July 12, 2016 Theo Brainin

The Life of a Back Story

I’m a starer. My husband is always picking me out about it because it’s so obvious, so blatant, so (God forbid) rude. I can’t help it though; some faces just keep drawing my eyes back to them. It could just be the face, but sometimes it’s the whole package: the way the lips move in conversation, or eyes stare unblinking at seemingly nothing or move constantly, a subtle mannerism or prodigious gesticulation. Sometimes it’s as simple as a pair of shoes. I can’t help it because I’m thinking: I wonder what his / her story is.

I stare as I try to put together the pieces of a total stranger’s life. I then notice more: the perfectly groomed hair in juxtaposition with the cheap, slightly brassy foundation make-up a shade too dark. Her clothes are unremarkable. A lengthy glance puts her in her late thirties, but closer observation adds ten years. Her hands are lined and rough: they’ve known work, physical labour. They are not the hands of youth. I look at my own hands, now lined and bonier, the veins more obvious. I look back at the woman. Her eyes. I try and see behind them, through them and there it is: Life.

I don’t mean life because your heart is beating, I mean Life with a capital L. Life has happened to her. Her still hands and even gaze mean she has in all likelihood triumphed, but she is not unscarred.

I also eavesdrop. I’ve studied the person, so I have my back story, but now she’s turned to the woman next to her and a shadow clouds her face as she says, “Do you think she’ll make it?” She takes a deep, steady breath and the shadow moves away; her lips purse slightly as she swallows almost imperceptibly before she again turns her head away and resumes the serene persona of before.

“Do you think she’ll make it?” Who? To what? Are they related? Estranged? Is this their first union? A reunion? But in how long? Then I begin to answer these questions and make up stories. In my head I play out her day, all the while being mindful of the back story I’ve already concocted.

“Mum.” I’m instantly drawn back to the here and now. I look away and focus on doing up a zipper, or the meal that has been placed before me, or the train that has pulled in. Involuntarily I glance back, and then the moment is gone.

Never forget the importance of a back story when telling a story. A back story is everything that happened before your opening sentence. The back story impacts directly on the story and is therefore just as important as the one you want to tell. Sometimes the back story is the story. To write a good story your characters have to grow, they have to be affected by things that happen to them and how they are affected depends on their back story.

Now, step by crafty step let’s do it together:

The scenario:

I’m writing a book on … now come up with a short premise for your story

A blind girl plans to run an ultra marathon to overcome the limitations that her disability has enmeshed her in.

Her success or failure will be as a direct consequence of her back story. How and when was she blinded?, what events and which people have shaped the person she is now?

Over to you:

  1. Write down your premise in one sentence.
  2. Flesh out your premise to a third or half a page.
  3. Choose your main characters and jot down some notes on:
  • What they look like
  • What types of personalities they have
  • What their backgrounds are
  • What dynamics exist between them
  • What relationships they have with each other and others
  • Idiosyncrasies
  • Lifestyles

We’ll examine characterisation in a lot more detail, but in order to put together a solid back story, keeping in mind that it may come through in your real-time story, you need to think about the ‘past’, and that includes people and events.

Keep it brief and simple for now, but if the mood grabs you, keep writing …

Written by Story Terrace writer Kerrin Cocks, check out her writers page at: https://storyterrace.com/kerrin-cocks/

Make sure to read Kerrin’s next instalment entitled: ‘Does Your Story Have Legs?’