A) Advise writing students to trim the back story out of the opening of their stories to avoid slowing the action.
B) Write a story that opens with back story and then read it to them.
C) Remind self to preface everything said in class with, “Much of the time.”
A) Have a bit of luck with a story whose narrator is a child.
B) Write another story whose narrator is a child.
C) That second one isn’t going so well. Maybe there’s too much back story in the opening.
It’s been snowing most of the today and was snowing earlier when two teenage boys showed up with matching yellow shovels and offered to shovel my driveway.
The back story:
- My driveway has a ridiculous hump I’ll never be able to drive up in this weather in the car I now have if the driveway isn’t properly shoveled.
- Today instead of shoveling said driveway, I was hustling to finish work I should have done on Friday.
- I didn’t really feel like shoveling my driveway.
These marvelous boys show up and tell me they’ll do the work first and then I can pay them whatever I think is fair. Which of course means I pay them more than I would have negotiated to start. They are smart boys. It takes them a while to finish and I worry they might be getting cold. I have nothing hot for them to drink but tea, which they politely say is just fine. When I invite them in, they stand awkwardly in their snow boots on the entry rug. I tell them to take off their boots and I go upstairs to make tea. I come back down to find them standing in the same spot in their socks, because they are too polite to sit down without being asked.
When I offer, they sit side by side on the couch in my downstairs, look at each other, blow on their tea, look at each other.
“It’s hard to know what to say when you’re in some old lady’s house drinking tea,” I say.
They laugh and then we’re chatting and I hear about school and where they grew up and how they met and became friends. And that they have the same first name. It’s a name longer than Gabriel, and neither of them seems to use a nickname. They’re fifteen or so, and I flash to twenty or thirty years down the road and wonder if they’ll be that friend for each other who’s been a friend for a very long time. I hope so, because it’s good to have that friend.
I’ve had those moments where I realized I was turning into my mother. Today, I’m pretty sure I turned in my grandmother. That’s how it felt anyway, talking with youngsters less than a third my age and thinking to myself “What nice young men. They must have wonderful parents to raise them to be so polite.”
The dark-haired one mentions that he was adopted from Romania. As soon as he says it, I can see it in his features. I tell him that I too was adopted, and we share a look of understanding that can only pass between people who have been adopted. For a second he’s not fifteen and I’m not fifty, we’re both just “adopted.”
In a millisecond we’ve shared an entire back story with each other, and I wonder however to pull the same thing off on the page. In a story there would be the tendency to explain and give circumstances and whether one knew early on or later and how did one feel or not feel and the things people say, and so on. But in reality, all it takes is a look in the eyes, a nodding at each other to say, “I know what you mean.”
The light-haired one tells me that he is home-schooled, because he had childhood epilepsy to the extent that attending school was not possible. For his back story, I have less reference points and ask a few questions, which he readily answers.
Yes, he likes the home-school setup and feels that he is ahead academically, but he misses the social interaction. He doesn’t remember everything about his childhood because of his illness, but he doesn’t think it interfered with learning to talk. He has plans to go to college as soon as next year. He proudly tells me that he has a 3.95 GPA.
Mentally, I give him a hug and his mother and father a hug. Here is their child, now healthy and strong out shoveling driveways. From the bits he tells me, I can intuit some of his back story and some of the pain and pride his parents felt watching their little boy cope.
The boys leave, and I set my editing aside and go back to my story, the one with the child narrator.
How much back story does a story need or not need? Well, just enough. Enough to clue in the reader who may not have the same type of experience, yet no more than a little, surprisingly little, because there’s a lot the reader can intuit by knowing just a few facts. How fortunate to have had both examples to compare side by side. And back story isn’t always evident at first glance, and in some stories that might work better.
It keeps snowing, and by evening my driveway is completely covered over again. It’s as if the two boys never came, although they did, and stayed just long enough to bring youth and sunlight and insight.
Sitting here, now in the dark because the power just went out and I’ve had to copy this text into a Word file and work off battery power and a flashlight, I’m still smiling over my conversation with the two “Gabriels.” If they’re what the next generations are bringing, I think Earth is going to do all right.