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Craft: Backstory Without the Whole Story

Craft: Back­sto­ry With­out the Whole Sto­ry


Back­sto­ry can be a tricky sub­ject when writ­ing short sto­ries, espe­cial­ly in the realm of fan­ta­sy. An author must bal­ance the amount of world­build­ing and back­sto­ry he or she pro­vides so as not to over­whelm the read­er, while also pro­vid­ing all of the nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion to allow the read­er to prop­er­ly under­stand the sto­ry. Alli­son Pang man­ages to bal­ance back­sto­ry with cur­rent events in her short sto­ry “A Duet of Dark­ness,” fea­tured in the recent col­lec­tion Carniepunk. Using Pang as a mod­el, it becomes clear that a good way for writ­ers to bal­ance back­sto­ry in a short sto­ry is to weave it in through­out the entire­ty of the tale and focus on key details of char­ac­ter and his­to­ry so that it gives the read­er suf­fi­cient infor­ma­tion with­out weigh­ing them down in the past. First, I will show how Pang uses these tech­niques, and then I will talk about how fan­ta­sy writ­ers can use Pang’s tech­niques in their own sto­ries.

“A Duet with Dark­ness” by Alli­son Pang is a short sto­ry that tells the sto­ry of a prodi­gy vio­lin­ist with synes­the­sia, Melanie St. James, and Nobu, a fall­en angel she’s made a deal with. The pair is cur­rent­ly in a band along­side an incubus, Brys­tion, and a were­wolf, Mar­cus. Melanie is an amaz­ing vio­lin­ist and she knows it. This caus­es many prob­lems for her in the band. They want to work togeth­er while she would pre­fer to shine solo. When the group attends a spe­cial fes­ti­val for fae, demons, angels, and oth­er myth­i­cal beings of the world, Melanie is drawn to the tent they will be per­form­ing in. There she meets a man called Nick who plays such beau­ti­ful music that Melanie sees it as the most allur­ing gold she’s ever seen. The pair have a face off and, despite her tal­ent and abil­i­ty, Melanie los­es. Nick offers to let her try his vio­lin and she plays a lit­tle before he snatch­es it back. Lat­er, Melanie has a fight with her band­mates, and Nobu and Brys­tion get into a phys­i­cal fight. In the chaos, Melanie’s vio­lin is crushed, and she refus­es to per­form with the band. The show is going to go on any­way, and Melanie decides to watch. Nick is there once again and he offers to let her bor­row anoth­er vio­lin of his so she can steal the spot­light. She does and plays an amaz­ing song but does not real­ize what she has done. She dis­cov­ers she may have acci­den­tal­ly sold her soul to the Dev­il because of her pride­ful nature. In her ear­li­er bat­tle, she faced the Devil’s Vio­lin­ist Nicolò Pagani­ni and her abil­i­ty to use his spe­cial vio­lin drew the Dev­il, Nicoló’s mas­ter, to her. He appears to her and demands she make a con­tract with him. Melanie is ter­ri­fied until Nobu appears and pro­tects her: “The prick­le of pride is some­thing that must be borne. Your sin is now mine” (Pang 237). He takes her sin of pride into him­self and makes a deal in her stead. Melanie is, how­ev­er, still tied to the Dev­il, and she knows she can­not escape him for­ev­er.

Pang pro­vides a wealth of back­sto­ry in few words by uti­liz­ing tech­niques of weav­ing sum­ma­ry, quick flow, and key details. For exam­ple, she begins by eas­i­ly weav­ing Melanie’s back­sto­ry into the short sto­ry. By using the ever-present asset of Melanie’s synes­the­sia, Pang is able to dip back into Melanie’s past while tying it to the cur­rent goings on:

But [synethe­sia] also makes me far more sen­si­tive when things are played off-key. Years upon years of train­ing, always search­ing for per­fec­tion. To suf­fer the indig­ni­ty of any­thing less was anath­e­ma. One doesn’t get into Jul­liard on “almost good enough,” after all. (Pang 210)


This sec­tion pro­vides the turn­ing point to jump even far­ther back in time. Melanie goes on to explain how she joined the band, and the sec­tion of back­sto­ry drifts back into the present as eas­i­ly as it slipped into the past. “Before we’d joined the band, Nobu and I busked togeth­er on the streets…But it was easy, the two of us mesh­ing with a sim­ple grace that filled me with joy. Join­ing the band changed all that” (Pang 210). Not only does Pang pro­vide back­sto­ry in these sen­tences, she shows the cur­rent state of the band as well. It shows Melanie’s per­cep­tion from both the past and present by con­trast­ing them. These past sec­tions are quick, sum­ma­rized glimpses that do not slow down the action going on in the scenes around them.

Yes, “A Duet with Dark­ness” is Melanie’s sto­ry, told through her point of view and focus­ing on her pride; there­fore, her back­sto­ry could com­plete­ly dom­i­nate this tale; but Pang skill­ful­ly weaves it into the cur­rent events of the sto­ry­line. The sto­ries flow togeth­er in a way that does not detract from the events going on. Pang relates the events of past and present to show how things have changed and yet how they have not. She uses cur­rent band issues to segue into own prob­lems and pro­vide more depth to Melanie. She also uses Nobu and Melanie’s longer stand­ing rela­tion­ship to pro­vide some more details. When Nobu teas­es Melanie say­ing “If your moth­er could only see you now” (212), Melanie is then allowed to think back on her moth­er in the next sec­tion: “My mouth com­press­es into a bit­ter smile. My moth­er would be aghast at how her lit­tle prodi­gy had escaped her, eschew­ing Jul­liard for lessons learned upon the road” (212). By plac­ing these times side by side, Pang shows Melanie’s his­to­ry while also show­ing how she has changed. The bal­ance of past and present helps the read­er get a truer sense of the char­ac­ter, how she has changed and how she is going to change in the short sto­ry.

Pang also pro­vides hints and clues to the back­grounds of the oth­er char­ac­ters. For exam­ple, she uses one sen­tence to pro­vide a wealth of infor­ma­tion on the char­ac­ter of Mar­cus: “He’s in human form, com­plete with jeans and a wool skull­cap, but there’s a fer­al gleam in the werewolf’s eye when he rais­es a brow at us” (210). Here, she pro­vides a good pic­ture of Mar­cus for the read­er using only a sen­tence: he is not human but has a human form, he is wear­ing a cer­tain out­fit that serves to show his per­son­al­i­ty, and there’s some­thing fer­al about him despite his human­i­ty. These quick glimpses pro­vide infor­ma­tion about Nobu, Brys­tion, and the wealth of oth­er myth­i­cal beings that appear in the work. She relies on more estab­lished types of beasts that can already con­jure a cer­tain image in the mind of the read­er — things like faeries, fall­en angels, demons, incu­bi and were­wolves. When she does devi­ate from tra­di­tion­al ideas of char­ac­ters, she makes sure to note it. She notes that Nobu is a “fall­en angel — a sin-eater, to be spe­cif­ic” (Pang 211). It’s a sim­ple detail, but after see­ing what hap­pens to Melanie lat­er on it becomes very impor­tant.

All Pang needs is a sen­tence to show the dif­fer­ences of these crea­tures. She does not waste time going into every detail of their indi­vid­ual mag­ics or spe­cial abil­i­ties. She uses key details that are gen­er­al­ly rec­og­niz­able to her tar­get audi­ence to dis­tin­guish her mag­i­cal beings.

For many writ­ers, back­sto­ry can slip them up. It is often dif­fi­cult to tell what should be includ­ed and what might not be need­ed, espe­cial­ly when work­ing with­in the con­fines of a short sto­ry. Pang’s tech­niques pro­vide a good ground­work for writ­ers to emu­late and use with­in their own writ­ing.

Sum­ma­ry spread through­out the open­ing sec­tions of the prose can give the read­er a lot of use­ful infor­ma­tion with­out bog­ging down the nar­ra­tive too much. It is impor­tant not to throw too much infor­ma­tion at the read­er at once about things that hap­pened pri­or to the sto­ry. But some­times that con­text might be need­ed because the sto­ry is start­ing post-incit­ing inci­dent. Here is where the idea of weaved sum­ma­ry comes in. You have to sneak it into the prose with a line of lead up and a line lead­ing out so that the back­sto­ry does not dis­tract so much as inform. It is sim­i­lar to includ­ing a half scene in a larg­er work. You have to intro­duce the half scene with a line to indi­cate you are mov­ing back in time. For exam­ple I used the fol­low­ing: “She hadn’t been able to stop him then.” This line might lead into a short scene that shows the read­er how the main char­ac­ter failed to stop her friend from doing some­thing hor­rid. Then at the end there needs to be a line show­ing that the read­er has come back to the present; for exam­ple, “With that mis­take on her shoul­der like her own per­son­al dev­il, she knew she couldn’t let him suc­ceed this time.” An exam­ple of both a lead in and lead out line from “A Duet with Dark­ness” comes dur­ing a quick sec­tion of sum­ma­ry that tells of Melanie and Nobu’s hard­er life before they joined the band. The sec­tion begins with “before we’d joined the band…” and ends with “join­ing the band changed all that” (Pang 210). These quick lines serve as book­ends for the sec­tion and serve to pull the read­er into the past and out of it with­out tak­ing the focus away from Melanie and the band.

In terms of decid­ing which sum­ma­ry to include, it may help to lay out key details about the char­ac­ters or sit­u­a­tion. Writ­ers must con­sid­er which things are impor­tant and which of those impor­tant things needs to be elab­o­rat­ed on in sum­ma­ry. By hav­ing a list, a writer can make sure they touch upon key items that will help the sto­ry make the most sense to the read­er.

Key details can be uti­lized with­in sum­ma­ry but they can also act as their own tool. Details by them­selves can be mixed into the rest of the sto­ry more thor­ough­ly to cre­ate a bet­ter sense of char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties and back­sto­ries. They can be sprin­kled through­out the sto­ry to act as keys, reminders or iden­ti­fiers. They can also serve to remind the read­er of impor­tance.

There may also be ques­tion of rep­e­ti­tion. How many times should some­thing be repeat­ed in a sto­ry to make sure the read­er does not for­get it? We as writ­ers can remem­ber all the details about a char­ac­ter but the read­er, who is not near­ly as close to the work as we are, may miss some­thing if they do not see its impor­tance. If you have a were­wolf char­ac­ter, for exam­ple, but he is in human form for the entire­ty of the sto­ry, the read­er may for­get about his wolf side. But if it is impor­tant to know the char­ac­ter is a were­wolf, the writer should be sure to include mul­ti­ple, spread out ref­er­ences to that fact. This depends on the length of the sto­ry, as a two-page short sto­ry might not call for such call­backs to detail.

One of the impor­tant things to remem­ber with details, though, is that the more var­ied they are the more appeal­ing they will be to read­ers. To sim­ply say “the were­wolf” over and over will get across the point that the char­ac­ter is not human but it becomes repet­i­tive, and the read­er may feel a bit talked down to. Men­tion­ing some­thing like “if he had his tail, it would be wag­ging” or “his abun­dance of body hair hint­ed it was almost his time of the month” can show the impor­tance of his non-human her­itage while also keep­ing the writ­ing flow­ing.

With both sum­ma­ry and details, it is impor­tant not to break the flow of the sto­ry. Sum­maries should be pro­vid­ed in quick sec­tions that do not dom­i­nate the text. A quick flow of details that does not slow down the reader’s eye, unless the writer wish­es the read­er to slow, pro­vides a more intrigu­ing sto­ry.

Back­sto­ry is often impor­tant to a sto­ry but writ­ers can­not let it dom­i­nate the sto­ry. In “A Duet with Dark­ness,” Pang shows how an author can write past and present beside one anoth­er with­out let­ting the past over­come the present. As writ­ers, we have to fig­ure out which pieces of infor­ma­tion are the most impor­tant for the read­er to know and we need to present them in a way that does not take away from the rest of the work. Using quick bits of sum­ma­ry to pro­vide half scenes or descrip­tions of back­sto­ry, writ­ers can estab­lish impor­tant past events with­out dis­tract­ing from the ongo­ing sto­ry. By plac­ing spe­cif­ic details about char­ac­ters, places or events with­in the rest of the sto­ry the writer can bet­ter estab­lish the world and peo­ple of the sto­ry.


Pang, Alli­son. “A Duet with Dark­ness.” Carniepunk. New York City: Gallery, 2013. 208–41. Print.


KimCallan.jpgKim­ber­ly Callan is a fic­tion writer purs­ing her M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Rose­mont Col­lege. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a YA Nov­el, and often dab­bles in poet­ry and short sto­ries. She loves all things demon­ic, mytho­log­i­cal, mag­i­cal and fairy tale.

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