Thursday, October 26, 2017

What’s My Back-Story?

John, here. On the heels of Donis’s insightful Oct. 19 post, I’m going to follow with a discussion of a technical aspect of fiction writing, one that took me years to grasp.

I was teaching a creative writing class, maybe a decade ago now, in Presque Isle, Maine, at the local community college. I had designed the course schedule to discuss characterization and dialogue early in the semester and then move on to structure and narrative tension. I used the exercise below, therefore, late in the semester and will never forget one student staying after class one night (we met on Wednesdays from 6 to 9 p.m.) to tell me the activity below was the exercise that brought everything together for him. And he insisted, “You need to begin the course with this. This is what beginners need to know.”

It’s been a long time since that conversation, but I never forgot it. And I’ve worked with enough novice writers over the years to know they’ll eventually grasp dialogue and characterization, but pacing and narrative tension may be the most nuanced skills of fiction writing. So if I can teach this early, I can save beginning writers a lot of time.

The exercise is below. If you try it, I’d love to see what you write. Feel free to email me at

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotline 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 cinematically? 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 plotline and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which you can 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 (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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Frankie Y. Bailey said...

This is thought-provoking, John. I've been debating how best to handle backstory in my the 1939 book I'm working on. Backstory is challenging when I have several point-of-view characters and events that stretch over 8 months. I've been watching the television show, "This is Us." Fans -- including me -- are hooked on how the writers are giving us bits and pieces of backstory while moving us back and forth in time. But that takes skill, and may work best when we can actually see the characters at different stages in their lives.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Yes. Back story is very challenging. I remember reading Time's Arrow by Martin Amis and being so impressed at how he started at the end and ended at the beginning, chronologically speaking. Very un-linear indeed!

Donis Casey said...

Excellent exercise.