When I’m ghostwriting a memoir, an interesting challenge usually comes up: there are two stories that need to be told. This is also a big issue when the book reads like a novel based upon a true story: there is the “real time” story, and then there is the “back story.”
The real time story is the one we’re telling–
- “How I succeeded in business,”
- “How I overcame MS and became a celebrated athlete,”
- “Our trip to Africa and how it changed us forever,”
- “How I escaped from one cult only to join another one,”
- “How and why my best friends and I robbed a bank.”
(just using examples from the books I’ve written in the past few years. You get the picture.)
Of course, the back story is what the reader needs to know in order to understand how you got to be you. Often, this involves the story of your childhood, sometimes the story of your young-adulthood too.
In the most complicated example of this, in God’s Little Brother, I had to tell the real time story of a man in an Indiaphile-type cult who seeks an arranged marriage in India, then ends up having to sneak out of the country under threat of being thrown in jail. Now, the story is very interesting and suspenseful all by itself, but in order to sympathize with this very eccentric character, you absolutely must understand how he got to be this way and what drives him to do the things he does.
In order to understand that, you must understand the way he was brought up, but also what he went through, thirty years ago, when he joined this cult. So this story has two different time periods of back story, plus one real time story. My job, of course, is to deliver the back story information while keeping the real time suspense high, and also not confusing people. A tricky proposition at best! Most books aren’t this complicated, though, they just have one era of backstory to tell.
Flashing Back to Two Time Periods
The way I’m doing it in the caper I’m currently writing is to insert a paragraph here, a sentence there, just enough to give the story texture and make the reader want to know more about the past, but not enough to take you into a flashback.
What I did in God’s Little Brother was to write the real time story in the present tense, then go into full-on chapter-length flashbacks to talk about the two different periods of back story–just in the places where the reader absolutely needed that info.
I’m not a fan of present-tense writing, but in that case, I felt something drastic had to be done. Anyway, I could talk forever about inserting back story, but this is just a blog, not a book, so I’ll end it there. Maybe I’ll do another blog on specifics, soon, if any writers out there are interested.