In a post from last week, I discussed weaving in backstory to avoid infodumps. Coincidentally, the day I posted it on this blog, I attended the Speed Art Museum that evening where Kentucky author Silas House spoke on the subject.
One thing he said stuck out to me: “I believe there’s a very thing veil between the writer and the reader,” claims House, “and if I’m successful in my intentions as a writer, what I’m thinking seeps through to the reader’s mind.”
So many great quotes from that event; however, I’ll just share what he said about his sources of inspiration. Of course, he finds inspiration from the novels and writings of his favorite fellow writers such as Dorothy Allison and Garth Greenwell, but he claims he also found ideas for stories in a variety of media: photographs he’s taken, films he’s watched, color schemes he’s photographed in nature.
He also found stories from an unusual source. As a boy, he saw backstory in the paintings hanging in his church, like Da Vinci’s Last Supper. What were each of the disciples saying to each other? What were they thinking to the words of Christ this last night before the crucifixion?
He saw stories in those paintings, and today, he also finds his muse in film. He finds movies a great way to find imagery in writing. “When I’m writing a novel or a short story, says House, “I’m seeing the action in my mind like a film playing there and it’s my responsibility to articulate things in such a way that the reader can see it in his mind as well.”
House drove his point home by showing a short clip of the first minute of the movie Children of Men. He felt it was one of the best films he’s seen because its imagery sticks with the reader. “In my mind, it does everything story-wise perfectly and most importantly it’s imagery sticks with the viewer. It knows how to tell the story.”
I believe there’s a very thin veil between the writer and the reader, and if I’m successful in my intentions as a writer, what I’m thinking seeps through to the reader’s mind.Silas House
He played the video to demonstrate his point. Here it is:
Some spoilers follow:
Without exposition, so much backstory is presented to the viewer in just a few moments: it’s the not-to-distant-future; for some reason, no child has been born in 18 years; the youngest person on the planet has been murdered.
We find out later there is symbolism in this short clip: the guy getting the coffee gets some focused attention from the dog, as if the guy is a messianic figure.
Now, I haven’t read the Children of Men novel–it’s been on my to-read list, but I’m curious how this information is presented in it. But as for the film, House pointed out how it shows so much with imagery, and how it effectively doles out backstory in a subtle way:
We must always resist the temptation to load the reader down with backstory. We must simply drop the reader into the action. Lead with a mix of suspense and emotion. Allow the reader to feel they are a participate in the story by requiring them to gather their own information even as we provide it for them.Silas House
I’ve read House’s novel, A Parchment of Leaves and I love the imagery he presented in that story. At the museum, he spoke about his recent work Southernmost and his upcoming book, Lark Ascending.