A few weeks back, I read Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. It got me thinking about back story and how it fits into a novel. I’ve always been taught that the best novels bring back story out throughout the course of the book. The characters’ pasts are revealed through small details or the occasional flashback. This book fits into a category that used to be called “chick lit” and is now called “women’s fiction.” I don’t like either label, but I haven’t thought up a better one yet. Perhaps such books could be labeled “All the Back Story is Up Front.” Because that’s what I’ve noticed in books of this genre of late. There are four or more characters, usually women of different ages, and we learn about their entire lives at the beginning, including their pasts, their likes and dislikes, and their hopes for the future. Only after we have read a zillion pages of back story does the true story start.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Maine kept my interest, as I was curious about all the characters and where they came from, and the intertwining back stories eventually coalesced to form a sharp portrait of a family history. I didn’t love the ending, but that didn’t have anything to do with the way the book was structured. And apparently I was not the only one who wanted to read this book, because I waited on hold for it twice (the second time after I couldn’t renew it because there were holds).
Another book, not women’s fiction, that I enjoyed this year treats back story differently as well. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline starts with a chapter detailing what has happened in his fictional, futuristic world after the history we know. With the rise of gaming genius James Halliday, most everyone in the world spends the bulk of their time in a simulation called the OASIS. Halliday, the simulation’s creator, grew up in the eighties, and so pop culture in general revolves around the things he loved: War Games, Rush, Star Wars, and so on. The first chapter goes on to tell us about a contest Halliday left behind for OASIS players after he died, with the winner going on to win all of Halliday’s riches. With all this exposition at the front of the book, we eventually zoom in on the main character, Wade Watts, who tells us how he found the first key in the contest at the end of the first chapter. I loved this approach to back story. It gives you the context you need to enjoy the story, and after the first chapter, it is woven through in a traditional sense. (P.S. I loved this book so much that I wrote the author a fan letter. Seriously, it may be my favorite book of this year, and lands a place in my top ten.)
How do you like your back story? Does it matter how you get it if the storytelling is good?