The past is another subplot, by Ali Bacon

For November my book group chose the theme of war, and for this post I intended to do a kind of war book round-up. But along the way, I realised two of the novels I'd read made me think of the same writing problem - how and when to include back-story, i.e. stuff that has 'already' happened when the story begins. 

Book A in this regard is a prize-winning literary novel of WW2 which opens with vignettes of two characters - a blind French girl and a young German soldier – each living in deadly peril a short distant apart in the town of St Malo just before if falls to the invading Allied forces. The solider is all but buried in a cellar and the girl is alone at the top of a neighbouring house. The bulk of the novel follows the individual journeys that brought them here and for me, despite the beautiful writing and fascinating history – particularly of the German, an orphan whose technical wizardry gets him noticed and promoted by the Nazis - the tension was confined to the final stages of their getting together – a tiny fraction of this long book. For most of the time, I was impatient to get back to the real starting point (or outcome!) - which had already been revealed. I suspect if the novel had unfolded without the ‘flash forward’ I would have been quite happy, but the structure chosen by the writer resulted in the back-story of the two main characters feeling like a very long digression.

Uh-oh, we're going off at a tangent.
With Book B – this time a WW1 story, which I'm still reading – something different happens but which still illustrates the point.  We’re following a character in a village in occupied France whose husband – an artist - is at war. The local Kommandant wants to use the family cafĂ© as a place for his platoon to eat, and is showing a creepy interest in the portrait of the heroine which hangs there. Then in the next chapter we’re in Paris several years earlier. The girl is meeting said artist-husband for the first time and I am wondering what this is adding to the story. I am just getting into the book and feel pulled away to somewhere I don’t want to go. Again, however much it adds to character or setting, it feels like a digression. In fact I’ve now read further and the interlude is just one chapter, so I’m no longer sucking my teeth. But although novels regularly pull the reader from one time or place to another, it’s hard to analyse when this works and when it doesn’t.

My first creative writing teacher had a hearty dislike of back-story and would allow only the smallest paragraph dealing with stuff that had gone before and then only grudgingly. Back-story, she said, just held things up. But she did differentiate back-story from the legitimate use of ‘the past as a sub-plot’ which I cottoned on to with some relief, since  I had just embarked on a novel with two distinctive time-lines, one present day and one in the 1980's. As with any subplot, it’s a great boon for the writer to be able to leave the reader at an intriguing moment and keep them hanging on to see how these different strands will work out in the end.

Ooh, looks intriguing ... 
So what’s the difference between back-story and effective sub-plot? I think you’d have to say that a sub-plot moves things on in some way, or answers a question posed by the other plot strand. In the case of Book B, it would be fine to go back to Paris if we didn’t already know who had painted the portrait and that the girl had married him. In Book A maybe if a bit less had been revealed in the opening, if there had been more of ‘who is this and what’s going on?’ – rather than the bare ‘here they are how did they get there,’ I would have played along with the structure. 
As it happens I’ve just reached a major turning point in Book B. Our heroine has reached the end of her current road. I was actually hoping for a jump to a new story-line at this point and I’m delighted to say I got it. Part 2 finds us in the 21st century with a new character. This is good – I’m not annoyed but intrigued by how this will marry up with the war years section. 

Even with short story there’s a knack to knowing where it should begin and where (or if) back-story is required. I think it’s fine to start with action or dialogue then quickly explain the context/back-story, and this is a very common device particularly in commercial short fiction. But generally I’m as uncomfortable with ‘going back’ in a short story as I am in a novel. If past action or emotion is critical to the story why not start there and tell it in real time?  

I’m not sure what my short survey of back-story has revealed except that as a writer we must have an eye to the reader. Where does the story really start? Defying expectations in terms of how it unfolds is going is fine, but don’t ever give too much away. You have to keep asking questions, you have to keep them guessing.

By the way, there's a prize (if I can think of one!) for the first person to identify books A and B!

Ali Bacon writes, reads, reviews, and occasionally takes to the stage in Bristol and beyond. You can listen to her reading a short story at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival here

(Photos by Ali Bacon and Tim Byford)


Wendy H. Jones said…
Great points Ali. It's true that back story can yank you out of the story and it can be unsettling. Doing it well is a tricky business
AliB said…
Thanks Wendy. good to know your books are doing so well right now :) Ali
Jan Edwards said…
Useful analysis. Thank you Ali.

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