Deep Backstory

by James Scott Bell

Back in 1988, on the day I decided I had to become a writer, I laid out a plan. I would read books on the craft, even though I’d been told several times that you can’t learn to write by reading writing books (which I soon discovered was a crock). I also went to my favorite used bookstore, the marvelous A & M Booksellers in Canoga Park (sadly, they had to close up shop when the 2008 recession hit; happily they still do business online). This wonderland had a large, revolving inventory of popular paperbacks. On this day I bought an armload of books by Grisham, King, and Koontz. I wanted to read them systematically to try and figure out what they did that was so good.

It was a superb education.

One thing I noticed with Mr. King was something I didn’t have a name for. It just seemed to me that his characters were so … real. He gave them lives that were vivid and detailed. And that, more than anything else (in my estimation) is what has made King so immensely popular. He weds an imaginative plot with characters you can almost touch. I believe he, like Dickens, will be remembered as much for his characterizations as his twisty-turny storylines. 

As was my wont in those days, I wrote a note about that in my ever-expanding document about technique. Eventually I called it “deep backstory.”

I was reminded about this the other day when I read one of his short stories, “The Things They Left Behind,” which is included in his collection Just After Sunset. It’s a moving story about a man with survivor guilt because he “played hooky” from his job at an insurance company in the Twin Towers on 9/11. Of course, several of his friends and co-workers died.

One day the narrator, Scott Staley, returns to his locked apartment and finds a pair of distinctive sunglasses with red frames on a table (they had not been there when he left). But wait…sunglasses like these had belonged to Sonja D’Amico, a colleague of his who died on 9/11. Also, leaning on a wall, is a baseball bat. But not just any bat. It’s a bat that another dead co-worker, insurance adjuster Cleve Farrell, had at his desk. Farrell had used a hot iron to burn CLAIMS ADJUSTOR into the wood. 

How could these items possibly be here? That, of course, is a King-ish story question. And in another writer’s hands it might have become a mere puzzle. But King weaves in backstory magic that brings the characters marvelously to life.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

I felt that way, too. Yes indeed. Because those sunglasses had to be gone—long-time gone, as the Dixie Chicks say. Ditto Cleve Farrell’s Claims Adjustor. (“Besbol been bery-bery good to mee,” Cleave would sometimes say, waving the bat over his head as he sat at his desk. “In-SHOO-rance been bery-bery bad.”)

King likes to reference popular culture in his stories (e.g., Dixie Chicks), which some writing teachers warn against. Bosh, I say. Even if someone reading the story years hence has never heard of the Dixie Chicks, it sounds real and truthful. 

But look especially at the parenthetical bit. Those of us old enough to remember the early years of Saturday Night Live will recognize the words of Chico Esquela, a Dominican baseball player created by cast member Garrett Morris. We’re talking late 70s now. But even if a reader of King’s story in 2020 has no idea who Morris-as-Chico was, the material still works. It sounds unique and lifelike, something a middle-class insurance adjustor might have said when horsing around. 

Later, Scott hears ghostly voices in conversation:

Sometimes they talked about the picnic at Jones Beach—the coconut odor of suntan lotion and Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5” over and over from Misha Bryzinski’s boom box. Or they talked about Frisbees sailing under the sky while dogs chased them. Sometimes they discussed children puddling along the wet sand with the seats of their shorts and their bathing suits sagging. Mothers in swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue walking beside them with white gloop on their noses. How many of the kids that day had lost a guardian Mom or a Frisbee-throwing Dad? Man, that was a math problem I didn’t want to do. But the voices I heard in my apartment did want to do it. They did it over and over.

I find that paragraph brilliant. The sense of smell and sound and sight. And the specificity of detail. Not just music, but Lou Bega singing “Mambo No. 5”; not just swimsuits, but swimsuits ordered from the Lands’ End catalogue. 

Now, Mr. King is a well-known pantser. His approach, as explicated in his book On Writing, is: The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—comes next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.

So all of that good, deep backstory comes out of King as he writes. That explains things like that parenthetical, above. He thought of a character with a bat, then his imagination went into overdrive to personalize it … it was a baseball bat … a voice from the memory chamber echoed in King’s mind: “Besbol been bery-bery good to mee.” Wait. That was Chico Esquela, right? Yeah, and that’s something unique this character might have said. 

The character was coming to life before his eyes during the writing. But there’s no reason you can’t do this discovery before you write. In my book, Writing Unforgettable Characters, I recommend creating a “voice journal” for each character:

This is a free-form document where I just let the character talk to me. I might prompt him with questions, as if I’m doing an interview. “Tell me about your home growing up.” Or “What’s your philosophy of life?”

What I want is for the character to begin talking to me in a voice that is not mine. I’ll keep up this free-form writing until that voice emerges. And though I’m doing this mainly for the sound of the voice, I also end up with background material the character shares with me.

So either way, be ye plotter or pantser, allow your writer’s mind some wild time to dream up deep backstory. Write down a lot of it, then choose the best parts to weave into the narrative. Like the marbling in a rib-eye steak, this will add marvelous flavor to your story.

29 thoughts on “Deep Backstory

  1. Thanks for a great post, Jim. One of the elements that I like about King’s writing is that he can provide the backstory without bringing his main narrative to a screeching halt. It’s tough to do — there is always the temptation to dump it all in at once, instead of dropping it in breadcrumb-sized helpings through the path of the tale — but he makes it look easy.

    Have a great week!

    • Right, Joe. That’s always the goal, adding the layers without the speed bumps. That’s why I’m fascinated with King’s use of the parenthesis. It does the work then gets out of the way. As you say, drops not dumps!

  2. You got me thinking about backstory techniques, and for some reason my mind went to the “Ah, yes, I remember it well” scene in Gigi between Chevalier and Gingold. A great twist on the amateur technique of having conversation partners telling each other things they already know just to get back story to the reader:

    “Good morning, Jack Spratt. I remember how excited we all were when you won the Nobel Prize for Medicine last year.”
    “Yes, Jill Franklyn. Nearly as excited as when you won the big case at the Supreme Court six months ago.”

    • Yes, Eric, I see that a lot in opening chapters. The author trying to “sneak in” backstory and exposition in the dialogue. But it always sounds either a little off or downright phony. From my Dazzling Dialogue book, the opening of an old Perry Mason episode:

I still wish I were going to Mexico with you instead of staying here in Los Angeles.

This trip’s going to be too dangerous, Harriet. It’s some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s no place for a woman, especially my wife. It’s almost no place for an amateur archaeologist, either. Thanks for coming with me as far as Cole Grove station.

    • In science fiction that’s known as “As you know, Bob,” and it’s wildly ridiculed. And rightly so. There are ways around this obvious technique, but they are rarely used by the smart writer.

  3. King is a master at drawing unique characters, especially creepy ones. Another of my favorites is Roddy Doyle. His portrayals of the protagonists in “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha,” and “The Woman Who Walked into Doors,” are heartbreakingly realistic. How he climbed into the heads of a ten year old boy and an abused housewife fascinate me.

    (I highly recommend Writing Mr. Bell’s book, “Writing Unforgettable Characters.” Although I was involved in polishing the final draft of a manuscript when his book arrived, I was able to incorporate a few interesting characterly traits I learned from it.)

  4. Whether I’ve plotted a book ahead of time or not, I most often find that I need to just let go and write paragraphs or entire scenes or even chapters to clarify the backstory for myself, then go through later and remove all but the most essential parts. Sometimes it comes easily and you get some real gems. Sometimes it’s tough to get just the right backstory details. But that’s part of the fun and challenge of writing.

    • Indeed, BK. One of the exercises I teach is the “page-long sentence.” You write for five minutes without stopping, one long, run-on sentence. You can do this for backstory, for emotion, for description…really any part of your story. It’s a great way to break through. And you’re right, it’s fun.

  5. Excellent, Jim, as always.

    For me, getting to know a character is like getting to know a person in real life. There are first impressions (good and esp. bad!) then slowly more info about them comes out, secret by secret.

    Your technique of “interviewing” a character really works for me. Plus unexpected discoveries are great fun.

    • I think that’s King’s approach, Debbie. He “meets” his character as he writes, then lets the character reveal himself as he goes along. We do the same thing with an “interview.” I love it when new things just “pop up” from the “boys in the basement.”

  6. Fantastic post as always, Jim. Interviewing characters is a lot of fun, too. No matter how much planning I’ve done beforehand my characters never fail to zig instead of zag. 🙂

    • Don’t you love that, Sue? I’m sure this has happened to you, but I was once writing a scene where I’d planned for the wife to leave the house and go somewhere safe, while her husband stayed to fight it out. But as I wrote, she refused to leave! Just refused. So I let her stay, and the book got better.

  7. I love writing voice journals…it’s a creative outlet as well as a craft technique.

    Here’s an excerpt from a voice journal for my WIP, No Tomorrows. It’s Mr. Gruber, the neighbor of the MC, Annie. I’d been wondering what had happened to his little girl, so I asked him. All he’d told Annie in 20 years of being neighbors was that she’d died.

    Here’s what he told me, taken from the day he told his wife if she wanted a baby, he was ready now:

    So I told her one day. Four months later, I found a pacifier by my breakfast plate. Eight months after that, Rosie Grace was born. She was the most perfect baby ever born. Spittin’ image of Jean, right down to her blonde hair, light blue eyes, and small hands and feet. And the first time she looked at me, my heart was lost. I could barely stand to leave her to go to work. I hurried home every night and took over her care while Jean fixed dinner and cleaned up. After work was Rosie Grace and Daddy time. I couldn’t get enough of her.

    She lived for five years.

    I’ll never forget the way the light left Jean’s eyes the moment the trauma doctor came to the waiting room shaking his head. There was just too much damage, he said. She never had a chance.

    I threw her mangled tricycle in the dumpster at work the next day. Didn’t take any time off. Why should I? There was nothing to go home to—Jean never did come home from the emergency room. Oh, she was there, her body drifting about the house, dusting, straightening, cooking. But Jean was somewhere else—in the grave with Rosie Grace, I suspect. Then she died in her sleep one night. She coughed once in her sleep and was gone for good the next morning.

    I sit on my porch now and watch the world go by. I have no interest in it. They can fight their wars, take their drugs, build their empires. It has nothing to do with me. I’m waiting to see Jean and Rosie Grace again. Then maybe something will matter to me again.

  8. Thanks for this post, Jim. Just what I needed. I’ve been focusing on improving characterization. Someone had mentioned King’s “The Stand” when the pandemic was taking off. I had read none of King’s novels, so decided to give it a try. When I started reading, I was blown away. Not only did he get into the character’s head and stay there, he explored every nook and cranny. By halfway through the book I was getting depressed and set it aside. I think I’ll go back and finish it.

    I would add my recommendation to those above about reading “Writing Unforgettable Characters.” I’ve been through it once. Now I’m making a second pass with a highlighter, red pen, and a corner-folding finger. Thanks for a great book to add to our craft library.

    • Thanks, Steve, for the good word. Yeah, when writing a big, sprawling, multi-protag novel, you’ve got to make sure each and every character is fully formed and vital. Koontz did that with a book called STRANGERS. Dickens did that with all his books!

  9. I’m glad you used his short story as an example. I think King is one of the all-time great short story writers. I’m not a fan of his novels anymore because of their length; nothing against him, I just personally like to read 50,000 word pulp novels. I’m currently working my way through C.J. Box’s entire Joe Pickett series and these novels, though awesome, have a bit too much filler. In fact, I can’t think of a 400-page novel that didn’t have some side story fluff. I think the big publishers demand a certain length and that inspires the flashbacks, side characters, and other stuff I see most bestselling authors include. (Side note: reading the current Romeo book and it hits the sweet spot in terms of length).

    • Well thanks, Philip, for the nice shoutout for Romeo. Re: King, I agree about his short stories and novellas. The latter make for the best movie adaptations, e.g., Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption.

  10. Wonderful post, Jim. It really hit home.

    Seven years ago I moved over to the “outlining side” of the writing force, helped in no small part a few months later by your “Write Your Novel From the Middle.” But, even with advance planning, I still discover the depths of my characters as I write them. Your post today reminds me that, when it comes to characters as well as plot, writing fiction is a back and forth between my conscious and subconscious.

    I’ve been writing my current novel (working title, “Death Due”) steadily, but slowly. Digging into deep back story will both deepen it, and loosen things up for me. Thank you for that, and all the other insights and inspirations you’ve sent our way 🙂

    • You put it exactly right, Dale. …writing fiction is a back and forth between my conscious and subconscious. You develop a sense of when to “let go” and that’s where much of joy comes from. There’s also joy in getting results from plain old hard work and keyboard clacking!

  11. Chico is based on Dominican-born Sammy Sosa who said, “Baseball has been very, very good to me.” So “very” sounded like “berry.”

    A good character walks onto the page fully formed with a past and walks away at the end with the reader wanting to know what will happen to him in the future because the author made him care about the character. If the author does a great job, the reader will have a good idea what the character will do.

    I have always created my characters for what they need to do in the plot and theme. Once I have all that information in my head and I have cast her, the character is formed enough to walk confidently onto the page, and my subconscious takes over with the extras. During the first read of the finished manuscript, I’m floored by what my subconscious has added. The hero loves music, but he hums rather than sings to himself. Later, he mentions that his negligent mother was a Broadway musical star. “So that’s why he refuses to sing!” I think to myself. I use that info during the rewrite to add more layers to the character.

    • You’re thinking of Manny Mota (Sammy was just a baby when Chico was “born”). We Dodger fans love Manny, the greatest pinch hitter of all time.

      Yes, when you have a done the preliminary character work, we can trust the subconscious to provide those “extras.” Don’t you love it when they surprise you in a completely justified way?

        • Intrigued, I did a little research. It appears that Sammy adopted Chico’s expression in the 90s as a joke. That would make King’s use of the expression even more timely. Interesting rabbit trail. Thanks for finding it.

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