How to incorporate backstory into narratives

When I help children write narratives, I see one common mistake:  a desire to tell the backstory first.  Students don’t know that what worked hundreds of years ago for the Cinderella story is not the way people tell stories today.

For example, most Cinderella stories begin with an explanation of how Cinderella’s mother died, of how her father remarried an apparently nice woman, of how her father died and the stepmother turned on Cinderella, of how Cinderella came to be the maid in her stepmother’s house, of how her stepmother and stepsisters are mean to her, and of how the king has invited all the young women to a ball so his single son, the prince, can choose a wife.

How much of that is really necessary to begin the story?  Is there another way?  What if the story started on the evening of the ball with a mother and her two daughters frantically preparing for the dance and the maid helping?

“Eh!  My stocking has a hole in it.  Cinderella, find me another.  And fast,” said a young woman with large feet, snapping her fingers.

“Stop, Cinderella.  Finish curling my hair,” said another young woman, drying her painted fingernails.  “Find your own stocking, sister.”  She stuck out her tongue to her sisiter.

“Girls!  Girls!” cried an older woman, handing Cinderella a diamond necklace, and turning so Cinderella could fasten it around her neck.  “We must hurry.  The ball begins in a half hour and we must be on time to the king’s palace.”

“Oh, mother, do you think the prince will choose me for his wife?” asked the sister with the torn stocking, looking dreamy-eyed at her mother.

“Not if you trample him with those gigantic feet of yours,” said the other sister, shaking her tiny feet at her sister.

Do you see how the necessary parts of the backstory are all there without a separate paragraph to explain them?  We know Cinderella is the maid because the others are ordering her around. We know that her sisters and mother are selfish because of how they talk to Cinderella and to each other.  We know they are preparing for a ball at the king’s palace because the mother says so while Cinderella is fastening her necklace.  And we know the prince is looking for a wife because one of the girls says so.  No backstory is necessary because the details are woven into the action happening right now.

Hundreds of years ago, stories weren’t written this way.  They began with the author telling backstory.  But today readers want authors to start with action.  Readers are used to jumping right into the story and catching the backstory details as they read, not in a section set off by itself.

To meet reader expectations, you the writer, want to keep the story moving.  Stopping to give backstory interrupts the flow of the action. What will happen next is what readers want to know, not what happened before.

Students can learn to write this way if their teachers know that this is the preferred way to begin narratives and if they teach students how.  But unfortunately, few elementary or middle grades teachers write narratives themselves.  No time.  And few were trained in how to teach this kind of writing.  For my masters of education degree in 1995, I didn’t take a single course on how to teach writing because no such course was offered.

How can you show (not tell) students how to write narratives this preferred way?  More about that in our next blog.

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