Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter or Balancing Backstory

In the great romantic movie, Shakespeare in Love, the title character is writing a play which he calls Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Of course, it soon becomes Romeo and Juliet, and there’s no bit with the dog, but the character arcs are fascinating and well written.

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But if you were writing a story about a woman named Ethel, and you didn’t want to waste pages and pages setting up the back story of her life as a pirate’s daughter, you could save some time by using the above title.

Basically, you want to give the reader enough information so that they understand the story, but not so much as you probably think you do. Laura Drake presented a great workshop on Balancing Backstory at the California Dreamin’ Writers Convention in March. If you ever get a chance to take a class from her, jump on it. She’s really smart and fun and more helpful than you would expect a top-selling author to be. (I’m kidding, because all the authors I have met to date have been helpful) She will be in New York City in July for the RWA convention, signing books, and maybe doing a workshop. I hope she comes next year when the RWA convention will be in San Diego.

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Consider this. How much time do you spend thinking of your past? How often do your friends suddenly tell you about their past? Sure, it happens, but not all the time, not every day, not even more than once a week, probably. So why are your characters different than most people?

Drop back story into dialogue whenever possible. But if you find yourself writing “As you know –” you probably aren’t doing it right. Keep things new for the character receiving the information.

Flash backs? That’s a big no. And to be clear, that’s like a whole chapter or more where we go back in time and see what happened. Back Flashes are short, small, glimpses in the character’s head during a quiet moment.

Here are Laura’s Rules regarding Backstory:

1. No Flashbacks in the first HALF of the book.

2. No more than 5 pages total per book.

3. There can be two flashbacks, but no more than 5 pages total.

Someone asked a top-selling author about this. “Do I have to?” The answer: “Only if you want to sell the book.”

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This is only a very small glimpse into this workshop. I could never convey the experience and skills shared by Laura Drake in 400 or so words. I say again, if you have the opportunity to take her workshops, do so. You will learn so much.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on Sunday.

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