Friday, August 1, 2008

On Backstory by Cheryl Norman

Cheryl Norman answered this question so beautifully, there’s no reason to change it. See for yourself.

How does one go about not having too much narrative description or passive narrative without compromising needed backstory information? <
This is a good question and could fuel an entire workshop (any volunteers? ). I agree with what everyone else has said so far, plus have a couple of comments to add.

A few years ago I sat in on a workshop given by the late Cheryl Anne Porter that was terrific. She asked volunteers to perform a western skit in which action was taking place. As each "actor" delivered her lines, Cheryl interrupted with a lengthy narration about the back story and the "actors" had to freeze action while she read. It was fun, it was hilarious, and it illustrated perfectly what you must avoid when writing backstory (or any narrative for that matter): Slowing the pace.

Give the reader enough so she isn't confused, then yell "Action" on your novel's movie set. Feed a little backstory as you go, using straight narrative as a last resort. Use quick mental thoughts (or internal dialogue) and dialogue. Beware of the "as you know" dialogue, however. Here's how NOT to do it:

"Jim's at the door!"

"You aren't going to answer it, are you? After what he's done?" (this would be fine. It raises a reader question: What has he done? But then ... )

"We're still married, June."

"Have you forgotten that you caught him in bed with your secretary, Sally Smith, during the wedding reception? As you know, your parents are financially strapped. They took out a second mortgage on their house to give you the wedding of your dreams, even though they had misgivings about the character of Jim Lewis, the man you'd dated less than six months."

"He was the only man who seemed to like me for my intelligence, not my big boobs. As you know, none of the guys I dated in high school took me seriously. I've had serious self-esteem issues from the pranks played on me, like tripping me in the halls before class just to see if I could get up. Jim said he liked my brain."

"Well, start using it and don't answer the door. As you know, I'm particularly sour on men after Rob left me standing at the altar ..."

You get the point. Use dialogue, but use it realistically. Use narrative, but use it sparingly. Feed information a little at a time to keep the reader intrigued but enough to keep her reading.

FWIW, it gets easier with practice. Good luck!

Cheryl Norman
ISBN#1932815864 / ISBN# 9781932815863
Medallion Press, March, 2007

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