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Backstory: A Case Study (Koontz)

Last week I introduced the Biographical Priority Index. It’s the handy-dandy system we can use to rate elements of a character’s backstory based on whether and when to introduce them. Priority 1 information is stuff we need to introduce as soon as practical (note that says practical, not possible; it’s awkward if you force information into scenes where it doesn’t belong). Priority 2 information is stuff we need to know, but not right away. That includes plot twists and the release of suspended information, as well as less important info – more on that in a moment. Priority 3 stuff gets included, but it’s only for flavor. Priority 4 stuff is left out.

When I think of a book that handles backstory well, I’m a little surprised to find that a minor novel by Dean Koontz is the first one that comes to mind. Koontz is a typewriting machine. He hammers away at 5,000 words a day and publishes at a prodigious rate. That means many of his stories tend to get formulaic, though he produces some gems every now and again (I’ve mentioned the Odd Thomas series before as an example). His book The Good Guy has stuck with me. It’s an enjoyable read, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by the different priorities of information.

Avast, there be spoilers ahead! I’m just dealing with the protagonist here; there isn’t near enough time to deal with the anima’s (love interest’s) backstory, or with the antagonist’s (that guy’s a real piece of work, too).

Koontz does some really great things with metaphors. He opens up The Good Guy with a real doozie:

Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spider silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in flight.

At six feet three, weighing two hundred ten pounds, with big hands and bigger feet, Timothy Carrier could not maintain a profile as low as that of a skating mayfly, but he tried.

Am I right? We see that Timothy is a big guy in good shape. In character terms, we know instinctively that that probably means he’ll be called upon to accomplish physical feats of daring-do, so this is Priority 1 information to let us know what to expect from him. And notice that it’s not delivered like an ESPN stat. Koontz conveyed that info with class. It’s okay to spice up your descriptions every once in a while. We also see that he tries to maintain a low profile, which says a lot about his personality. Indeed, throughout most of the book, it’s obvious he’s done something or been somewhere, but he’s reluctant to say.

You may not know it yet, but that opening line also conveys a really great image of the theme of the book. Koontz paints us a picture of a tiny creature trying to hide from predators, then tells us that this is what Timothy wants but what he’s ultimately unable to have.

In fact, Timothy soon gets mistaken for a professional hitman and given a target to kill. He decides to try to help the target instead. He tells his friend Liam he’ll be gone without telling him why; then, in a great scene, he tells Liam’s wife, Michelle. Throughout the scene, we see that there’s definitely history here. Michelle has a glass eye and a prosthetic arm. What happened to her?

And then, toward the end of the scene, we get this exchange.

She seemed to hold tight to him, as if with ghost fingers, and she kissed the back of his hand.

“Thank you for Liam,” she said softly.

“God gave you Liam, not me.”

“Thank you for Liam,” she insisted.

There is Priority 1 information here. It’s that Tim at some level is responsible for Liam and Michelle being together. But that’s all the Priority 1 Koontz wants to give. It’s obvious that the rest is Priority 2. That’s what I meant earlier when I mentioned the release of suspended information. This scene suspends a big piece of backstory just out of sight. All that we’re given now is the present effect of that past event. That’s the best way to build up suspense regarding backstory. Show how that backstory affects your characters, but don’t show why until it’s necessary.

We really start to wonder about Tim’s past after he’s found the target (a pretty, available girl, of course) and is fleeing with her while the real hitman pursues them. After a brief car chase in which shots are exchanged, Tim gets out of the car and makes his stand in the middle of the street.

The glow of headlights bloomed, and a moment later the Chevy cut the corner.

Point-blank, at the risk of being run down, Tim squeezed off three shots, aiming not at the windshield, not at the driver’s-side window, but at the front tire as the car swept past him, fired two more rounds at the rear tire. He saw the front rubber deflate and peel, and maybe he got the back tire, too.

The pistol had a slick double-action trigger pull that felt like it broke at just about seven pounds.

The recoil-spring weight seemed to be about sixteen pounds, good enough for standard-pressure ammo.

The piece had felt remarkably comfortable in his grip.

He didn’t know what to think about that.

He told himself that not just any gun would have served him so agreeably, that the credit belonged entirely to this fine compact weapon, but he knew that he was lying to himself.

Okay, seriously, who is this guy? We know he has some kind of history he doesn’t like to talk about, and now all of a sudden he’s pretty darn handy with a handgun and he’s a total hoss in the face of an oncoming car. Again, Koontz leaves the backstory suspended. All we see is what effect the backstory has on the present, and that makes us wonder more and more about what it could be.

It’s the same effect as when you hold a dog biscuit just to the side of a dog’s head but tell him to wait. The dog continues to look at you, but you can see the muscles in his neck and jaw tense as he somehow manages to keep himself from snapping at your hand. That’s what you want to do to your readers.

Here’s the intriguing thing about The Good Guy. Normally the Great Reveal takes place right before the climax, so that the reader goes into the final moments of the story knowing who the character really is and what he’s taking into battle with him. It’s a solid enough plot device that it’s earned its place as a trope. But Koontz withholds the Priority 2 information until after the climax, after Tim takes out the real hitman. The thing is, in this case that’s okay. We know so much about Tim’s character (and the antagonist’s) that we have plenty of emotional need for the story to wrap up. Then it’s fine later, when the action has wound down, that we discover that Tim won the Medal of Honor in Iraq, that he saved dozens of fellow soldiers and civilians by demonstrating the ultimate courage under fire. Liam and Michelle were both soldiers under his command, explaining both her injuries and their romance. The effect is that we end the story nodding to ourselves, saying, “Yes, this makes sense.” It jives with what we already know.

I value The Good Guy because Koontz knows that he doesn’t have to throw the character’s history at you at the beginning. He waits to include it at the end. Tim’s Medal of Honor isn’t necessary for us to know who he is and what he’s about and to care about him. We care about him because we see him showing that same bravery in the present. Koontz is never shy about how Tim’s past affects him–we see it throughout the book–but that information absolutely takes priority over the backstory itself.

This article required three readthroughs.

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