Thursday, January 07, 2010

Back-Story: A Plotting Activity

An oft-held fiction-writing truism is as follows: start as close to the end of your story as you can. It is a valid philosophy but one that can be problematic for the writer. The scribe must determine how to effectively and efficiently deal with the back-story, all the events that came before the story begins. How much back-story does your narrative require? How much previous information does your reader need to effectively process the existing material? And does the narrative need to be linear--can the back-story be conveyed via flashback? (The great Elmore Leonard, after all, insisted in his "Ten Rules" that all prologues were nothing but flash-back material that should be dropped into the narrative at appropriate spots in the text.)

Below is an activity I have used with fiction-writing students for quite a while. Many routinely tell me it is the single most helpful activity we do all semester. Perhaps you’d like to try it. If you do, I’d love to see what you come up with. Feel free to e-mail me at or

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotting Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories in a cinematic manner? By using scenes to convey the storyline. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Read the following plot line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which the story could begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (one to three pages using narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.

1) Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.

2) She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.

3) After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.

4) Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.

5) Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.

6) Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.

7) Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.

8) Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”

9) Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.

10) She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.

11) In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.

12) Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callus?
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting exercise.