Writing Lecture/Objective Four
The Back Story
The back-story is, in essence, the totality of a writer's life. As a writer, you have an intimate understanding of the life you've led. It's sort of like the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz1. L. Frank Baum wrote about a fantasy world, but the characters were anything but figments of his imagination. The lion, scarecrow, tin man, the witches were all adaptations of people he knew in life.
This is the way it is with successful writers. They create characters that draw much of their authenticity from people they've known. In your minds eye, you've already met your characters. So the back-story really begins in your own life. You know the characters are real because you have met them at some point in time and gotten an eyeful.
One thing I like to do is find an object my character is fond of. It might be a cane, or a weapon, or a hanky dropped by his lady love. Whatever it is, I get one and keep it handy. I touch it, examine it closely, and become familiar with it. In the house, I carry it around pretending it is real and it was once my character's prized possession. Your subconscious doesn't know the difference between what your imagination says is real and what the physical world claims reality to be. Huh? It's true, think about it.
Then I get the characters talking. While they ramble on at first, they eventually get around to telling me the story. A story that fits into the greater context of the totality of a life experience. Now it is okay if you embellish on your life experience taking a different turn than perhaps you chose to take and in the story your characters wind up doing things differently from what you did or would have done; but you don't want to stray too far into never never land. As long as you stick to a world you know something about, you will always be on fairly solid ground.
When I was younger I read The Hobbit2, then the The Lord of the Rings3 and sometime afterwards the The Silmarillion4, which was a history of the elves. The trilogy which I thought was huge and sweeping turned to be but a page in the history of the elves. Tolkien spent his life living in this imaginary world, a piece of his awareness dwelled there. Even though it was a fantasy world, his characters rang true because they were modeled after those he saw around him.
We know our tale is going to be a small piece of a bigger world that we already understand. Now comes the hard part. You are going to have to show the reader enough of this world so they understand the environment of the story and what happened earlier that helped shape what is about to happen now. The trick is how you go about doing this without putting your reader to sleep.
If you devote the first three chapters of your novel to back-story, I can all but promise you the reader is not going to finish the book. Then again, you can't wait until halfway through before you start providing some back story. So what are you going to do? Ah hah you say, "I'll use FLASHBACKS!" That's certainly a good technique and a possibility that works for many.
The reality is, however, you have to start feeding in the essential back-story from the beginning. The operative phrase here is feeding in. Don't fill the first chapter with back-story. Start with some action and work your background information in as you go, a little bit at a time, giving the audience enough of an understanding so they know what's going on but not so much it bogs the story down.
Back-story can be revealed in the dialogues of a novel and certainly in the dialogues and monologues of a stage play. As you develop the character, you also show through the action an understanding of the essential elements of information necessary to understanding what is happening. It begins in the Character Sketch Templates and Short Form Prose Biographies an author writes to start with. From there it will continue with the vignettes using a little exposition, some dialogue, and maybe a flashback if that seems appropriate. However, the key to all this is, and I can't emphasize this enough, to make the story your own. Imbue it with the imagery of things you have witnessed and therefore know will resonate throughout your story with a ring of authenticity.
Percy Goodfellow - Workshop Instructor
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