Sunday, January 8, 2012


Once he’d figured it all out and knew whodunnit, Adrian Monk, everyone’s favorite OCD TV detective, would say, 
“Here’s what happened.” Then he would tell how the crime occurred. As he described it, the audience viewing at home saw the event take place on the screen exactly as it happened in the past.

What better way to let an audience know what happened in the past than with both a narrative retelling AND a visual reenactment?  They can do that in movies and on TV.  Writers do not have that luxury, but we still have to tell our readers, “Here’s what happened.”  
We call it backstory.

We have different ways of presenting backstory. We can have the narrator stop telling the current story and tell the backstory. If it goes on for a long time, however, we run the risk of boring readers and tempting them to skip over the “info dump” completely. Imagine Monk telling what happened without the visual reenactment. His show would never have lasted as long as it did.
One way to bring in backstory -- our version of a visual reenactment -- is to “show” what happened before, complete with dialogue and action exactly as it happened. That requires, first of all, a clear transition to the past so readers aren’t confused about where they are in the story. Once that’s done, the scene plays out just as it did before. Here’s an example, beginning with a transition:
Jane would never forget the day Dan left. She’d walked in the door and saw his bags packed in the foyer. She’d hurried into the dining room to find him sitting at the table.

“What’s going on, Dan?” she asked.
“I can’t take it anymore.  I’m leaving.”
When the reenactment is finished, another clear transition is needed, of course, to bring readers back to the present without confusion.
Another way to work in backstory, and a favorite of mine, is to bring it out in dialogue between two characters as part of the current story. Like this:
          Jane knew Margie had something on her mind and waited for her to speak.
Margie took a sip of her wine and set her glass on the table, rotating it slowly with her
hands. After several moments, she said, “Jane, you never did tell me why Dan left.”
                “I’m not sure myself. I came home and saw his bags packed and sitting in the foyer.”
                “Didn’t he say anything?”
Jane turned to the window and looked out. “I asked him what was going on.  He said he 
couldn’t take it anymore and he was leaving.”

Another method is a quick flashback.  Here’s how that might be done:
Dan had left two years ago. She’d entered the house to see his bags packed and sitting in the foyer. When she asked him what was going on he said, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving.” She still didn’t understand why.

A short flashback like that is not a major intrusion to the current story and chances are, you won’t lose
the readers. It lacks the immediacy and drama of a reenactment, however.
In a story called, “That Night in Galveston,” I used a slightly different form of flashback. Amanda Barnes is kidnapped by a crippled, disfigured man with a gun and forced to drive to a vacant warehouse. She doesn’t remember the man and has no idea why he wants to kill her. As she drives, little bits of information she’d wiped from her memory from twenty years before flash from her subconscious mind. Here’s one of them:

Darkness. . .waves crashing against a pier. . .sounds of an amusement park in the distance. . .someone down on all fours. . .screaming. . .begging. . .
Shortly after that one, there’s this one:

Three men standing over him. . .yelling. . .kicking. . .swinging something. . .

Amanda is pulled into the past even further when something flashes from before she ran away from home and hitchhiked to Galveston.

A thick, burly man entering her bedroom. . . holding a finger to his lips to say, “Don’t wake your mother. We don’t want her to know our secret.”. . unable to breathe under his weight. . .biting her lip to keep from crying out from the pain he caused her inside. . .

This altered flashback method worked well in this particular story. It was a graphic, dramatic, and efficient way to bring out the backstory. I liked it so much I gave it a name: “backflash.”

In many of our stories, we can’t get away from backstory. We have to tell our readers, “Here’s what happened.” Part of our challenge is to do it in such a way that readers are not confused or bored and with minimal interruption to the current story.

(If you’d like to know how Amanda escaped her fate, “That Night in Galveston” is one of the sixteen stories in my collection, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS. You’ll find more information about it over on my website:


Morgan Mandel said...

Thanks for these illustrations, Earl. Backstory can be very tricky and needs to be handled with caution.

Morgan Mandel

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Or just make the whole book one long back story as Lee Child did in his latest--THE AFFAIR.


Earl Staggs said...

Get up to speed, Tipple. That's called a "prequel." ;-)

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Unless it is named BACKSTORY as that horrible Nevada Barr book was that came out a few years ago.

I also realized tonight that the look you have in your picture here and the look that Mark has is one I frequently see during meetings when I make a smart comment.

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Excellent article, I will recommend my friends to read it.

Earl Staggs said...

Kevin, the reason we have that look is that you're so smart, a cuppla dummies like Mark and me don't understand what you're saying.

Earl Staggs said...

Glad you liked it, Maldives. Thanks for stopping by.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I think it is more of the --what the hell was he thinking and why did he say that--variety of look.

research papers said...

Great post, I enjoyed ready reading it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good examples, Earl. Backstory is important but must be spooned in carefully in small doses so as not to bore the reader.

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Hi, nice post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for sharing.