Way too often on a first draft, I lead with back story. It’s a habit I hope to outgrow as my writing matures. But in the meantime, I need strategies to fix it once all that background info is already there, at the top of a manuscript, bogging things down and keeping the action at bay.
Last week Lindsay posted about the previous weekend’s Eastern PA SCBWI Pocono Retreat and mentioned that she’d gotten some good insights on this issue from Heather Flaherty‘s presentation there. She has promised to follow up with some notes, but in the interim, I decided to do a little bit of trolling for strategies — particularly strategies that work for picture books. Here are a few I found on my bookshelves and in thinking back about my own process.
1. IS THAT INFORMATION REALLY NECESSARY? I didn’t find a lot of unnecessary back story in the picture books on my shelves, because it all got edited out! I know sometimes that I need to know all that back story in order to understand a character — what motivates her, how she got to where she is, etc. — but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else needs to know it too. It’s a good question to ask when it comes to the great back story purge: is this really helping the story? What would happen if I removed it? Or could it help more if I put it somewhere else — like in the blacked out band of the CUT cursor?
2. A SINGLE WORD: CONDENSE! There’s some background-info you do need. And sometimes a single word can replace a whole dribble of back story with the essential, relevant bit of information that the back story has to offer. I was working on a story the other day with this old woman character who’s husband had died the year before and she was all alone in her little house missing him, learning how to live by herself. It didn’t matter how or when he died, though. What mattered was that she was getting used to her loneliness. I was struggling with how to communicate that when I realized that the fact that she was alone was pretty easy to communicate with a single word: ALONE. She lived ALONE. Likewise, the fact that her husband had died was easy to get at in a reference to the crocuses — which figure prominently in the opening action of the story — which she was worried about the neighbor-child harming. They were planted by her LATE husband. Never mind all the unnecessary detail.
3. ILLUSTRATION. In the world of picture books, another variation of the old adage, “show, don’t tell”, might be “don’t tell, let the illustrator show.” Back story can appear — or be implied — in illustration, rather than in the text. In Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, Simms Taback keeps his text so spare — like a simple spine — and has his illustrations fill in all the texture and context and background on this guy, Joseph, and his ever-shrinking coat. If you just read the text, you would never necessarily know that the story came from a Yiddish folk song. All that cultural context and texture comes from the book’s rich illustrations (never mind how artfully Taback uses those cut-outs!).
Kids are such natural little noticers and detectives — they love discovering detail for themselves rather than being told. And just think: if you put critical back story in the illustrations, maybe then you have a valid excuse for an illustration note!
4. FRONT MATTER & END PAGES. If there is back story that really is important to your narrative, or that adds key dimensionality, you can always go the route of Patricia Polacco’s Just Plain Fancy, or Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny. I read Just Plain Fancy a bunch of times before I registered that egg falling off the Penn State Hatchery truck up by the title page. And while the “snapshots” at the start of Knuffle Bunny aren’t critical to the story, they do put the whole story into the context of the series of life’s photo-worthy “big moments” — in this case Trixie’s first words. Thirty-two pages is not a lot of pages. It makes sense to squeeze as much as possible out of every one.
These are the four strategies I’ve come up with so far — a mix of text-based and illustration-oriented — and I’m sure there must be more. If you have any of your own that you’re willing to share, please: send ’em on!
Anna Forrester blogs about reading and writing children’s books at HMMMMM.( https://annaforrester.wordpress.com/ ) She lives and writes in Philadelphia (and, sometimes, in Benton, PA), and in her other life is a mother, a landscape architect and an advocate for smart, green, outdoor play spaces.