Learning where to begin a story
I’ll never forget Colm Tóibín’s presentation almost ten years ago at the bookstore Politics & Prose, preceding his reading of the novel, BROOKLYN. He said he he’d forbidden his writing students to use flashback. This remonstration was partly what influenced him to write BROOKLYN in a straight linear fashion. If you read the book, you’ll note that not a single flashback, not one dip into backstory, informs the entire narrative. Before seeing his presentation and learning about this structural choice he’d made, I had noticed that there was, in this writing, a curious sense of unfolding awareness, of being very present, always, in what was happening at the moment—a Zen kind of narrative—that at times made me wonder what was it we were missing knowing about the character before we met her on that first page, and also, ultimately why it didn’t seem to matter that she seemed to have no backstory. I thought it was because she was a rather unformed person, a young girl of habit and routine so rigid that nothing much happened to her until the book began, and though this was true, to understand that it was a deliberate choice on the author’s part to not use flashback was fascinating.
I think about the many times that teachers and editors and I myself have said to writers and students that the story actually begins somewhere other than where the writing begins. Sometimes the story begins before the moment presented in the first few pages of the writing, sometimes several chapters later. Sometimes, the very end should be considered the beginning. And I’ve heard the criticism about prologues: that they are a bad excuse for not knowing where the story really begins. I had a prologue in my first novel, and it was among the first things that went when I began receiving rejections as I queried agents. The parts of the prologue that were important to the story were inserted later in the narrative when that information would help move the story forward.
These thoughts converge at the end of a week where I’ve lingered for five days in writing a single moment. My young Korean protagonist stands before a fruit bowl, tempted to steal a banana, something she has never tasted before. I’ve moved from the lovely sunlit room in which the fruit bowl sits on a tabletop, to the backstory about her once tasting a banana-flavored ice-pop, and the circumstances around that story involving an American soldier at a military base in Seoul. And another backstory about how she ended up living near the military base, and then an extended other story about her knowledge of the concept of sin and her family situation. And the questions that rise from these backstories seem to call for more backstory to show how her mother, who lives in America . . . and so on.
Five pages later, she is still standing by the fruit bowl, thinking about stealing that banana. This morning, brushing my teeth and thinking about how I was brushing my teeth while also thinking about the world of my story, I realized that the section I’m writing has nothing to do with the actual moment that she considers the banana, but, in the way that brushing my teeth is a way for me to begin my day, it was a way for me to enter into the real story that is comprised of all the backstory I had written while she studied that banana. I needed to start my story much earlier, even though I wanted to avoid a linear chronology and the consequence of having her be so young at the beginning of the book.
Perhaps all I need is a sentence that says she’d never before tasted a banana, or perhaps the circumstances that made her never taste a banana is the story that precedes her standing in front of that fruit bowl. The point is there are times when a sentence or two of backstory or a quick flashback will bring the needed depth and understanding into a moment, but when backstory and flashback overcome the forward movement of plot, its insertion is defeating the story. I think this is all a part of knowing who my character is and what makes her tick, and then deciding how much I need to explain to readers about what is motivating her to steal the banana. If it’s five pages while she’s standing by a fruit bowl, I’m pretty sure my story doesn’t begin there.