On Saturday I attended Northwest Houston RWA's Lone Star conference where JamesScott Bell imparted his wisdom on the craft of writing fiction. At one point in discussing dialogue he warned, "Don't use dialogue to have your characters dump backstory. It's boring and real people don't talk like that." Unfortunately, on Sunday evening I learned Mr. Bell was wrong.
After a successful shopping trip at Katy Mills Mall, at closing my husband and I returned to his SUV to go home and discovered the gear shift was stuck in park and was determined not to budge. The owner's manual was no help in solving the problem so we gave up and called our insurance company's road-side assistance number for a tow. Now I'm not saying all tow-truck drivers are unscrupulous bottom feeders, but the last time Steve got towed, the driver took his car to his own lot instead of the mechanic and held it ransom for 2 days. In other words, we weren't too enthusiastic about being 25 miles from home and at the mercy of whoever showed up.
As it turned out a polite young guy arrived within a half hour and got the SUV onto his trailer with impressive efficiency. Somewhat relieved, my husband and I got into the cab for the ride to the garage that services his vehicle. Being a friendly sort, I commented that satnav systems like the one the driver had stuck to his windshield must make his job easier. Big mistake. The driver, let's call him Joe, launched into a story about how he'd been ripped off when he bought what he thought was a new Garmin and discovered it had 134,000 miles on it. After confronting the store owner, he got a more expensive brand new one and was quite pleased with himself for coming out $80 ahead.
Without further encouragement (for once I didn't ask questions), he told us he'd been driving tow-trucks since he was 17 (he's 24 now) and used to have one of his own, and that's about the time I knew we were going to get way more information than we wanted. "I lost everything," he said, "when I went to prison."
That was definitely a TMB moment--Too Much Backstory.
He explained he'd gone to prison for five years when he was 19 and had been out for six months then proceeded to give us an account of his present employer who was name Ahmed, his weekly paycheck of $250 (although he use to make a lot more than that before he went away), his rent of $465 a month and his annoyance that his girlfriend refused to get a job. At that point the girlfriend called his cell and we heard a lot of apologies, all starting with "Baby,..." When he hung up, we thought--hoped--the personal revelations might be finished but, no.
To be fair, I imagine some people would have asked him why he went to prison and I'll admit I was curious. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when he gave us the gory details--a fight backing up his brother who'd been jumped by seven men that left a guy "hurt bad." This was on the job back when Joe was doing repro work--something he doesn't do anymore. Seems that big money had its downside, and AAA and insurance company road-side assistance is safer. What a surprise.
Eventually we arrived at our mechanic’s garage, the SUV was unloaded and Joe headed home to his unemployed girlfriend and a late dinner. I thought about what Mr. Bell had said about dribbling in backstory and only telling the reader what he or she needs to know to understand the story. Did we need to know Joe’s backstory to get our car from Katy to Houston? Absolutely not. And yet it added an element of tension and suspense a silent ride would have lacked. And somehow I think that would have been just fine with us.