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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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