you don't have to keep on using the past perfect. As soon as you've placed the character comfortably into the past, then switch back to the simple past, it makes for easier reading.
Huge chunks of backstory is a definite no-no. It's best to dribble it in slowly using conversation and thoughts so that it's dished out to the reader in mini-flashbacks.

Jude, the main character in Hewhay Hall remembers the explosion that robbed him of his leg like this:

Code 10-79. Call out. Jude. Senior officer required. Code words verified, imminent blast. Jude rubbed his hand over his face to try to banish the flashes of memory but they came anyway, fast and uncontrollable. Don’t go in, Jude. As your senior officer, I forbid… Jude! Officer Jude Elliot, I forbid you to enter that building.
Children are in there, Chief. For God’s sake, I’ve got time if I take the stairs.

Do you have other techniques for backstory? I'd love to hear them.