Back Story and Plot Structure

In Elmore Leonard’s second rule of good writing, he tells us to avoid prologues, because they’re annoying. “A prologue in a novel is backstory,” he says, “and you can drop it in anywhere you want.” I suppose he’s right, and although I don’t have any great prejudice against prologues, I do think they can appear gimmicky. However, I think Mr. Leonard was a bit cavalier when he said we could drop back story in anywhere we want.

Back story often supports the plot and even oftener develops character. Plots typically involve relationships between and among people, and quite often those relationships have existed for some time before the first page of the book. To know characters and situations that fuel the plot, we need to know what’s gone on in the past. People have already loved each other or hated each other since high school, oil was discovered on Tex’s ranch last year, or the Martians have for two centuries been intermarrying with Earthlings and our mutating genes are turning us purple.

These conditions need to be presented, but they can’t just be dropped in anywhere. “Oh, by the way, Blanche was in the wheelchair because thirty years ago, her sister Jane had crashed the Rolls Royce.” Too clumsy. Especially clumsy when it’s forced into dialogue: “As you well know, Lucinda Mae, Uncle Fortknox left the mansion to Peaches Davenport, and we’ve lived like paupers ever since.”

Yet these facts need to be presented. How do we do that gracefully?

In my first mystery, Play Melancholy Baby, the “present” plot is explained when we know what happened to Casey in Europe a few summers ago. The truth is (I’ve never confessed this before) the European episodes were cannibalized from an earlier novella that never got published but wouldn’t leave me alone. When I needed a motive for Casey to search for Dixie’s long-lost daughter Molly, I had the summer love affair ready to mine for plot. I presented those flashbacks in separate italicized chapters.

My second mystery, The Poet’s Funeral, is in a sense all flashback. The poet, Heidi Yamada, is already dead when the novel begins, and all the usual suspects have gathered to present their eulogies at her funeral. After each speech, the narrator, Guy Mallon, tells the truth about the speaker’s real relationship with Heidi. These memories are told in chronological order, each climaxing at a wild weekend in Vegas. By the end, Guy has figured out which of these colleagues poisoned Heidi in Elvis’s mansion, and why.

The plot of my most recent novel, Behind the Redwood Door, is supported by the history of a feud between the Websters and the Connollys, the two families who discovered, developed, and exploited the lumber-rich redwood forests of Jefferson County, California. To give this back story I interrupt the novel three times in three historical interludes. Sounds intrusive, but the history knits the present together and helps reveal who stabbed Pete Thayer in the throat out back of the Redwood Door Saloon.

In my new novel, Hooperman, to be published in November by Oak Tree Press, I’m presenting back story in a new way. The protagonist, Francis “Hooperman” Johnson works at a bookstore, where he falls in love and solves a crime. Hoop has issues. He is addicted to the love of books, and especially poetry. His new romance is in jeopardy because he’s still damaged by a bitter divorce from the love of his (former) life, the famous poet Jane Gillis. And Hooperman Johnson has a crippling stammer that gets in his way every time he talks. I present this novel in alternating chapters, braiding two separate plots. One plot covers just a few weeks in the summer of 1972, when Hoop is thirty years old. The other plot shows turning points throughout Hoop’s life, from age four to thirty. In the end of the book, the stories plots converge.

Here below is a brief excerpt from Hooperman, the first of the flashback chapters, in which we learn how Hooperman got his name.


ARC_Front_Cover_Hooperman copy




When Frankie Johnson was four years old, he took a safety pin from his mother’s sewing basket and pinned the end of a red towel around his neck, so that the towel hung down his back like a cape. Grinning, he paraded into the kitchen and said, “Mum mum Mommy.”

Clara turned from the sink and returned his grin.

“Hi, Frankie,” she said.

“I’m Hooperman!” he announced.

“Why so you are! That’s wonderful, sweetheart!”

Frankie shook his head, still grinning. “Nnn,duh,don’t cuh,cuh,call me Wheetheart, cuc,call me Hooperman!”

“Okay, Superman!” his mother said. She sat on the kitchen stool and held out her arms. “Will you still be my sweetheart, Superman?”


Frankie burst out the kitchen screen door and ran to the playground in the center of the apartment complex. “Hey!” he shouted to a dozen kids on swings and on the slide and in the sandbox and running around the lawn. “Hey! Look at mi,mi,mi,mmee! I’m Hooooperman!”


Five minutes later, when he shambled back through the kitchen door, he climbed onto his mother’s lap. She was still sitting on the stool. He snuffled, and she dried his tears, hiding her own.


“Jimmy O’Brien?”

“All of them! They muh,muh,meh,meh,make fuff… fuff…ff—!”

“I know, sweetheart. I know.”

He howled and squirmed.

“I know, Superman. I know it’s hard.”



2 Responses

  1. In the end of The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald says something about our boats “‘beating endlessly back into the past.” You make a point here that we can’t do without merging past with present in our books, and I agree. I like to weave the past through the narrative in a subtle manner–I think most of us do. It enriches the characters. In The Nightmare I began with a short prologue of artist Fuseli executing his erotic painting–fun to write. I love prologues! I don’t care what the critics say (though maybe this is my problem),

    • I like prologues, too, Nancy. Good prologues, anyway. And epilogues too. I don’t know why they’re out of fashion with critics and those who would presume to teach plot structure. As for the past, as Faulkner said, it’s not past.

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