Novels Obsess over the Past

Novels Obsess over the PastAccording to our favourite writing coach, novels obsess over the past. At his most recent writers’ summit, Daniel David Wallace argued that the art form of the novel is the most reliant on the past.

He argues the past is essential to the characters’ backstories. And backstory is essential to deep character. Or so we’re told.

It makes a certain sense. The past contains so many secrets and revelations. In the Western tradition of psychoanalysis, all of our present behaviours stem from our past. We understand our past, we comprehend our present and can make plans for the future. That’s how 99% of literary fiction novels work.

Even Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker) contains a lot of backstory; the Longbourne inheritance looms in the background. Wickham’s childhood and the near-elopment with Darcy’s sister colors the present.

It doesn’t always work. Stand by while I dare to berate Dickens. Great Expectations is a World View story presented via the Mystery genre. Pip is actually a poor protagonist. A defective detective, Pip is a passenger taken on a tour of everyone else’s backstory. And boy there’s a lot of it. All of it in the past.

Great Expectations consists of layers and layers of backstory. All done and dusted. Without the mystery wrapper, it’s inert.

How we do things

In the Western tradition, all those layers of backstory build the depth of character; they contribute to the character’s core wound. The problem is this: if so much of the book is stuck in the past, where’s the present? Where’s the focus? What does the reader have to look forward to?

A Fistful of the Present

Tangent story coming up… In the original script for A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s man with no name delivers a page of dialoge after he rescues Marisol’s family. Eastwood cut it to “I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.” Two lines. That’s it. Sergio Leone left it that way. Eastwood’s character lives in the present. A fully formed defender/protector archetype, he has little use for the past. The past lives of Mortimer and El Indio dominate the sequel For a Few Dollars More. It slows the whole movie. Eastwood, as always lives in the present.

Forward thinking

Daniel’s solution for too much past? Draft the novel with the next big character turning point in mind. Concentrate on the decision to go do the next thing.

His three-act structure looks like this:

  • Act I Accept the mission.
  • Act 2 Suffer a reversal – make a new plan.
  • Act 3 Dark night of the soul /rise to the challenge.

Look Back in Anger

Although I try to drip-feed Jovanka’s backstory throughout my fantasy series, her past is key to her inner conflict. In The Sixth Messenger, the past is the prison that Aeryn must escape in order to complete her transformation journey. Both of them look back in anger and have to learn to look forward in hope. While I can find Daniel’s structure in each of my books, I can also see a lot of past. Unlike Pip, my protagonists have to own their past. It’s far from inert. So yes, my novels obsess over the past, but the present marches on to ever increasing stakes. How about yours?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *