Tag Archives: backstory

How to Jump Out of Scene into Backstory

29 Sep
Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene S. Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Some famous writer or another once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. This is all well and good until you try it. You find yourself wondering, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life?

This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the JohnsIt will be published on November 3, which means you can take off work to buy it and tell your boss that you were voting.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene with two couples meeting for dinner. Their sons are long-time friends and have just left home together to attend the University of Texas and play together on the baseball team:

He held out a glass of bourbon to Andres while Angie poured a couple of margaritas in stemware waiting on the table. They raised their glasses, the four of them, and looked at each other as though they’d all just rolled out of bed after an afternoon of intimacy.

“To our boys,” Angie said.

The novel uses this moment as an opportunity to give a brief history of the relationship between the Mejias and Robisons, a history that begins this way: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” We learn that the Robisons are older. They’re white and the Mejias are Hispanic. They’re upper class, and the Mejias are working class. The history of the relationship, then, is, to some extent, the history of how the couples dealt with these differences.

The passage tells that history from the Mejias’ point of view and begins with a description with the meals that the Mejias prepare for guests:

The Mejias rarely strayed from their standard foods—fideo and meat, tacos and chalupas, easy ricotta-free lasagna, beef and, more rarely, chicken enchiladas.

Then, the novel sets up the difference between the Mejias’ food and the Robisons’ food:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

And what is that difference?

That first meal together, the Robisons served blackened catfish, which Julie thought was too fancy for her taste.

But what makes the passage interesting is the next line:

Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.

This is how a novel or story uses a snapshot to suggest a life. Seeing Off the Johns starts with a dinner and uses it as touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between the two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reveal a life with a scene, using Seeing Off the Johns by Rene Perez II as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that contains a recurring moment. Perez builds his scene around a dinner, something that occurs every day and is shared by these couples on a regular basis. There are many potential, daily moments like this, and there are also other less mundane ones: recurring arguments, recurring obstacles, recurring bad habits or giving-in to vices. Even first-time moments (sex, drugs, murder) are often part of longer arcs: “the character walked this street every day until…” or “she’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” So, first, figure out which scene you’ll use as the jumping-off point for the backstory.
  2. Jump from scene to backstory. You can make the jump by reversing the order of the lines used to introduce the scene. “She’d been coming to the same bar for years, but on this night…” becomes “On every other night at the bar…” This is essentially what Perez does: “They had always gotten on this well, despite their difference in age.” The line could have read, “Every other time they’d met for dinner, they’d gotten on this well.” What he adds is the word despite, which is a great way to add tension. It adds a charge to the mundane: “She’d been coming to the same bar for years and never been hit on despite…” Give the line a try by combining the usual with the word despite.
  3. Build a narrative upon that despiteThe word inherently suggests story. Why didn’t guys hit on the woman? Why did the Mejias and Robisons get along? The answer almost certainty involves a revealing detail about human nature (She was six-foot-five and intimidating to the sort of men that drank at the bar) or a character’s decision (Over a decade of dinners, though, the Mejias accepted that there would be the occasional lobster tail or swordfish or prime rib or hundred-dollar bottle of bourbon.) Note that word accepted. They could have refused to accepted the difference in wealth, but they didn’t. They decided to get along. What you get, then, is a narrative that goes something like this: ___ has been happening for a long time despite ___, and the only reason this scene is happening now is because _____.

The goal is to craft piece of backstory that jumps out of a scene and illuminates the lives behind the scene.

Good luck.

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How to Create Structure with Teasers

1 Sep
Julia Fierro's debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called "comically energetic" by The New Yorker.

Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was called “comically energetic” by The New Yorker.

I often argue that, from a craft perspective, there is almost no difference between literary and genre fiction. The novels may be pointing their readers toward different things (character development versus plot, for instance, though that’s mostly a false distinction), but the strategies used to direct the readers are often the same. For example, genre books often use plot spoilers to create structure; if we know someone will end up dangling from a clock tower, we’ll read to find out how it happened. This same strategy is also used by literary writers. The content may be different (domestic strife rather than terrorist plot, though, again, that’s an oversimplification), but the technique is the same.

A good example of this is Julia Fierro’s novel Cutting Teeth. It’s a literary novel that was published last year to much acclaim, and you can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a mommy group (for the non-parents: moms with young children who meet for playdates) who decides to vacation together with their families over Labor Day weekend. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different mom, which includes the one dad in the group. His first chapter begins this way:

It had been over a year since Rip first began calling himself a mommy.

The sentence suggests a question: why does Rip call himself a mommy? There are several possibilities, and even if you can guess his rationale, that knowledge doesn’t give a complete answer to the question. We still want to know how he came to this decision. But the chapter doesn’t give the answer quickly. Instead, it treats the statement as a kind of flag in the sand and then backs up in time. We know where we’re headed (why he calls himself a mommy), and so we’re willing to read backstory.

But the structure of the chapter doesn’t simply come from backstory. Yes, we find out that Rip stays home with his son while his wife works and that, though he pays lip service to the difficulties posed by full-time parenting, in truth, “it is the best life Rip can imagine.” But what’s more important, and what drives the chapter forward, is the consequence of this backstory. This is the life that Rip wants. He does not want to go back to his life pre-child or act like a “dad”:

They didn’t understand he couldn’t befriend just any guy. He wasn’t just any dad. He felt most comfortable with the mommies because, in the last four years, he had become a mommy.

So, the chapter opens with a provocative statement, one that we want to know more about, but before it returns to the statement, the chapter reveals why the statement matters. It shows us the stakes for this question of identity. The rest of the chapter, then, puts Rip in situations that challenge his identity as a mommy, or at least make it uncomfortable for him. We keep reading because we know how much that identity means to him.

In short, the opening statement creates space for not just backstory but an explanation for the characters’ personal stakes in the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use a teaser to create structure using Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro as a model:

  1. Find something provocative about a character. It can be a question of identity, with the character identifying as something that might surprise others (I’m a guy, but I’m a mommy). It can also be a question of desire (I want this thing that people think I shouldn’t want). Or, it can be a question of intent (I intend to do this thing that people will not expect). If you find that your character doesn’t have a provocative identity, desire, or intent, your story may not have the oompfh to keep going. Fiction needs something amiss.
  2. State the provocative thing in a sentence. Be succinct. You’re intentionally trying to pique the reader’s interest.
  3. Back up. Now that you’ve created suspense and interest, step back and explain how the character arrived at that identity, desire, or intent. This means backstory. A useful way to begin is with a sentence similar to Fierro’s next sentence: “In the beginning, it had been a joke.” Try that opening: In the beginning… Or this: It had not always been this way. In short, bring the reader up to speed about the narrative, the sequence of events, that led to that statement being true.
  4. Explain why the statement matters. Fierro suggests the difficulty that Rip will have if his role as “mommy” disappears. He’ll be adrift. So, he develops a plan to convince his wife to have another baby. This is an effective strategy. Present the possibility that the character won’t get what she wants: the identity will be revoked or taken away, the desire will be unfulfilled, or the intent will not be achieved. If the character is unsatisfied, then what? If we know why it matters to the character, it will matter to us and we’ll keep reading as the story returns to the statement and moves forward into a plot that tests whatever statement you’ve written.

Good luck.

How to Build a Tension Machine

10 Feb
Einstein's Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called  "a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become."

Einstein’s Beach House by Jacob Appel has been called “a collection that takes a sharp look at the moments when we, whether child or adult, see who we truly are and the inevitability of who we will become.”

There is an often-taught writing rule that backstory should be integrated into the present action. Don’t lump it altogether. Usually, this is pretty good advice, though I’ve read enough lumped backstory in excellent stories lately that I’m beginning to wonder if this rule isn’t trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem may not be chunks of backstory as much as backstory that doesn’t clearly connect to and build toward the present drama.

A good example of backstory that appears as a chunk and that also builds toward drama can be found in Jacob Appel’s story, “Einstein’s Beach House,” which first appeared in Sonora Review and is the title story of Appel’s latest story collection. You can read an excerpt from the story at Sonora Review.

How the Story Works

The story actually begins with more backstory than the excerpt shows (the excerpt picks up about two pages into the story). This story’s first paragraph is almost entirely backstory about a typo that led tourists to believe that the narrator’s house had once belonged to Alfred Einstein. In the excerpt, the section after the space break picks up on this backstory. Here is the first paragraph of it:

The two-story wood-frame bungalow at 2467 South Ocean Avenue had served my father’s family for four generations. Originally, “The Cottage” had been a “beach house”—a fashionable summer address for my great-grandparents—but after the stock market crash of ’29 forced my father’s grandfather from his Washington Square townhouse, the Scraggs took refuge on the Jersey Shore, and we’d been muddling along there ever since. I recently read in a magazine that, on average, it takes four generations to squander a large fortune; if that’s true, our family was People’s Exhibit A. My father completed our social descent when he eloped with Mama, a Jewish-atheist folk singer who’d dropped out of NYU to follow Jefferson Airplane on their West Coast tour. They’d met at Grand Central Station, on New Year’s Day, 1968, after my father absentmindedly wandered into the ladies’ restroom by mistake.

In the most literal sense, this paragraph tells backstory (or context), beginning generations before the present action begins. It’s the sort of passage that writers in a workshop might suggest cutting, but doing so would make some of the best moments in the story (the entire story, in fact) impossible to show. So, the question is how to keep the backstory and connect is to drama, which is where the readers’ interest naturally lies. That connection begins with the line about “four generations to squander a large fortune” and the narrator’s father in finalizing that “social descent” by marrying her mother.

Watch how, in the next paragraph, the story turns those two pieces of information into an opportunity for drama:

My parents had been a bad match from the get-go. Even at the age of eleven, I could sense this to be the case—and sometimes, while they were bickering, I wondered why they didn’t just get divorced. The fundamental difference between them was that, for all her superficial radicalism and musical aspirations, Mama could be ruthlessly practical when the occasion demanded it. But my father, rest his soul, teared up at Disney movies and never embraced a pipe dream that didn’t end in a pot of gold and a Nobel Prize. So the two of them argued about whether to withhold the tenant’s security deposit over a chipped mirror, and when to force Grandpa Byron into a nursing home, and even how much to tip the postman at Christmas. No decision was too trivial for a spat. At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.

The paragraph clearly describes the differences in temperament and philosophy in the father and mother. This is something that many stories do, but those differences are not the same as drama. It’s useful to think of them as a machine. Without a motor, they won’t run. They simply represent potential action. But when energy is applied (when the motor is switched on), the machine begins to work, grinding the characters together and producing sparks, tension, and drama. What is the motor? In this case, it’s Einstein’s beach house.

In a way, all of this backstory has been building the machine and the motor, and the rest of the story shows what happens when this machine is left free to run.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use backstory to build a drama-creating machine, using “Einstein’s Beach House” by Jacob Appel as a model. You can try these exercises in any order. In fact, they may make more sense in another order, so feel free to switch them around:

  1. Create the parts that will grind together. This is almost always done, as Appel shows, by bringing together characters that will, by nature, come into conflict due to their differences. The differences can be in terms of personality, age, gender, religion, politics, job, sports team affiliation, or just about anything that people form their identities around. It may be possible to write a story with two characters who are identical in every way or who always get along, no matter what, but it’s difficult to imagine. In many stories, characters that seem well matched are often revealed to be not so well suited for each other by the plot. Backstory usually serves the purpose of introducing these parts.
  2. Build the motor. This is, essentially, the plot. You’ve got two characters, but they’re still, awaiting some force to put them into motion. That force is the motor of the story. Appel uses the house and its uncertain origins. When visitors ask for tours, the narrator’s father and mother react quite differently, and those reactions supply the story’s tension. So, what motor can set your characters into motion and conflict? Regardless of what you pick, the result will probably be differing reactions, goals, and plans. The thing at the center of those reactions, goals, and plans can be anything: gold (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a tech startup (The Social Network), or a painting (The Goldfinch). It can be something desired, something necessary (food, water, shelter), or something intrusive (illness, neighbor, dog). When writing backstory, aim your introduction of the parts toward this motor.
  3. Switch on the machine. Once you have brought together the parts and motor, you can switch it on. Backstory often ends just before this machine begins running. Appel’s backstory ends with a kind of ready, set, go: “At first, the Einstein error simply gave them one more issue to slam doors about.” It’s clear that more will happen (the machine will create more tension) than simply slammed doors. How can you end your backstory on a similar note, summarizing the early workings of the machine in order to set up the highest tension and drama?

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Jamie Quatro

19 Sep

Jamie Quatro’s collection I Want to Show You More was called the “most engaging literary treatment of Christianity since [Flannery] O’Connor,” by J. Robert Lennon in The New York Times Book Review

When you read Jamie Quatro‘s biography, it becomes clear that talent is not divvied up equally. She is the daughter of a physician father and classical pianist mother, and was herself trained as a classical pianist until the time that she left for college. She graduated from Pepperdine at age 20, knocked out a MA in English at William and Mary, and was then awarded a Presidential Fellowship from Princeton for doctoral studies in British Romantic Poetry.

She left Princeton when she found out that she and her husband were expecting the first of their four children. Since then, she has earned her MFA in Fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars, published fiction in numerous journals, published the story collection I Want to Show You More to wide acclaim, and most recently had a story chosen for the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.

In this interview, Quatro discusses her revision process, her approach to writing backstory, and the moment in her story “The Anointing” that took her by surprise.

(To read “The Anointing” and an exercise based on its use of detail, click here.)

Michael Noll

One difficulty in writing about religious experience is translating the immediacy and intimacy of the experience to readers who do not share the character’s beliefs. You solve this problem in a single sentence. You write, “Anointings were eleventh-hour efforts—what you asked for after you’d asked for everything else.” In the story, Diane knows that the anointing is a long shot, and yet she’s desperate for a positive signs, any change for the good. It’s almost as if the story is saying to the reader, “Look, this anointing probably isn’t going to work, but it sure would be great it it did.” The religious element is understood through universal human feelings of hope, desire, love, and desperation. I’m curious if this sentence was always present in the story. Did you worry in early drafts that readers would not be sympathetic to Diane?

Jamie Quatro

Funny you should ask about that line — it was indeed a late addition to the piece. In fact, I rewrote the entire opening, right up to that line, almost five years after I finished the story. Originally I’d written “last-ditch efforts,” but when my editor and I began working together, she wondered if we might come up with a less cliche, more immediate phrase. “Eleventh-hour” felt like something Diane herself would think, as the term is used, of course, in the gospel of Matthew, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. And no, I didn’t worry about readers being unsympathetic. I don’t think about readers, or publication in general, when I’m drafting. For personal reasons, this story stayed in the proverbial drawer for a long time. I didn’t think I’d ever publish it. It was the last piece accepted by a magazine before the book went to press. Cathy Chung — Guernica’s brilliant fiction editor — bought it.

Michael Noll

The first part of the story is spent with backstory—how a successful marriage and life got the point that a last-ditch effort was made to rescue it from ruin. The rest of the story is spent, essentially, in scene–in the moments prior to and following the anointing. One of the cliches of workshop is that writers should avoid clumps of backstory–always integrate it into the fabric of the scene, students are told. And yet you do precisely the opposite, and it works beautifully. The backstory held me to the page as much as the in-scene portions. What was your approach to the backstory?

Jamie Quatro

It’s difficult to talk about “approach” to backstory — as I mentioned, I don’t think about such things when I draft. I think each story comes to an artist with its own structure, its own cadence and music, and that the artist’s first responsibility is to listen. For me, drafting is very much like listening to a piece of music or watching a film. You simply let the work rush on and do what it wants to do, take the shape it wants to take. That might involve “clumps” of backstory, as you say; or it might involve interspersing the backstory throughout the piece; or it might involve using no backstory at all. To be honest, I’ve never heard the workshop rule you mention above. I’m always skeptical of rules. An upfront “tell” at the opening of a story — here’s what’s happened in the past to get us where we are — can be used to great effect. Look at some of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners: “A Little Cloud” begins with “Eight years before he had seen his friend off at the North Wall and wished him godspeed.” Or “Araby,” which begins with the backstory of the priest’s death: “The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing room.” Even if you end up cutting the backstory, it can be a useful exercise, to spell out precisely what has happened in the past before entering the first scene.

Michael Noll

The story begins with the characters at the edge of a precipice–perhaps Mitch will kill himself, perhaps Diane no longer believes in God—and immediately offers a solution to both of these problems: the anointing. As a result, I expected a conclusion that resolved one or both of those problems. Mitch would be saved or become worse. Diane would be strengthened in her faith, or she’d give it up completely. But neither really happens. The situation remains mostly the same. The primary change is that Diane despairs, whereas at the beginning she was hopeful. I’ll admit that I was taken aback by the ending. But as I thought about it, the ending seemed truthful in a way that a neat ending wouldn’t have. In life, there are very few dramatic shifts. Was this ending always present? Did you consider ending the story differently?

Jamie Quatro

Yes, this has always been the story’s ending. In a way, that hand pressing on Diane’s head is an anointing of a very different kind, a more radical and truthful version of the oiled thumbprint on the woman’s forehead at the beginning of the piece. To me a it’s a redemptive moment: Diane has been deceiving Ellie about Mitch’s true condition, even as she’s been deceived by Ellie and Mitch. Neither of those deceptions will be possible from this point forward. The only path open to any of them will be one of honesty. What took me by surprise, as I drafted, wasn’t the ending, but the moment Diane discovers that her daughter has been hiding the pills in her little purse. That was a devastating realization. I didn’t want it to be true, but there it was.

Michael Noll

What are you working on now? Many short story writers are also working on a novel. Is that the case for you as well? Quite a few of the stories in your collection are very short, a few pages or so, and they’re so masterfully written that I wonder if a novel is even something you’re interested in.

Jamie Quatro

Ah, the novel question. You know, I love the story form, and I’m at work on a second collection right now, but I will say this: one of the pieces I thought was a short story is threatening to become something bigger. For now I’m pitching it to myself as a novella. Time will tell. I do write poetry and essays, and lately have been doing some longer book reviews. I also just wrote a film treatment. So who knows? Maybe a play is next.

September 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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