Austin

16 07, 2012

What my high school reunion taught me about writing BACKSTORY

By |2012-07-16T15:44:32-05:00July 16th, 2012|Uncategorized|15 Comments

Sitting at a table at my high school reunion recently, this thought struck me: “This is how backstory should work.”

Huh, you say. Let me explain.

I’ve know most of the people at my high school reunion more than half my life. I didn’t have to ask mundane questions to get to know them. When I looked in their faces, I saw not the wrinkles but teenagers I remembered from our school days.

We were (are) a close knit group, attending English class or studying for Algebra or cheering our Austin High School Maroon football team. We laughed about our Red Jacket (the drill team) adventures, relived football losses, groaned over teachers and relived our glory days on the yearbook and newspaper staff as reminisced.

I knew their past.

But what dawned on me was that what I remembered from those good ole days is only a small portion of their story. As we shared over the three day reunion, I learned of their triumphs, their heartaches, their success since we’d last been together.

Did I learn everything at once? No. Piece by piece they shared stories. Backstory came to light that had shaped who they were today.

Like all my high school friends, I know my characters. After all, I am creating them.

And like my friends who told their stories over the time we were together, that’s how I must reveal my character’s background–slowly as it relates to the story and character development.

This is where new writers often err in their opening scenes, revealing anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.

There are times when a bit of backstory is necessary for the reader to grasp what’s going on and why it’s important. But, editors and agents agree a newly submitted manuscript with backstory dump in the beginning scenes is the biggest kiss of death for the work.

Writers, whether new or seasoned, must tread carefully when considering how much backstory to include. We should trust the reader’s intelligence to “get” what’s going on without providing lengthy backstory.

Think about it. Is it really necessary for the reader to know Mary has been married three times, each relationship ending badly, to “understand” why she’s looking for a good relationship. Usually, that kind of backstory, while indeed important, should be doled out later in the story and bit by bit.

A general rule is keep backstory either absent from the opening or only include as much as is absolutely necessary to set the scene for the inciting incident.

To quote Donald Maass, “no backstory in the first fifty pages.” And then, only to do one or more of these things:

1. Raise the stakes
2. Reveal motivations
3. Express innermost fears
4. Reveal obstacles

Easier said than done for most writers, including me.

I think of backstory as “BS.” Literally. I ask myself does the reader really need to know this in order to relate to my character? The answer is usually no!

Another way to think of backstory is as carefully placed clues to the mystery of the character and why they are the way they are. Hints to keep the reader turning the page.

Just as I discovered my old friends’ stories gradually, we writers need to let readers find backstory clues throughout the book until they’re brought all together to explain how and why the character changed or clarify whatever the character did.

What do you think about backstory dumps in the opening pages? Do you close the book or keep on reading?

14 03, 2012

FLAT STANLEY Adventure

By |2012-03-14T16:55:44-05:00March 14th, 2012|one word Wednesday|8 Comments

I should have spent yesterday writing my ONE WORD WEDNESDAY blog for an  early morning post today. I didn’t.

My daughter volunteered to help the son of an on-line friend in Minnesota  with his Flat Stanley Project. She  invited me to tag along while she and Flat Stanley visited the state capitol of Texas. I had a fun and enlightening  adventure.

You’ve haven’t met FLAT STANLEY or heard about the project?

FLAT STANLEY is Stanley Lambchop the protagonist of Jeff Brown’s 1964 children’s books series. The story goes…

Stanley and his younger brother Arthur are given a big bulletin board by their Dad for displaying pictures and posters. He hangs it on the wall over Stanley’s bed. During the night the board falls from the wall, flattening Stanley in his sleep. He survives and makes the best of his altered state, and soon he is entering locked rooms by sliding under the door, and playing with his younger brother by being used as a kite. One special advantage is that Flat Stanley can now visit his friends by being mailed in an envelope. Stanley even helps catch some art museum thieves by posing as a painting on the wall. Eventually Arthur changes Stanley back to his proper shape with a bicycle pump.

In 1995, a third grade schoolteacher in Canada used the book for a letter-writing lesson between schoolchildren as they documented where Flat Stanley went. The students created a two dimension “paper doll” fashioned to look like them and mailed Stanley to pen pals everywhere.

That project has now become a worldwide adventure for children with Flat Stanley projects. The objective of which is for the child to explore through Flat Stanley’s adventures. Sometimes by writing diaries for language arts skill or travel journals of Flat Stanley locations for geography and social studies skills. Check for the full concept here.

Flat Stanley does get around. He’s traveled to Russia with me once. As you see, my Stanley was a small, easily transportable and pose-able paper doll.

The Stanley from Minnesota was a life-size ten year-old butcher paper cutout, flimsy and awkward to pose. March winds forced us to tape him or hold him upright for pictures. We had to strap him into the seatbelt for the trip to Austin!

Some of those observing our antics recognized Stanley from their own school projects. Others scratched their heads and thought we were two crazy ladies. Can’t post the pictures until the Minnesota student completes his project, but I will get snapshots on my Judythe Morgan FB page  as soon as I can.

We began Stanley’s adventure on the University of Texas campus. One of the fringe benefits of spending the fun day with my daughter was touring her old college town haunts, her condo, the intramural field where she worked refereeing softball games, and campus buildings where she’d had classes. Her reaction to the familiar places all these years later was like seeing a child opening a Christmas present. Great memories for her, and I got a glimpse into what her life on campus had been when I sent her off to the big, bad UT.

I shared my memories of growing up in Austin. Flat Stanley saw my high school, the places I went on dates with my daughter’s daddy, houses I lived in, and some of the ancestral history of her great-grandparents who were among the founding residents.

I thought she’d be bored.  Poor Flat Stanley didn’t get a vote. My daughter claimed to be delighted to see this side to her mother…the giggles and smiles made me believe her. She suggested I compose a tour plan complete with an Austin map marked with locations for her siblings. Great idea for a memoir.

Before we ended our visit, my daughter wanted to stop by and see my eighty-five year old aunt who still lives in a small group home for the elderly.

I hesitated. Would my aunt even remember her namesake? A stroke four years ago left my aunt blind. Already deaf, the loss of another source of sensory input and the stroke damage caused memory issues.

As silly as it sounds—my daughter’s a grown woman, I didn’t want her feelings hurt or the imagery of an old folks’ home stuck in her head. I suggested lunch at a favorite Austin eatery instead.

Imagine my surprise when over lunch my daughter told me she knew what those places are like. During her years at UT, she’d gone to see her grandfather in a nursing home nearby twice a week until he passed away. She’d be fine with seeing my aunt and insisted we go.

Tears nearly blinded me, and I gave her a hug. Shocked and pleased, the value of respect and honor for elders that her daddy and I tried to instill had worked. 

Best part, when we saw my aunt, she remembered my daughter. We had a lovely visit. And over-sized, floppy Flat Stanley had quite the adventure. 

YOUR TURN: Have you ever had a FLAT STANLEY adventure or an enlightening moment with a child?