I heard an interview on NPR this evening with the novelist Colm Toibin, in which he was asked an unusual question, unusual at least for the evening news. The reporter had heard that, in his fiction workshops, he opposed back story, and she wondered is this was true. I didn't hear his answer, as I was loudly frying up some garlic and onions. But the question got me thinking.
"Back story" is what fiction nerds call flashbacks--things that have happened before the events of a story or novel's main temporal territory, and which are delivered to us either in the form of a character's memory, or, in the case of a less close third person, a bit of narratorial trickery. Back story, for the experienced reader, is essentially invisible--we're accustomed to being yanked around in time, in a book. So it doesn't generally create confusion.
There are disadvantages to using it, though. One is that it breaks up the rhythm of the narrative. If that's what you're trying to do--write a disjointed story that mirrors the mind's own scope and reach--then fine. But if you're not, you might not get your desired result. Back story also puts the narrative at risk for accidentally explaining all the nuance and mystery out of itself. In my new novel, Castle, I actually took this risk, intruding upon a mostly linear narrative with a violent event from the narrator's past. My intention was to explore how the character's memory works, and the way events in the present cause him to think about things he'd rather avoid. But it's possible that some readers will think I'm being reductive--that the back story serves to "explain" all that comes later. This is a bad thing, in a novel, when present events are shown to be the direct result of past events--we know that real life is stranger than that, and more interesting.
I just read Denis Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move. It's a real cracker--the tight, spare prose style of Jesus' Son brought to bear on a fast-paced crime story. And while it's not completely linear, it relies very little on back story to move the narrative forward. We get all the details we need from the way the characters talk, feel, and behave. (One of these characters, a villain named Gambol, is a marvelously memorable creation, cruel, shrewd, and filled with unexpected joie de vivre.)
I always get excited about something when I am deep in the middle of doing something else--in this case, a long, flashback-soaked literary novel. But Johnson and Toibin have got me thinking about other ways to work. Maybe sometime next year I'll try a new tack--a "slim vol" that doesn't have much to say, and never looks back.
(And by the way, thanks to all of you who came to my readings in Portland and Seattle last week! Those are always good towns for a book tour, and this time around I had my best events yet.)