Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lewis and Clark, backstory, agreement, and stuff

Lewis (Meriwether) and Clark(William)--two army officers selected by Thomas Jefferson to lead an 1803 discovery, mapping, and ethnography expedition through the northwestern corridor of North America. Although they did not specifically "discover" or encounter a supposed Northwest Passage, they returned with an inspirational amount of useful materials as well as a splendid written record of their travels, in the process becoming an inspiration for writers. A story teller sets forth through a particular landscape, often with a particular goal in mind. 

 Never mind that more often than not, the writer does not achieve the intended goal; mind instead the ancillary discoveries made by the writer, discoveries about the landscape, the characters, and the human condition. Setting forth on a story, even one well-plotted in advance, may lead to unanticipated discoveries that inform the final result to its betterment.

With Capt. Lewis and Lt. Clark in metaphoric mind, the writer sets forth in anticipation of some discovery. Similarly, readers embark on a story, being led by clues and events to expect in the payoff a satisfying discovery.


backstory--the relevant personal history shaping the behavior, outlook, and expectations of each character in a story; the relevant events and understanding inherent in a character before that character steps into a scene. In some cases, the character may be unaware of backstory events, have a flawed or romanticised vision of them, thus leading the character to search for the truth. 

 In yet other cases, the character may be in a state of denial over events which may have taken place. And in what has become a sub-genre, the major goal of discovery for a character suffering from amnesia is the search for his or her own backstory. (Check Richard Powers' remarkable The Echo Maker for an investigation of how backstory informs identity.)

For conventional and practical purposes, a story is deemed to be taking place in the immediate present. In the case of historically based narrative, the story is seen as transporting the reader back to that specified time, then taking place as though in the immediate present. In both cases, back story is the past information the reader needs to know about the life of one or more characters. As an extreme example, even the reference, Mary and Kitty had been roommates as undergraduates at Smith, qualifies as backstory.

Additional convention: Based on the construct of backstory being past history, a story should be more than fifty percent in the present, otherwise the writer is well advised to begin and possibly to end the narrative in a different place.

Not all narratives require backstory as a necessary condition, but just as we assume every person we meet has a backstory, we will assume that every character, even the unfortunate protagonist in Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," has emerged on the page with a backstory.


agreement--a dramatic condition in which characters appear to hold the same opinion, the opperant word here being "appear." Conventionally, the appearance of agreement between characters is a signal to expect the conflict of disagreement, exacerbated perhaps by the "I changed my mind" defense. Similarly, characters who are comfortable with situations in which they find themselves, thus in agreement with the status quo, are seen by the reader as a ticking time bomb, prior to the explosion of rebellion. In stories where leadership and loyalty are significant issues, a protagonist may come to suspect too much agreement from his or her underlings.

Agreement is a force that brings dramatic narrative to a screeching halt unless it is used in a manner that provokes tension, as in how long the agreement will continue. Agreement also provokes irony as a result of some characters seeing it as a much desired goal, only to discover later how being in a relationship of any sort that relies too heavily on it provokes suspicion of unrest or tension.

In any case, when characters agree, watch out.


canary in the mineshaft, the--a sacrificial testing device used to warn against gasses potentially injurious to humans, thus a character involved in a tenuous or perilous situation, used to signal similar danger to front-rank characters. If the reader sees the canary character falling victim to a danger, the reader will become apprehensive when a front-rank character appears to be placed in a similar spot.


subtext--the space between what a character says in a situation and what the character actually feels about the situation; a means of importing irony into a situation; a condition of implication by which the reader is able to discern the true feeling of one character at the expense of another.

There are myriad motivations for subtext, including the stretching of the truth to avoid hurting someone's feelings, transgressing the boundaries of propriety, not wanting to be caught disagreeing with a potential benefactor, seduction, and salesmanship. Some of these motives are noble, others ignoble, thus a character shown being noble in his or her subtextual commentary will convey to the reader added dimension of that character.

One of the more memorable examples of subtext resonates through John Lardner's reminiscence of his famed writer-father, Ring Lardner, noted as well for his tippling and thus frequent hangovers. Describing a Sunday morning family outing in the family car when the elder Lardner, obviously suffering from the previous night's carouse, was having difficulty finding his way. John Lardner recalls one of his siblings asking, "Are we lost, Daddy?" perhaps one time too many. Then Lardner Pere's reply. "Shut up," he explained.

A remarkable example of the terrain where subtext may blend into theme is found in the Annie Proulx novel, The Shipping News. In a published interview, Ms. Proulx spoke of having been drawn to a book being offered among the items of a garage sale. The book, long out of print and in the public domain, described how to tie various knots, their very names and uses a wrenching pull of nostalgia for the days when securing meant using rope, twine, or string. 

 After considerable thought, Ms. Proulx used brief descriptions of the knots as chapter epigrams for The Shipping News. She did not, however, refer to the knots or their names in the text, nor did her characters make reference to knots or knot tieing. Nevertheless, having read these intriguing epigrams, the reader was drawn into the game of looking closely at the text of each chapter to see if the particular knot opening the chapter had any subtext reference to the portrayed events. Human relationships frequently take on the design complexity of knots, an awareness that encourages the reader to thoughtful reflection about subtext and theme.

Post a Comment