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This is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

LitFest marches on. One more week of workshops, one more salon, one more participant reading, a big wrap-it-up finale with agents and editors, and a day of business panels to bring us back down to earth and we’re done. The problem with LitFest is that so much is happening at once that no one can possibly attend everything of interest. It reminds me of high school when I had to choose between auditioning for the school play, attending a meeting of peer mentors and showing up for powder puff football tryouts. I missed the powder puff football orientation and got assigned to a team with none of my closest friends, a great disappointment since I didn’t care at all about the actual game but felt compelled to participate nonetheless.

Did that little trip down memory lane bore the hell out of you? It’s okay to admit that it did. I’m yawning right now myself. Thanks to Doug Kurtz’s excellent workshop on “Backstory and Flashback,” I can now tell you why you’re bored to tears. If you’re still even reading this post, that is. I cannot blame you if you’ve moved on to more interesting entries. For those of you still with me, let me try to impart a bit of Kurtz’s wisdom regarding the use of Flashback, Backstory and Backflash (more on that later).

First, some definitions are in order.

  • Backstory: All the stuff that happened before the story begins, which has an impact on plot and character.
  • Flashback: Backstory that takes form and has the dynamic of a scene.
  • Backflash: Little dips into the past that don’t detract from the forward narrative.

The problem with backstory is that it often slows down the present story and leaves readers either skimming the info with impatience or prompts them to stop reading altogether. Neither are desirable outcomes. To avoid slowing down the narrative, Kurtz suggests asking some questions of any bit of backstory or flashback including: Is the material necessary to the story? Is it more important to the author than the reader? Is it revealed too soon?

The only good backstory is necessary backstory. Backstory has to be earned, it has to arise from the dynamics of the scene, it has to deepen the conflict and it has to do it all without crushing the forward momentum of the narrative. In other words, it is the author’s job to provide an occasion for necessary backstory and to get rid of any unnecessary backstory. If it fails on any level, cut it.

Random picture of iceberg. Imagine your manuscript as the part above the water.

I know, I know, cutting great swaths of a long manuscript is painful on many levels, but there is good news here. Just because the material is no longer literally on the page, doesn’t mean it isn’t on the page. What’s that, you ask? Kurtz points to Hemingway, who used the example of the iceberg to illustrate the importance of omission. The author knows that the character was a bully in grade school or once bit into a particularly bitter piece of pecan baked into his mother’s special Christmas divinity, but does not reveal those details as part of the narrative. Instead, the author uses his knowledge to inform the character’s choices and reactions to events in the present day narrative. For instance, the examples above might prompt a character to be overly assertive in the work place and to shun his girlfriend’s lovingly prepared pecan pie. In other words, the narrative that the reader sees is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the deeper stuff below the water that inform that narrative and make it compelling.

Flashback, Kurtz says, should be brief and rare or eliminated altogether. The only reason to include a flashback is if the reader cannot move forward in the present story without the flashback scene. Flashback must arise from the conflict of the present story, and must change the reader’s understanding of the present scene and character. Ask yourself, can this flashback be told as part of the present narrative? If so, you should probably do that.

Kurtz also touched on that touchiest of mundane craft issues–tense. Too many writers have an impulse to identify backstory by shifting tense. The use of the word “had” will not provide clarity for readers and further slows down the pacing of the narrative. The key is to ensure that the reader is firmly oriented in the past or the present. Orientation provides clarity. Kurtz suggests using sensory images as cues to start and end a piece of backstory or flashback, but points out that if the bit of backstory is earned and occasioned then there should be no confusion for the reader.

It’s a lot to think about and has me scouring my own work for unearned backstory and flashback. I could write another book, a cautionary tale, based on my shortcomings in the use of backstory. I haven’t made so many errors since a certain all-female sporting event, circa. 1987. (Did you spot the backflash in that last sentence?)

Anyway, I’m all about the forward motion, both on the page and in my LitFest activities. “What’s Fiction For” salon? Yes! End of LitFest par-tay? Yes! Business panels? Yes! There’s no turning back now.


About Tiffany Quay Tyson

Tiffany Quay Tyson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She was born and raised in Mississippi. THREE RIVERS, her debut novel, was a Colorado Book Award finalist and a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction. She is a 2016 Amtrak Resident. She is currently working on her second novel.

3 comments on “This is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

  1. megnix
    June 13, 2011

    Thanks Tiffany. This gives me both inspiration and dread to go back to my work to eliminate the past perfect tense and level with myself. I think I’m still realizing on my tenth draft how much information is interesting to me, but doesn’t matter to my readers. “Kill your darlings” doesn’t work until I admit to myself that some of them aren’t really darling at all. Snip snip!

    The powder puff football example, by the way, is not an example of uninteresting information 🙂 (Does Doug say anything about using double negatives?)

  2. andreadupree
    June 14, 2011

    Damn it, Kurtz. Yet another thing, besides “knowing what to leave out” to keep me working on the stories of the past few years for… well, eternity. Thanks, Tiffany, for yet another engaging and informative post. I beg to differ on the powder puff football tryouts. Did you actually tackle?

  3. Terry Everett
    June 14, 2011

    Tom Franklin handles these elements brilliantly in his recent novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. He begins the novel by plunging us in to a narrative for which we have insufficient background, but the novel ultimately satisfies in oh so many ways at the same time it grabs our attention in such a misleading way in the very first sentence.

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This entry was posted on June 13, 2011 by in LitFest, Member dispatches, Writing.

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