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.
Kimberly 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.