Category Archives: backstory

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.

 

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.