BACK STORY Writing Article Number 1 from the Archive
Different writing disciplines aren’t locked into tight compartments. If you’re writing a novel I think it helps to read poetry for the richness of the language and the way it opens you up to fresh ways of making words work together. But if you need assistance with structure then I suggest you look at the challenges faced by scriptwriters.
I subscribe to Philip Shelley’s weekly email newsletter. He has worked as script editor and producer on many successful series, such as INSPECTOR MORSE, KAVANAGH QC and WAKING THE DEAD. I particularly enjoyed Waking the Dead (and isn’t it one of the best titles ever) so I was interested to learn how they dealt with the problem of having too much back story — having to explain what happened in the past.
This is what he had to say.
“The one ‘format’ difficulty with WAKING THE DEAD was the fact that the cold cases had obviously all happened in the past – they were essentially BACK-STORY – and this necessitated a lot of expositional unpacking of this back-story. So the investigation of the cold case always had to work alongside an investigation in the present – usually a new murder committed in an attempt to cover up the truth of the cold case murder.”
This strategy can be translated to a short story or novel. The main event – and the consequences that spiral out of it – can happen in the past but you also need a correspondingly big and connected drama happening in the ‘now’ of the story