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The Shark and the Iceberg…

Hi-res-3-e1332974339947… Or how to be brilliant at backstory. Who wouldn’t want to go to a workshop with a title like that?! From the Festival of Writing, here’s Shelley Harris: “Of all the manuscripts I see, it’s backstory that seems to need the most work.” And so we begin. First, she says, “Your story is a shark: it has to keep moving.” (She notes this quote is nicked from Jeremy Sheldon.) Often, it is backstory that slows a story down, grinds it to a halt. Backstory is necessary. It is all the things your reader needs to know in order to understand the story you’re currently telling. Backstory isn’t the story and it isn’t current, but it must be dealt with.
icebergErnest Hemingway suggests the theory of omission is the way: “He may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” Death in the Afternoon.  In agreement, Shelley suggests that backstory is an iceberg, hovering beneath the surface of the story. ” It gives us pleasure as readers to work things out. We like to work, to feel clever as readers.” She advises not to give the reader any more details than they strictly need.

THE TOOL-KIT: Through a series of extracts, we look at a number of methods for tackling the introduction of backstories into the story:
Objects: In Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes we read an introduction laden with objects, from chintzes to Zulu shields, with no explanation of context. The reader must do the work to decide what such objects mean and how they reflect character’s backstory allows the reader to make their own conclusions.
Character: In AL Kennedy’s What Becomes it is the language which reveals character, through their word choices. Vocabulary betrays class, education, and attitudes. Be in your character’s world view when you write. Which words do they choose to use? Vocabulary reveals backstory. It is a floor or tiles or quarry tiles? A sofa or couch or chaise longe?
Dialogue: In Jo Baker’s Longbourn, dialogue is used for backstory, to great effect, with all characters revealing themselves through what they choose to say and how they say it. Through dialogue, backstory is active. If you can include subtext, so much the better.
Direct Speech: Nicci Cloke’s Some Day Find Me begins with a first person story that tells the reader, straight out, what has happened. A character can tell backstory directly, because we learn about her through vocabulary, word choice, pace, rhythm and tone, and we learn about the character instead of simply a load of facts.

Some things to think about: Drip feed the backstory. Think what you can save for the last possible moment to reveal, for the biggest impact. If you are creating suspense, you can take a plot sequence up to a suspenseful point, cut away to deliver backstory, and then cut back to the book, as does The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe. Be playful and inventive. Shelley cited her own Jubilee for curing a backstory problem through playing a game, All the Beds, which is her failsafe cure for insomnia. Her main character, a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda in Britain deals with his insomnia by remembering all the beds he’s ever slept in, from his Uganda home to cold, damp Britain.

Lastly, we’re given a writing challenge: Using the Tool-kit, she asks us to bring to mind a character. Choose 3 aspects of their backstory. How can you introduce the three elements of backstory subtly but effectively? At this point, I had to leave the workshop for another, but I’m going to do it. How about you?

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fab post! Gutted I couldn’t get to the festival I really appreciate you sharing this Peggy… and as I’m pretty sure I have copies of all the books mentioned on my shelf, I can explore the examples… so, yes! I’m going to give this a go soon ☺

    … and the insomnia game – genius!

    October 21, 2015
  2. Back story is tricky indeed – and so jarring when it is done badly, so good when it is done well! Thank you for sharing your learnings.

    October 21, 2015
    • It was such a good workshop – and a great festival! Thanks for reading.

      November 26, 2015

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