Sunday, October 28, 2012

Scatterings of Yesteryear: Backstory Techniques

Interject. What does that word bring to mind? Interruption? If you think interruption instead of backstory, it will help you avoid extraneous material. By weaving in only crucial details, your final product will resemble a subtle pattern in silk versus a coarse woolen plaid.  

When critique group members use words like “jump” or “awkward,” or say “something’s not working here,” or “needs transition,” the problem may lie in how you handled the backstory of a character or plot. The issue is particularly challenging for beginning writers.

A character’s thoughts that trigger a flashback can work: Bernard looked out at the ocean, and after all those years, remembered the tsunami’s destruction of his village. But as a literary technique, it’s almost a cliché, isn't it? If you are learning to write, use it for now. With experience you'll find better techniques.

Remember background interrupts the story’s flow. Write your thoughts, then cut where you can. For example, Leslie had trouble putting the doggie boots on Ben. The last time she had taken her dog to her uncle’s place, Ben whimpered as Leslie spent hours tweezing burrs from the fur on his lower legs and between the dog’s toes which were bleeding from walking on the barbs. Delete any information not necessary for the story. The doggie boots Leslie put on Ben would protect his feet from the burrs around her uncle’s place. If the reader must know Leslie had to remove burrs the last time, the reader understands removal of burrs is time consuming and a dog would probably whimper. No need to include them unless the details are pertinent to the plot.

Sometimes inner thoughts work. Greg was not saddened by his father’s death because his dad had constantly abused his children. Instead of describing Greg’s treatment, put yourself in Greg’s shoes at his father’s funeral. Greg half smirked at the man in the casket. “Good riddance, Dad. What would you think of being buried without your weapons—your belt, your hard-toed work boots, your hands rolled into knock-down fists?” 

Here a writer tells how two characters met by connecting flowers from the past to the present: Carla Laughed, “Cosmos planted along this fence again. Six years ago a sudden swarm of black hoppers prompted me to knock on Allen’s door. I was afraid those insects would infest the neighborhood.”

Scatter background information as much as possible. Interject details as smoothly as you can, and keep them short. Holding his burger with two hands, Marvin took a deep breath and inhaled his high school hangout. Burgers, fries, and a whiff of chili. He looked straight ahead: the jukebox was missing. Once referenced, the writer can use the jukebox to pepper the story with background details later.

You can frontload crucial information with a prologue. I generally don’t like them. But if that’s the only way you can get your story started, go for it. Maybe you’ll leave it, or maybe you’ll find a way to stitch in threads as you write the body of your work.

My friend, Mike Akins, won a contest with a prologue. I had read it online—poetic, emotional, beautiful. I just had to meet this guy. And that’s the backstory to Dynamic Opinions, our present critique group.

© 2012, Bernice W. Simpson

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