How to show students how to incorporate backstory into action

I would find a well-known story—fairy tales are perfect—which begin with backstory.  Either give each student in the class a copy or show a copy on the overhead projector.  For example, here is a version of a famous fairy tale:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

The king gave a feast so grand that the likes of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

But there came into the hall a mean old fairy who had not been invited. She had fled the kingdom in anger fifty years before and had not been seen since.

The evil fairy’s turn came to give a gift to the baby. Shaking her head spitefully, she said, “When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!”

Ask the students to read the fairy tale opening several times, and then identify what you mean by backstory–the king and queen being sad they had no children, the bells ringing, the feast, the fairies invited, the old fairy not invited.  Explain that together you are going to rewrite this beginning in such a way that these events are written into the action.  Suggest that the place to begin the action is where the mean fairy is about to cast a spell on the infant.  Ask the class for ideas how to begin.

If this is the first time you have done this with a group of students, you might not get a response.  Or you might get a response that is more backstory.  So you might need to model how to approach this problem.  You might think aloud how you would write this story opener, accepting some of your own ideas and rejecting others.  Let the students hear how you would go about writing a more interesting beginning.

You could say and write,

Once upon a time, a mean fairy strode into a king’s and queen’s ballroom, glaring at the invited guests until the royal court, the king, the queen, and the tiny baby princess grew still.  Even the castle bells stopped ringing.

Ask students if they recognize that his story is a fairy tale.  Ask how they know.  These questions keep them involved.  Now continue thinking and writing aloud.

“Since you have waited 17 years for a daughter,” the mean fairy said, staring at the king and queen, “I will protect the princess for 17 years.”  The king and queen rose to their feet and clapped, as did the other fairies and guests.  Even the baby kicked her tiny feet in approval.

Explain to the students that you have just set up the king, queen and royal court–as well as the readers–for what will happen next.

But the mean fairy was not finished.  “On your 17th birthday,” she said, leaning over the baby’s cradle, and touching a finger of the infant, “you shall prick this finger on a spinning wheel.”  She turned around to look at the king and queen before she turned back to the baby.  “And you shall die!”

Next, ask the students to compare the two fairy tale openings, side by side if you can.  Point out that some of the backstory was not told in the second version, but the important parts were.  More importantly, the second version starts with action, with someone doing something. We learn so much from the dialog of the mean fairy:  that there is a king and queen who have wanted a child for a long time, that their longed-for baby is a girl, and that on her 17th birthday she will prick her finger and die because of a spell by the evil fairy.  Aren’t those the essential parts of the backstory in the original version?  And isn’t the longer quote of the mean fairy in the second version more scary and exciting than telling the information as backstory, as in the first version?

When you have worked through this process with one fairy tale, choose another, and another, and another.  Each time rewrite the fairy tale aloud with the students, asking for their input as they grow more capable of writing this way.  Then, divide the class into small groups, and let each group attempt to rewrite a fairy tale opening.  Meanwhile, you circulate to offer help, suggestions or praise.  Ask students to volunteer to read their openings aloud and to talk about how they wrote, explaining their problems and solutions.

Finally, ask students to write their own fairy tale opening, incorporating background information into the action.  Let students read their works aloud.

For all of these exercises, students needn’t write the whole fairy tale.  What you are teaching is how to write better narrative openings, so writing the opening is enough.

 

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