I treasure the stories I fall in love with, not only as a reader, enjoying them for the terrific stories they are, but also as a writer, trying to learn from them by working out the secret of their magic.
My most recent love is “Reception” by Nona Caspers that appears in the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
There are a whole slew of reasons why I fell for this story: the striking image at the beginning, the way every detail echoes and reverberates with other details, the oddness of the details and images, the beautiful, clever ending that both illuminates the narrator’s experience and goes beyond it. But I especially love it for the pointers it gives me about back-story and writing forward.
I read “Reception” when I was struggling with problems of back-story in a story of my own. My back-stories have a tendency to become extremely complicated. They threaten to take over the whole story, so much so that they should be the story! Yet it doesn’t work when I try to make them the main story. They really are back-stories – they have created the situation that the character now has to deal with.
Caspers keeps the back-story very simple – the protagonist’s lover has died (we learn how through brief details sprinkled here and there) and the protagonist has to continue living somehow. The author doesn’t dwell in the past life of the narrator or have her relive image after image of her life with her lover, but pushes her onward into a new life. The narrator takes on a new job, interacts (or not) with new people, reads her book. Full of wonderful, curious details, the forward story carries the reader along.
At the end the back-story and the forward-story intersect, each coloring and magnifying the other, a most satisfying ending.
So what did I learn about back- and forward-stories from “Reception”?
• reduce the back-story to its core element. I went back to the story I’m working on and untangled the back-story to find the one fundamental thing that happened that was significant.
• find a forward-story and stay in it…keep moving on, moving on… Returning to my story, I refused to let myself be sucked back into my back-story, and suddenly realized how I could move forward.
• writing forward, the essential details of the back-story will bubble up to the surface of the forward-story. Try to keep to only the essential details or scenes. Just enough for understanding and emotional underpinning.
The way one uses back-story and forward-story varies with each story of course. What is your experience with back-stories and writing forward?