Backfill The Swimming Pool Theory

Backfill is basically expository background, explaining who these people are and how they got into this mess in the first place. It can be handled in two ways: as straight exposition in the author's voice, or as a sort of pseudoreminiscence in the voice of the point-of-view character.

Avery Corman's popular novel Kramer vs. Kramer, for instance, opens in a delivery room, during the birth of the Kramers' first child. The next few scenes are backfill about the course of the pregnancy, both partners' reactions to it, the acquiring of a crib and layette and other necessities. This backfill is presented mostly as exposition and summary.

Similarly, your story might have as its second scene expository backfill about Jane and Sam's problems with Martha over the last few years.

You can also present the backfill in the voice of the point-of-view character—let's say it's Jane:

You couldn't say this was the first time Martha had pulled this stunt, Jane thought as she picked up the magazines Sam had thrown at her. Martha had her father's temper. The least little thing and off she'd go, with no more thought for other people than a cat had. No, less—at least a cat came home to eat. At eleven years old Martha had been picked up by the police, eating from a dumpster because Jane had yelled at her about her messy bedroom. The cop had been suspicious, suspecting some sticky form of child abuse. Jane had been horrified. Martha had just gazed at them both levelly, that cold-eyed squint it seemed she'd been born with, and what could Jane do? Martha only acted like she did to hurt her mother. Jane had known then she'd be defeated by this heartbreaking, mean-eyed child. As defeated as if Martha was some throwback to her great-granddaddy's tainted blood, which in Jane's opinion she was.

Will this backfill slow down the story? Yes. Will it slow down the story too much? That's a judgement call, but here's a guideline to help you make it: the Swimming Pool Theory. This theory says that structuring fiction is like kicking off from the side of a swimming pool. The stronger and more forceful your initial kick, the longer you can glide through the water. The stronger and more forceful your opening scene, the less your reader will mind a "glide" through nondramatized backfill. In fact, the reader may even welcome the slow-down, as a contrast to a dynamite first scene. Explosives going off all the time can be wearing.

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  • amy lachapelle
    How do we backfill teh swimming pool?
    8 years ago

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