What Comes Before: Let the Background Come Alive

Posted: January 4, 2017 in fiction, Writing
Tags: , ,

While working on a story, I often get great ideas crystallizing along the edges of my main concepts and plot. Things that happened that led to the main events or that happen on the periphery. I’ve found when I struggle to consolidate the story, I sometimes reach a point where I realize much of what I’m considering background IS the story.

My seemingly irrational impulse is to avoid incorporating these important story elements. I label them background because they don’t fit the preliminary narrative structure I’ve crafted. Without knowing it, I’ve fenced myself in arbitrarily. This habit seems to arise from a passive side of my writing self. The same source of passivity responsible for my persistent desire to protect and coddle my protagonists when I should be casting them out into the cold to suffer and struggle.ba8406b875891caa38c61af88a072c6b

The good news is a quick, easy (sometimes) shift of perspective can pull all those important happenings into the story. Reorder events or expand the timeline (start earlier) to include them. Expand your scope (characters, setting, plot, etc.), skip from one key period to the next (sweeping transitions like Ten years later…).

This is the opposite of the commonly-held wisdom: start where the story starts—skip introductory background to where the action begins. While I agree skipping background is good advice in general (we don’t really need to know Stormwald’s family history before he’s accused of burning down his village and banished), I’ve found with my own writing, sometimes the action has started well before the point I thought it did. Star Wars is a good example. Georsample-timelinege could just as easily have told that story in chronological order, and it might have been as good or better. Beserk and its Golden Age sequence is another example. Right or wrong, I’m not a huge fan of starting in the middle and then jumping back in time. It’s a disruption for the reader and risks losing his/her attention. I do use this mechanism at times, but if I can avoid it, I will.

What’s more powerful? One character relating a past event to another, a flashback scene, or allowing the reader to experience the event firsthand as part of the main story? For a given character’s background, some important events in their preceding life can be worth writing into the story in some way. Here’s a clue you might need to re-evaluate your background: are you spending as much or more time describing events prior to your story’s start? Do you find yourself describing other places and/or people in great detail? If you’re struggling to define your story amid a sea of compelling details, it might be time to bring the background into focus.


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