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Subtext: The Art of Backstory

By K.M. Weiland

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Sometimes the most powerful writing isn’t so much about what’s said as what isn’t said.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

As writers, it’s easy for us to become accustomed to peeking into random characters’ minds. One of the thrills of writing stems from the ability we authors have to be “all-knowing” within the scope of our story worlds. Unlike real life, where we sometimes (make that often) struggle to understand the opinions, emotions, and needs of those around us, in writing we have the power to understand everything. I know why my characters react in sometimes unexpected and seemingly irrational ways. I know their histories, and I know their futures. I never have to wonder why they think or act; I just know.

As storytellers, it is our jobs to share this omniscience of ours with the readers. After all, that’s why we read, right? To find out how and why the characters are going to react. And, indeed, that’s why we write: to share our characters’ experiences, emotions, and opinions with our readers in a way they can understand, commiserate with, and perhaps be empowered by.

But does that mean we should spill everything we know?

Beyond the obvious explanation that readers don’t want to know everything (who cares if the bad guy has an ingrown toenail or how the main character’s best friend happened to purchase his VW Bug?), sometimes the secret to punching up a scene, adding layers of meaning, and accurately mimicking reality, is to leave out certain details. But that (surprise, surprise) is easier said that done.

Hemingway was a master of what is now referred to as the “iceberg principle.” In fact, he took the art of subtext to a level of his own, often expunging everything from his narratives but the bare bones and leaving readers to glean all the facts merely from the characters’ actions and dialogue. Although not everyone appreciates Hemingway’s sparse style, he was undeniably able to create a vibrant sense of immediacy and reality in his stories.

Subtext and subtlety share more than just their first three letters. They are, in fact, interchangeable. If you find yourself trying to create subtlety in a scene, what you’re actually doing is working with the intricacies of subtext. And, if you consciously try to puff up your subtext, the not-so-subtle tool of subtlety becomes your chief utensil.

Those seven-eighths of the iceberg floating under the water are the ballast for the tiny bit that juts up to glisten in the sun. And, more often than not, those seven-eighths are almost entirely composed of one of the most important—and yet sometimes overlooked—facets of any tale. Backstory.

Backstory, of course, is basically self-explanatory. It’s the story that goes in back of the real story. The story before the story. The unseen history that informs all of your characters’ decisions and actions. As such, it’s understandably vital to the progression and consistency of your tale. Particularly during this modern trend of beginning stories in medias res (in the middle of things), a deep and full-bodied backstory is every whit as important as the story itself.

When I sit down to write a new story, I generally have a basic idea of the major plot points. I know who my heroes are, I know what they’re after, I know some of the things they’re going to have to accomplish to reach their goals. But my concept of who they are and what, in their individual pasts, has shaped them into the people I need them to be, is often foggy at best.

Before I can tell others my story, I have to tell myself its prequel. I begin writing my characters’ backstories with no other intention than that of figuring out where my story proper needs to go. But the exhilarating part of all this is that usually the backstory takes on a life of its own and transforms my previously shallow concept of my story into something much bigger. The little chunk of ice floating around in my imagination morphs into a looming iceberg.

Within backstory, we find the key motivating factors in our characters’ lives: the inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the Ender’s Shadow series by Orson Scott Card); the long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie The Patriot); the long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier). And, in some lucky instances, the backstory takes over completely, as in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

The key to crafting stories with many layers—stories with depth and ballast—is to never ignore the blank spaces in your characters. Don’t let them get away with telling you only what they must to make the story work. Search out the shadows in their pasts, discover their parents, their childhood friends, their catalysts. Don’t just accept that your main character is a cop; find out why he became a cop. Don’t just slap a scar on your heroine; discover where the scar came from.

At the same time, don’t forget that there’s a time and a place where backstory belongs—and a time and place where it doesn’t. Sometimes the only person who needs to know the backstory is the author. Vital as this information may be, don’t inflict it unnecessarily on your readers. The best backstories are those that influence without obstructing. Just like an iceberg, stories work best when the greater part of them remains submerged.

About K.M. Weiland

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

Screenwriting Article by K.M. Weiland

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