Verse Week Guest Post: Gabrielle Prendergast on Backstory & Writing in Verse
We're halfway through our annual Novel in Verse Week celebration here on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves and today we have verse novelist Gabrielle Prendergast who shares an inside glimpse on the challenges of creating backstory with the verse format. Enjoy! ~Sarah
One of the challenges for any author, particularly one who writes contemporary novels for teens, is the task of revealing backstory. Because I started out as a screenwriter, backstory, as it is frequently revealed in contemporary young adult books, does not come naturally. I tend to still see my stories as screenwriters do, as a series of scenes in a mostly linear narrative, so diversions into reminiscence feel awkward to write.
But backstory is critical, and in contemporary first person narrated young adult novels, it plays a huge role in getting to know the main character through their past actions and experiences. “Show don’t tell” is the mantra. Delving into the past allows us to see how the characters became who they are rather than them having to tell us.
Writing in verse, while it shares the conciseness and imagery of screenwriting, nevertheless is antithetical to screenwriting when it comes to inner life. In screenwriting it is a never ending struggle to reveal a character’s inner life, never mind their past, without resorting to flashback or voiceover. In verse novels techniques that are analogous to flashback and voiceover are essential.
Perhaps this is why the verse form works for me a as young adult novelist. Forced into writing more meditatively I found I had fewer problems not only expressing the inner life and backstory of my protagonist/narrator but also was able to fit these reminiscences seamlessly into the overall story. Good verse novels naturally fall into a rhythm of action and reflection and it is in these reflective breaks that the magic can really happen. Here’s an example from my upcoming verse novel Audacious (Orca Books, Fall l 2103) that in one short poem expresses not only the romantic history of my protagonist, but also quite a lot about her lack of self-worth.
And never been kissed
Not on purpose anyway
A drunk boy once engulfed me
At a party
In a narrow dark passage between
Beer and vomit
He pressed me against a lurid orange wall
Tongue and hands exploring
Like a surgeon
Looking for lumps.
“You’re not Rebecca,” he slurred
Like I didn’t know.
I watched him stumble and
Pinball down the hall
Another example, which is written in rhyme, quickly summarises another character’s (my protagonist’s mother) backstory and sets up her struggle with an eating disorder.
We were latch-key kids, my sister and I
We walked from the school along the beach
Then eight blocks up. She’d want to try
To turn the lock, but I had to, since she couldn’t reach.
Mom loved books, you see, and wasn’t happy
Baking treats or mopping floors or growing roses
And nor were we, with her always feeling crappy
Nothing more exciting in her life than snotty noses.
She bought a suit on sale and some shoes
And ventured out in search of inspiration
Because a woman is allowed to choose
Exactly where she wishes to apply her dedication.
The public library was the beneficiary of her gifts
And we two girls soon learned survival skills.
Housewifery’s like that, I hear, some it uplifts
The rest, like my poor mom, it nearly kills.>
All this has a point. In this new city:
The library has no jobs, Mom says at dinner
My dad looks up, and says Oh? That’s a pity.
And this is when my mom starts getting thinner.
Writing in verse has its challenges, believe me, but there is also a freedom to be found in the collage-like form. The ability to use imagery and experiences from the past as a way to help the main narrative is one of the advantages to writing in verse. The requirement to be poetic, to be slightly more experimental with language and form also allows a deeper exploration of character and themes without interfering with the overall flow. Experiences, images and thoughts plucked from the characters’ pasts are one way this can work.