Beginning writers are cautioned against it, because it’s so alluring but kind of tricky to pull off. Flashbacks and memories can halt the present action. They can be pauses that seem to the reader as unconnected to the current story as a commercial break to a TV show.
Or, done right, they can be players in the present action. Memories can be active participants in a scene, forcing themselves on a character at a terrible time.
THE WHOLE WORLD begins with a narrator struggling to get past memories that actively get in her way. For the first two chapters, we watch her struggle against these invisible enemies. Finally, in chapter three, she’s forced to confront them. Only then, when she stops resisting, is the reader let in on what those memories specifically are. Their release into her present consciousness is as present an action as anything physical that had come before.
My hope is to show how the past affects the present for all the characters, how it informs their choices and skews their perspectives.
Here’s a peek, from the start:
“Come on,” Nick said, tugging my arm. He dragged me past the plesiosaur and iguanodon skeletons, and unlocked a stairwell. He prodded the elevator button within. It had one of those old iron grilles, which he shoved aside for entry. He pressed me against the back wall of the box and kissed me.
He has lovely hands. Later, when the people making “missing” posters asked for a detailed description of him, I uselessly went on about his perfect hands.
When the lift went ping at the top floor, he stalked out down a long, dingy hallway. I trotted after him. I’d forgotten that he has an office up in Earth Sciences–but of course he would. It’s a tiny space, nothing more than books and a coffee maker and a desk and a lock on the door, which is enough. We perched on the desk and he pulled my face to his.
I don’t think he meant for much more than petting–he doesn’t seem like someone who would rush anything. But when he unbuttoned my shirt, I said no. I’m certain I did, but it got muffled in his cheek. So he undid the next button. I shoved his shoulder, hard, and said no again. He was surprised, I think. I was too. I mean, it’s fine to say no to anything, but this was abrupt. He leaned in to kiss me again. I don’t think he deliberately ignored me; I think he was just on a roll. So was I, frankly. I kissed him back, which was disorienting–he had a right to be even more confused. It was all so…
There was this line. I wanted to be on one side of it. I tried to stay there, and haul him back there. But he couldn’t see the line. All he knew was that I was still leaning into him. He kissed me all down my neck, and then lower, down into where my shirt was open from the first two buttons. It made me crazy, in a good way, and it made me angry, which was strange. I shoved him so hard that he was suddenly standing; I had pushed him off the desk onto his feet. I leaned over the other side of the desk and vomited into his rubbish bin. It had papers in it, not crumpled, just all smooth and rounded, clinging to the side of the basket. I vomited in it, and then over it onto the floor.
The sounds were horrible. I tried to stop. I covered up my mouth but just ended up with stuff on my sleeve.
Nick put his hand on my back. I elbowed him off. More stuff came out of me. I didn’t think I’d eaten enough for it to go on this long.
When it finally stopped I held still. A minute flipped on his clock, one of those old “digital” clocks that has the numbers on little cards attached to an axle.
Nick said something. I made a noise to cover it up and bolted. I didn’t wait for the elevator, instead I lurched onto the stairs, which I hadn’t realized go on forever. Every corner I turned there was another flight down. I passed the museum level by mistake. Then the ground floor stopped everything.
Through the window in the stairwell door I saw a dozen students gathered, for a club or a meeting. My shirt was still open at the top. I turned to the wall and buttoned it up.
I wanted to brush my teeth. I wanted to change my clothes. I went back up one flight to get my jacket from the window seat in the gem room. On Trumpington Street I started running.
9 Replies to “Backstory Feast, by Emily Winslow”
I love backstory too…a little too much! That is what I always have to cut out when I go back to edit my MS. But when it works, it’s needed.
Tonya, I have the same issue. I think backstory is useful and enhances character development even if you do end up cutting it and the reader never gets to see it.
Emily, thanks for the excerpt and for getting backstory week off to a strong start!
James Lee Burke pulls off backstory flawlessly. I like it in the early drafts, then out it goes. Thanks Emily.
I love backstory too, yet think of it mainly in terms of how/why the author wrote the actual story.
Oh, you have me bouncing up and down with excitement for your book, Emily!
I think backstory is a real challenge for sequels and J.K. Rowling is an author who pulls it off beautifully….
And what an enticing passage, Emily!
That passage makes me want to read your book!! Such an interesting topic about backstory–very key to me in my first book (which I just sold). Hopefully I can strike a good balance. 🙂
Sarah, congratulations! I love “long lost manuscript” stories–I’ll be excited to read yours.
I like that–thinking of backstory “players in the present.” Or rather, making sure that it is, and that it is part of a novel’s momentum. Very cool. I immediately started drafting some manuscript notes based on that 🙂 And the book looks awesome! Looking forward to it coming out…
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