Backstory: Sometimes the Way Forward Is the Way Back

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

There’s a point in one my favorite movies from childhood, Labyrinth, where the young heroine, frustrated at her lack of progress through the Goblin King’s maddening fantasy landscape, asks the Wise Man–who happens to have a bird for a hat–how to reach the castle at the center of the labyrinth.

After an appropriately ponderous period of pause, given his advanced age, the Wise Man replies, “Sometimes the way forward is the way back.”

To which the bird rolls its eyes and says, “Will you listen to this crrrap!”

I suspect many writers would have the same response if I told that in order to actually solve the problems they’re facing with their novels, they will have to dig deep into their novel’s backstory. After all, they, like young Sarah in the movie, just want to get to that castle (though in this case, I suspect the edifice in question is a high-rise somewhere around W. 56th in Manhattan).

But the more years I have under my belt as both a book coach and a writer, the more I understand the power of understanding your backstory–those events that occurred before the story started.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say this: If there’s any piece of fiction you’re struggling with right now, ask yourself if you truly understand the sequence of events that led up to page one. If not, chances are, you don’t yet really understand the goals and motivations of your characters, and you don’t really understand the trail of clues your story will have to set up, starting on page one, in order to land its ending.

I’ve seen this over and over, in both my own work and that of my clients: if figuring out the story feels like trying to unravel a tangled ball of yarn, finally figuring out the backstory is like finding the end of the string. Without it, you can keep tugging forever, and the only result you’ll have, after draft upon draft upon draft, is more frustration.

Take the short story I’m currently revising. It’s a beast of a thing, a 10K-word piece that verges on what speculative writers (or at least the Hugo Awards) call a novelette. There’s a complex magic system, an ensemble cast, a plural third-person POV, and at least one story within a story, if not two. I’ve wrestled my way through at least five drafts, and though each has added to my understanding, this story has yet to cohere into a compelling whole.

Like many writers, my MO is generally to just keep poking at the thing until it gives, trusting in a combination of luck, experience, and education to help me solve my “story problems.” I’m one of those people who writes a first draft based on tea leaves, dreams, snippets of memory, and a penchant for games, or alternative communities, or hand-built hobbit houses–or, in this case, all of the above. In revision, I’m always looking for the ways that those islands connect, so to speak, revealing the mountain chain below.

But this story simply would not give way–until this weekend, when I realized (much later than I should have) that I did not understand exactly what had happened before the story began, the sequence of events that had led to the suicide that sets the story into motion. And without understanding this, and all the POVs of all the major players involved, none of these pretty surfaces were ever going to coalesce into an ending that really made sense.

One of my mentors, Jennie Nash, has a great metaphor for story, which is a pencil balanced atop a pyramid. Many of us are familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid, but in Jennie’s model, the side of the pyramid that leads up to that high point at the top is not the rising action of the story leading up to the climax, but rather, the backstory leading up to the tipping point, which is the beginning of the story itself. Everything that follows–everything that actually occurs on the page–is a consequence of what came before.

It’s often easier to see how these things work in other people’s work than it is in your own, and I’m seeing the power of backstory in a client’s work right now as well. I read the first draft of this client’s manuscript a few months back and had a lot of questions about how the whole thing fit together–questions, as it turned out, the author couldn’t answer, because she didn’t actually know.

This coaching client and I have now been working together for two months–on nothing but the backstory. We haven’t even moved on to the outline, much less the revision of the novel itself. But like a tangled ball of yarn, that backstory is slowly but surely getting straightened out, and with it, the story itself. These next two steps–the outlining and writing forward in revision–won’t feel like a wrestling match with the story (maybe with the writing and execution, but not the story). Because she’ll know how this whole thing hangs together, in a way that’s fundamentally sound.

The writing world is full of “pantsers” who don’t like to outline at all — folks who believe that you can write a whole novel not seeing any farther than what’s revealed by the headlights of your metaphorical car. I often draft in that mode; it’s a fine way to follow your intuition, and to surprise yourself with where you go.

But in revision, I believe, it’s imperative to actually figure out how everything fits together. And a big part of this is understanding the pattern of cause and effect, the sequence of events that gave rise to the triggering incident in your story, the one that puts the whole thing into motion.

I had a precociously talented young writer in my novel writing workshop for teenagers last summer. She created glittering surfaces, full of fine historical detail, hinting at all sorts of hidden motives and histories and plans unfolding in the background. But when I sat in tutorial with this student she admitted: She didn’t know what any of those things really alluded to. She was just following her intuition, writing what sounded good, writing by the seat of her pants.

Awesome, I told her. Don’t stop writing that way. But if and when you get stuck with this story, sit down and figure it out. That’s how you’ll find the way forward.

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