We haven’t talked lately about why successful writers produce unique work that stands out from most other submissions. A number of factors contribute: technique, skill with words, patience, and vocabulary among them, but one important element is often overlooked: back story.
In 1986, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist named JON FRANKLIN wrote a book called WRITING FOR STORY. I still refer to the book for its keen insights into the making of a good story. He talks about TRUMAN CAPOTE and his “nonfiction novel,” IN COLD BLOOD, that changed how short stories and novels would be written in the years ahead. A story, says Jon, needs a problem relevant to the human condition. The action is how the condition, the problem, is somehow resolved. He urged the reader to scan brief newspaper articles that report on the ends of stories: someone wins a price, dies from a lingering struggle with cancer, graduates from high school first in her family…
Often, such articles are not the real stories. They are the results of a problem or challenge or issue that has been resolved. The real story is what went on before that. The writer needs to dig deeper, examine the conditions that created the problem and the struggles that led to its resolution. This is the difference between reporting on a thing already done and holding your reader spellbound with the action that led to the conclusion of what may have been a tense, exciting story.
We writers are good at taking bits and pieces from what we learn and cobbling them together to suite our own purpose at hand. PIGGY WIGLET AND THE GREAT ADVENTURE, the story of a runaway piglet, grew from a short report I read years ago in The Kansas City Star. A boy in a Denver suburb was raising a young pig. The pig got away. It somehow made it into town. People tried in vain to catch the runaway and finally called the Police Department. Two officers were dispatched and caught the oinker on the parking lot of a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. All true. But why, I asked myself, did the baby pig run away? My answer? He was chasing the sun. Thus, the book.
WHEN COWS COME HOME, was inspired by a GARY LAWSON calendar cartoon on my desk. The cows’ antics made me wonder what else cows might do when our backs are turned.
I apply a slight variation of this approach to my poems, too. Take a word, examine it, look for a surprising back story, and you might wind up with a poem that no else saw coming. That’s our goal.