Belt Buckles and Sad Songs
By Daniel Abiva Hunt •
When I first began writing seriously, I was obsessed with character histories. Nothing would make my character feel more real and fully formed than a detail-oriented past, I felt, and I would turn over every stone of every character’s life. I wrote long personal histories, packed with detail—which books my character loved, how an arm was broken in the fourth grade, the dandruff in a prom date’s hair. And then, having invented this character’s life, I would think: Why shouldn’t I include this rich history, these formative encounters, these defining moments? Isn’t that the purpose of flashback and backstory?
My ten-page story became a twenty-five-page story.
Of course, a twenty-five-page story is not necessarily a bad thing. Lingering too long in the past, however, can be. Extensive flashbacks and backstories risk undermining a story’s sense of forward movement—its rising action—and can halt the present and pressing drama. Movement into the past can also feel unnecessary to the reader, who can usually glean a character’s psychological or emotional state without traveling back in time to an earlier, stage-setting scene.
As an older, more battled-tested writer, I still find myself drafting as much character detail as possible. Paradoxically, as a reader, I find myself frustrated when a story becomes bogged down in a seemingly inconsequential past. In my search for a way out of this past-present conundrum, I turned to Annie Proulx, whose narrator in “Brokeback Mountain” possesses an elastic omniscience that finds ways to manifest the past in the present to consistently move the story forward with pace. Proulx doesn’t rely on heavy backstory or flashback to reveal her characters, Ennis and Jack, and instead she uses backward-glancing details, including summative statements, weighted objects, and charged dialogue to peek into their pasts without turning over every stone of their personal history.
“Brokeback Mountain” starts with a statement about both characters: “They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.” Immediately, we are told, not shown, who these men are, where they come from, and their way of life. We fill in the rest with our own imagination, our own preconceived ideas of what these men might look like, how they might act, what their family history might be, and what a “stoic life” means. Proulx doesn’t feel the need to do any more to fill in these characters yet, and the story doesn’t need any more information to understand the circumstances of these two men or the situation at the start of the story: going up Brokeback Mountain to herd sheep.
From there we move forward in time. As the two men get to know each other, we learn more about their past through objects, such as when Jack’s love for rodeo is revealed in the present through his bull-riding belt buckle: “He was infatuated with the rodeo life and fastened his belt with a minor bull-riding buckle.” That he continues to wear the buckle hints at a much more detail-oriented past without explaining his infatuation. Objects, of course, are avenues to the past because most objects existed in the past. Similar to using the objective correlative to evoke a character’s emotions through images, writers can attach emotional resonance to objects, like Jack’s belt buckle, through personal history, which allows the writer to address characters’ pasts and therefore their psychological and emotional states through a simple description of the object.
Proulx reveals more of the characters’ pasts through a summary of a campfire dialogue, presented by the narrator as a list of topics the men discuss, of “dogs each had owned and known, the military service, Jack’s home ranch, where his father and mother held on, Ennis’s family place, folded years ago after his folks died, the older brother in Signal and a married sister in Casper. Jack said his father had been a pretty well-known bull rider years back but kept his secrets to himself, never gave Jack a word of advice, never came once to see Jack ride…. Ennis said the kind of riding that interested him lasted longer than eight seconds and had some point to it.”
Thus, personal histories are revealed through a summary of a conversation, presented, in part, as a list, without any flashback. We learn more facts about each man’s family, none of which surprise us, given what we already know about them and our own preconceived notions of who these men might be. This list hides the exposition as a summary of dialogue, an efficient way to underscore or elaborate on who we think these characters are.
In the next scene the two men sit mountainside, singing and playing harmonica. We discover Jack prefers the sad hymns he learned from his mother, who believed in the Pentecost. This tidbit helps fill in Jack’s history, his relationship with his mother, and perhaps his relationship to religion. Once again, history is manifested in the present through the description of the songs the men sing, which like the bull-riding belt buckle, taps into the past through the “object” or artifact of a musical composition and the act of singing.
After the men leave the mountain, the story’s movement through time quickens, and we flash through four years, via summary, as Ennis marries Alma and has two children, until one day, Jack writes. The two meet up, and we get a lengthy scene of dialogue as they play catch-up after passionate sex. Here we get the most backstory in the entire piece, as Ennis explains to Jack how his older brother bullied him and how his dad taught him to strike first. He also explains to Jack a memory he has of two men, Earl and Rich, who were beaten with a tire iron for being gay, and how his dad and brother laughed. And here Proulx provides the most information and insight we get about Ennis’s childhood, and such information is delivered through dialogue. The dialogue is not summarized by the narrator this time, which is conspicuous after the pages of swift movement through time.
When writing dialogue, we are often forced to summarize, to use our narrator to report the more expository information, and to use tagged dialogue only to highlight the most important or evocative lines. Instead, Proulx gives us these childhood episodes in Ennis’s voice, his words, which can read, if you ignore the tags, as pure information, pure backstory for the sake of filling out a character’s history—though I don’t think it is. This scene is operating far more dynamically.
At the start of the story, we are told Ennis lives a stoic life, and throughout we see him unable to open up to Jack the first time on the mountain, unable to open up to his wife, unable to open up to anyone. Therefore, when he opens up to Jack, four years later, after a night of sex, and tells Jack these very private, very personal memories, the reader understands he has changed in the four years away from Jack, as he pondered his time on Brokeback Mountain, his time with Jack, who he is, and what life means. He is confessing to Jack. He is sharing his interiority with him. He is opening up to another person in the way lovers often do. The backstory delivered in dialogue reveals the character’s history, and it also dramatizes this moment of pure connection. The backstory could have been delivered by the narrator and the dialogue summarized, but that would have stripped the scene of all the emotion of Ennis opening up to Jack—and to the reader—about who he is and where he comes from. The backstory isn’t just backstory, it’s the present drama.
The last bit of backstory I wanted to look at occurs as Ennis visits Jack’s parents after Jack’s death. The narrator reports Ennis recalling a story Jack told him, when Jack’s father urinates on his own son. This narratorial report is taken up by a memory of Jack’s dialogue, and the narration slips directly into his dialogue as spoken to Ennis in the past, even as the present action takes place in the Twist household.
This moment is the only flashback in the story. We stop our relentless movement forward in time, to go back to a past moment between these two men, when Jack revealed to Ennis his darkest memories and deepest secrets, as Ennis once revealed his own to Jack. We travel back in time with Ennis to see Jack after death. We feel then how Ennis feels at that moment in the present action, recalling the love of his life, and the way they could express themselves to each other, a way in which Ennis has never been able to express himself to anyone else. This flashback is reserved for this most resonant moment at the end of the story. If flashbacks had been deployed throughout, or if reversions to the past were made less scarce in the story, this moment wouldn’t be as powerful. Proulx saves one of the greatest magic tricks fiction writers possess for this moment, a power no one in the real world possesses: the ability to manipulate time. Like any trick, we can’t overdo it. We can’t let our readers become numb to the magic.
I am as guilty as any of going back in time to explain or provide context to the present. When writing, I still often draft backstories, which usually take the form of scenes, which then become flashbacks, which I never want to cut because I feel they are crucial to understanding the characters’ psychological or emotional states. Of course, these scenes are not often necessary to the story and are closer to emotional research of the characters, of looking at the past purely to explain the present. These scenes may not only disrupt the flow of the present action, but they may also act as crutches to avoid manifesting the past in the present. To manifest the past in the present, we need to know the characters’ pasts, of course, but we also have to find connections to the past in the present, through objects or artifacts, gestures or speech, connections that hint at a detail-oriented history but that don’t necessarily need to be fully explained on the page. Such hints can also provide a productive mystery, as the reader must imagine the characters’ prior existences, and thus must directly engage with the work.
Flashbacks and backstories are not necessarily bad, nor are they weaknesses. Plenty of stories and novels spend significant time in the past. Often these stories are in some way about time or are directly concerned with how the past continues to haunt the present. For stories with other concerns, however, like “Brokeback Mountain,” flashback and backstory may not be the most efficient way to evoke the past in the present. In this story, Annie Proulx finds ways to manifest the past while continually moving forward in time. She provides the necessary context to understand the men and their pasts without interrupting the present drama. She allows us to experience their frustrating longing and to feel the brief but crackling connection between two doomed lovers.
DANIEL ABIVA HUNT is a writer from South Jersey. His stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Masters Review, Grist, The Maine Review, Portland Review, and elsewhere. He recently won an honorable mention for The Masters Review 2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers. He previously served as assistant fiction editor for Gulf Coast, and he is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches and studies fiction. Find him on Instagram @daniel.abiva.hunt.
Featured image by Priscilla Du Preez, courtesy of Unsplash