Sunday, April 5, 2009

Back Story

As an aspiring author, I would like to share with those of you studying the craft of writing thoughts and musing on the subject, hopefully the information I provide below will not confuse, but provide a little understanding of Back Story.

This past week in Sweet Heart of the Rodeo, the group studied the use of primary and secondary information.

Primary information advances the narrative, and secondary information provides context, metaphor, idea, etc. Source of the information came from: The Portable MFA in Creative Writing: The New York Writer's Workshop Fiction by Tim Tomlinson.

Essentially this is backstory, detailed information that provides the reader the past events in a characters life and understanding of why the inciting incident occurs and why it is important.

Tobias Wolff utilizes these two sources effectively in his story “Awaiting Orders.” Link New Yorker Published July 25, 2005

Janet Burroway says in her book, “Writing Fiction 5th Edition” page 182.

Flashback is effectively used in fiction to reveal at the right time. It does not so much take us from, as contribute to, the central action of the story, so as readers we suspend the forward motion of the narrative in our minds as our understanding of it deepens. David Madden, in A Primer of the Novel fro Readers and Writers, says that such shifts are most effective if the very fact of their occurrence contributes to the revelation of character and theme.

Creating character’s that are memorable, and providing the reader with the essential details of past events can give a clearer understanding, as to why the character act as they do in the present.

One might ask what the difference is. The terms are probably interchangeable; the only difference being is the way Tim Tomlinson points out in his book, how Tobias Wolff uses the effects in “Awaiting Orders.” Now, I don’t have permission to present his findings, so I’ll have to explain using my own words and thoughts, what he means, and using the story from the New Yorker.

Advancing the narrative: Causes something else to happen. The call awakens in Sergeant Morse facts about his life, his love affair before his tour to Iraq with a Cuban waiter, and with a Lieutenant after his tour when he returned home. Here Wolff transitions into backstory providing the reader information and facts about the Sergeant’s past. The theme of the story and what it is about.

In Wolff’s story when the sister calls and asks for her brother Billy Hart, and Morse tells her that he’s shipped out to Iraq. And she says, “Well. Sweet Jesus. That’s some news.” Then Morse says near the end the end of the conversation, “Feel free to call back. Maybe I can help.” It unsettled the Sergeant and he thinks back about Billy and his own life.

Secondary information doesn’t cause something else to happen, but it is essential to the motivation of the immediate character. In essence then the secondary information is about Billy Hart a minor character but relevant to the story. “Hart was from the mountains near Asheville and liked to play the hick for the cover it gave him. He was always running a hustle, Hart, engaged elsewhere when there was work to be done but on hand to fleece the new guys at poker or sell rides to town in his Mustang convertible. He was said to be dealing but hadn’t got caught at it. Thought everyone else was dumb—you could see him thinking it, that little smile. He would trip himself up someday, but he’d do fine for now. Plenty of easy pickings over there for the likes of Billy Hart.”

Details of your protagonist life is sometimes necessary in understanding what triggers the present situation, but how much needs to be provided to the reader is where aspiring authors goes wrong, and can trigger a rejection.

Sergeant Joe Friday created by Jack Webb greatest line in the television series was, “Just the facts ma’am.”

Providing only the details that give a clear understanding of why the character is in the situation they are in, is all that seems to be needed.

Here are a couple of good articles that explains Back Story and Flashbacks better that I can.

Nancy Kress-- 3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks

Les Edgerton -- Opening Scenes An Overview

Happy Writing!


  1. Excellent write up on primary and secondary information. I have "Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress. It's a very helpful book. She covers the material in a concise way that is easy to understand. I also bought "Hooked" a while ago. Love that one just as much. I took it off the shelf to look through it again after reading your article.

    This is very informative, JB. You did a good job working our assignment over in "Sweethearts" into the work.


  2. Thanks Raven,

    And thanks to you for bringing up the topic in Sweet Heart’s, hopefully we’ll spend a lot more time on the subject. I really liked your analysis “my ramblings” and hope to see it on your blog, and excellent break down on the subject.
    Les is a good teacher, and one day I’ll purchase the book. I had him for a semester a few years ago, he can be tough, but he guides you intuitively, and not for the faint of heart. I often reread his lectures and he believed that Plot was important, but a memorable character was more essential.



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