Untold Backstory — some notes

The evolution of this piece surprised me (link). It started just as an experiment to see how difficult it might be to write a few paragraphs making connections that were actually idiotic and not connected at all, but in a tone that seemed realistic and authoritative.

This interests me because I admire the way Frank Herbert was able to evoke spectacularly elaborate but solidly plausible motivations, backstory, cultural history, international intrigue, etc., without ever quite defining these past events his characters were reacting to. In a vaguely similar way, John Fowles creates connections and implications in The Magus without ever quite specifying anything. One believes that sufficient information is available, even if it doesn’t happen to appear in the novel. This is a wonderful subterfuge…

At first, writing the Backstory piece seemed quite easy, and the first few coincidences were obviously arbitrary and irrelevant. But then the tone of the piece began to win me over, even as the writer, and it got increasingly difficult not to tie things back in realistic ways. I had to force myself to break the logical thread over and over — the thing kept trying to make sense!

At the end, I decided to loop back in a completely unjustifiable meaningless way to the first character mentioned (David Vivian). The idea was to make a connection so ridiculous that the reader would realize once and for all that the whole chain of connections just sounded like connections while in reality (did I say reality?) they were utterly irrelevant to one another.

Unfortunately, the tone of presumed authority was too effective, and even starkly pointless connections come across as weirdly logical. So what if the guy sitting next to her has nothing to do with the story — and how could we possibly know what he does — and the author isn’t even vaguely justifying any of this crap…. ?

But the majority of readers or listeners I’ve discussed it with feel that they’ve heard a reasonable tale of coincidences, much like those science history programs on TV. If I don’t tell them in advance that it’s a big irrational bowl of spaghetti, they almost always end up thinking, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” Which means that as a writer, my original intent of the piece is an utter failure. (Plus, it’s not really funny at all unless you’re into the irony of tone overshadowing content. And even then it’s not very funny.)

I think what this exercise reveals is that humans connect everything. I don’t think I could write something like this that is sufficiently illogical for people not to connect everything. I think I could pull a series of random events out of 20 novels and stick them together without any continuity at all, and people would find order and connections throughout the whole mashup.

It makes it a lot easier to understand why so many people get hooked by vast implausible conspiracy theories — just string together a handful of assertions, whether or not they’re individually proven, and even if they’re not even logically relevant. If the tone is one of proving something, then a high percentage of readers will honor the proof.

For a fiction writer, rather than a propagandist, the positive outcome of this exercise came from learning how hard it is to prevent intentionally unrelated events from turning into a real story. Like the Mafia bit around the middle of the piece — damned if that wasn’t turning into a Damon Runyon tale, in spite of my concerted efforts to keep it illogical and inexcusably random.

So now I’m considering writing a novel this way — just write a bunch of random scenes, focusing on the content of each scene, and let the “plot” go wherever it wants. No plot. Hah! I don’t think it would be possible for it to end up with no plot. But the beauty of it is that I’ll have little or nothing to do with the plot until it’s emerged on its own, and it will be fascinating to see what turns out to be.

Addendum: Years after posting this, a fleshed-out rendition appeared. It was first published in Brain Frieze, under this title, but the latest revision has it renamed as “Mobius Trip.”

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