Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Backstory - writing tip

Question from a former student: I got a manuscript back this week, with a handwritten note by the editor that said, "Too much backstory. I can't find a problem statement. Start at the beginning." Any idea what that means?

Answer: Well she was nice enough to send a note, so she obviously liked your writing Technique. My guess is, Tara, that the problem statement arrives late. Until there is a problem for the protagonist to solve, there is no real action in any story. I used to do this myself all the time.

'Tis the season, so let's take the story of Christ's birth as an example:

It didn't start when the angel appeared to Mary in the shape of a dove. That was another story than the "birth." It really didn't start when Cesar Agustus said that all the world must be taxed. It didn't start with the journey of the very pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. It starts when there is "No room at the inn."

That's your problem statement and the place where the "Birth of Christ" story's action really starts. If there had been room at the inn, the whole story would have been different, so a problem has cropped up that will change everything, forever.

The rest is backstory. What happened before there was "no room," an obvious problem to be solved, is back story.

Now it is, of course, important for anyone hearing the story to know all those things, but start with the hook: Joseph and his very pregnant wife have no place to stay. Where will they go? What will they do? What will happen next?

Get your problem statement in right away. Work the backstory in by using mini-flashbacks as they search for a place, find the stable and move in among the animals, and so on. What's a mini-flashback. See example, below:

Behind the inn, Joseph spotted the half-open door of a stable. Concerned, he helped the pregnant Mary from the back of the ass, wishing Caesar Agustus had never requried everyone to travel to his home city to be taxed.

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