Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

Backstory: Writing from the Rear View Mirror

YOU KNOW HOW THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR? A backwards glance can offer us a new perspective on where we’ve been. Like a literary rear view mirror, backstory lets readers know where we—or our characters—have come from. In doing so, backstory can reveal a character’s motivation, which, in turn, may elicit sympathy for that character’s present, less-appealing actions or attitudes.

WHAT IS BACKSTORY?
A definition
Whether we’re writing memoir, fiction, or a piece of literary journalism, backstory gives context to the story being told. It comprises events—internal (an anxiety attack, for example) or external (loss of a child, for example)—which have occurred before the story starts and are relevant to the story being told.

For example
In a story about a dissolving marriage, the loss of the couple’s child would certainly be relevant. If the child died before we meet the couple, then the death and the characters’ subsequent emotions are backstory—relevant past events.

However
In a story about a woman wanting to break the World Land Speed Record, the loss of the main character’s best friend’s child would likely not be relevant to the unfolding of the main story thread.

HOW CAN WE USE BACKSTORY MOST EFFECTIVELY?
Wait, wait, don’t tell me!
Opinions (of course) vary about how soon is too soon to incorporate backstory. For instance, brilliant film-and-novel-writing guy Robert McKee of STORY fame says to avoid backstory completely for the first three chapters! He believes this gives readers a chance to attach to the forward-moving story, creating a reason for them to care about what’s come before.

Other quite successful writers, however, actually start with backstory. In fact, thriller writer Julie Compton and I created a backstory workshop based on her well-received novel RESCUING OLIVIA, which introduces a fairly lengthy backstory passage quite early in the book. (CLICK HERE to read a post that uses RESCUING OLIVIA’S opening for an example.)

It is typical, though, for writers to hit the ground running. They’ll often start a first chapter in media res (in the middle of the present action), and then, in chapter two, turn back to consider earlier events to give their opening context.

Just say no to the info dump!
An “info dump” is a big chunk of information—especially backstory—“dumped” onto the page all at once. Whether your dump truck delivers your backstory via dialogue, narration, or internal narrative, readers will have trouble processing, and thus, remembering, backstory given in too big a lump.

Breadcrumbs
Instead, think of backstory as breadcrumbs. Scatter small bits along the unfolding story path, informing your reader of what’s happened in the past on a need-to-know basis.

Ways and means committee
Among other techniques, you might deliver backstory via

  • flashback (a past experience given in scene—including sensory detail and a “real-time” unfolding of events)
  • dialogue (your characters simply discuss events that happened before the story started)
  • or as internal narrative (your character remembers events and considers them internally).

Light touch
No matter how you deliver it, though, use as light a hand with backstory as you can. Err on the side of less is more.

Novel-writing resources

Enough about me! What do other folks have to say about backstory?

I’ve already cited Robert McKee’s STORY, but it bears repeating—and reading.

Tom Farr of The Writing Cooperative has some good pointers in his “The Art of Revealing Backstory,” up on the TWC site.

You might also like this WRITER’S DIGEST article: “How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly,” by Brian Klems

Finally, if you want to thumb your nose at my light-hand-with-backstory approach, here’s a super-successful memoir that shovels in about one full ton of backstory—in pretty large doses—and does so beautifully: WILD, by Cheryl Strayed.

***

Thanks to Caleb Whiting on Unsplash for Creative Commons photo.

Plotting Your Novel!

PENNING A PLOT IS A WILD RIDE—for both the writer and the character whose story is being told. Ups! Downs! Chills! Thrills! And then … that horrifying moment halfway through your draft when you, author, realize you don’t know what happens next!

For ten years, I’ve been helping writers extricate themselves from exactly that hairy spot—using a process called the Plot Clock. A virtual AAA road map of a narrative, the Plot Clock shows writers how to organize story events to get their characters to make the changes needed to fulfill their story’s purpose.

As Gail Shepherd, author of THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B. HAWKINS (Penguin), says, If you want to nail story structure, there’s no better method than the Plot Clock—it gives you a visual map to represent the arc of your story and keep you on track.

Now, I and my co-authors Joyce Sweeney and Tia Levings have finally written the Plot Clock book. So, if your story is stuck and spinning its wheels, forget AAA. Just call Amazon! Tell ’em to send a literary tow truck—fully loaded with a copy of PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK!

Tarot Writing Prompt: A “Hero” and a “Villain” Walk into a Novel

LIKE THE SET-UP FOR A BARROOM JOKE, we begin our novels by collecting players: the hero, a good guy, aka protagonist; and the villain, a bad guy, aka antagonist, the one whose job it is to make things tough for our hero … just so she can outwit him and end up, well, a hero, at the end of the day. At least that’s how she sees it. But I’d bet good money our villain sees things quite differently!

“History,” they say, “is written by the victors.” Likewise, most novels are written if not by heroes, at least in sympathy with them. But what about the bad guy? Because, turn a story inside out, and we can see that the hero thwarts the villain’s aims just as surely as the villain thwarts the hero’s. Yet, where’s the sympathy for that?

For example, in this illustration, it’s clear the retreating figure in the red cape has done the good-looking guy in the blue cape wrong—ten-swords-in-the-back’s-worth of wrong! But what if there’s more to the story? What if, in his eagerness to forward his own goals, young Mr. Blue Cloak neglected to take Red Cloak’s rights into account?

What if, before things came to this terrible pass, Red Cloak had tried to assert her claims, but that darned Blue Cloak guy just ignored her and kept tromping towards his own goal, with no thought for how it was undermining hers? Sure, it’s a shame she had to stab handsome Mr. Blue Cloak in the back ten times. But from Red Cloak’s perspective, it may be she just did what she needed to do to protect her interests.

So, why, she wonders, won’t anyone else see it from her point of view?

Well, what if we did? What if we agreed there are two sides to every story: the hero’s and the villain’s? And which is which depends entirely on our point of view?

Tarot writing prompt

Scene 1: Give a character a goal. That’s your protagonist, your hero. Give a second character a goal diametrically opposed to that of the first character. That’s your antagonist, your villain. Her job is to actively counter your protagonist’s efforts. Write a scene in which their competing goals force them head to head. This time, do so from your protagonist’s point of view, creating as much sympathy as possible for her.

Scene 2: Now, reverse their roles, writing about the same situation from the antagonist’s point of view. Show exactly how the former hero’s actions towards her goal undermine the former antagonist’s progress towards her goal. Make us sympathize with the former villain as much as we did with the hero when we were reading the previous scene.

This exercise could be good practice for writing, say, a psychological thriller, perhaps a story in which you want to keep your characters’ respective good-guy/bad-guy roles a mystery at first. In that case, you might want your reader to start by sympathizing with one character, only to realize that she is actually a freakin’ psychopath, who has been playing not only the other characters in the story, but your reader, as well. Then, maybe, the character who was wrongly perceived steps forward into protagonist-hood and heroically saves her own bacon!

Or vice-versa. Because, as I might have mentioned, “History is written by the victors.”

Novel-writing inspiration

Want to check out a couple of novels that turn the antagonist/protagonist dynamic on its conventional head? Try Gregory Maguire’s WICKED and his CONFESSIONS OF AN UGLY STEPSISTER.

You might also find this Wikipedia article about The Rolling Stones song “Sympathy with the Devil” interesting. Dark and challenging, perhaps, but interesting.

The image of the Ten of Swords, above, is from the EVERYDAY WITCH TAROT deck, written by Deborah Blake and published by Llewellyn Worldwide, and is used here with kind permission by EWT deck artist, Elisabeth Alba.

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A Novel That’s a Tarot Writing Prompt: Story Archetypes

LIKE THE YOUNGEST SON OF FAIRY-TALE FAME, the tarot Fool leaps into whatever wild undertaking has captured his imagination—and thus begins his journey. Similar to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, or Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, the quest the Fool embarks upon is called “the Fool’s Journey.” On his path, he meets—and is schooled by—the other cards in tarot’s major arcana, figures like the Magician, the High Priestess, and the Hermit.

The impulsive young hero at the center of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO, a historical novel by Karen Engelmann, is an eighteenth-century secretaire named Emil Larsson, who is also on a Fool’s journey of sorts. Emil’s journey starts when mysterious psychic (and Swedish Royalist) Mrs. Sparrow lays tarot cards for Emil in a pattern she calls “the Octavo.”

This layout consists of a central card, which represents Emil, surrounded by eight additional cards, that, Mrs. Sparrow explains, signify people and events Emil will encounter as he fulfills his destiny. Dealt randomly into their positions, these eight cards stand for what she calls a Companion, a Prisoner, a Teacher, a Courier, a Trickster, a Magpie, a Prize, and a Key. It’s up to Emil to distinguish who is whom and which is which!

Tarot writing prompt

As befits an idea that sustains a 400-page novel, this is a long-ish prompt. You might dive in and work through all the steps in one go (long weekend, anyone?). Or perhaps you’d prefer to proceed as Mrs. Sparrow did, when she doled out her reading for Emil, one card at a time, over eight consecutive nights.

Alternatively, of course, you can just dip in when you’re stuck mid-draft and need some literary fuel to get your story back on the road.

PICK AND CHOOSE: To start, you’ll need a pool of images to choose from. A tarot deck is ideal, but so is a stack of intriguing pictures torn from magazines. (If you’re going the magazine route, find at least twenty pictures to work with.) Sort through your images and find one to represent your main character, your Hero. Lay that image on a flat surface with room around it for the rest of its Octavo.

UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU’RE TURNING ME: Next, lay the rest of the images face down. Blindly, choose eight images from your upside-down deck or stack of magazine pics. (The point is to make yourself pick these eight images randomly.) For now, set these images aside without turning them over to peek.

ARTS AND CRAFTS TIME: Write the titles of the following eight story archetypes (which differ somewhat from those Mrs. Sparrow assigned to Emil’s cards) on eight small sticky notes:

  • Prize (what the Hero wants most; that for which he quests)
  • Herald (the character or event that reveals the quest to the Hero)
  • Antagonist (also, “Villain”; a person or force hostile to the Hero, which actively attempts to stop the Hero from completing his quest; does not need to be a person: for instance, might be a forest fire or a political situation)
  • Guardian (also, “Threshold Guardian”; ensures your Hero is worthy of crossing the threshold into their quest, proper; to do so, creates obstacles to the Hero early on that test the Hero’s mettle)
  • Sidekick (a best-friend archetype, who, notably, gets sidelined somewhere in the thick of the action)
  • Precious Child (a vulnerable story element; could be an animal, child, or family farm, for instance, which the Hero treasures and which the Antagonist threatens, raising the story stakes and tension)
  • Trickster (an unreliable, self-dealing character who creates story confusion; whose side is the Trickster really on? Maybe even the Trickster doesn’t know for sure.)
  • Mentor (a character whose story-relevant knowledge and skills are far more advanced than the Hero’s and who guides the Hero at pivotal points in his quest; notably, the Mentor must be absent at the story’s climax, so the Hero has to face the Antagonist in that final battle on his own)

Turn over your eight set-aside images, now, and randomly affix the archetype-stickies to them. (This randomness makes the story more true to our experience, as we seldom know what role a new acquaintance will play in our life or what effect an unforeseen event might have!)

RING AROUND THE ROSY (-CHEEKED HERO): Now, lay the stickied images around the one representing your Hero. Bravo! You’ve created your Hero’s Octavo!

READY, STEADY, GO! Write one scene for each archetype. Through your Hero’s eight in-scene interactions, be sure to show how his quest is affected by each of the people and/or situations represented by the image and archetype it’s been assigned.

Since these archetypes are present in most stories, once you’ve written your way through all eight interactions, you might find—voila!—you are well on your way to a draft of a novel or novella! Certainly, it’s a good weekend’s worth of work (because you and I both know the lawn—and the dishes and the bills and the litter box—can wait ’til next week).

Novel-writing inspiration (and blog-posting appreciation!)

If you’re new to the idea of story archetypes, a quick digest of a few of them is available at Graeme Shimmin’s site. You’ll find a more in-depth consideration in this Hillsborough Community College PDF.

Or dive deep into Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. (You won’t be sorry. Tired, maybe. But not sorry!)

There’s a lovely NEW YORK TIMES book review of THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO by Susann Cokal.

Thank you to U.S. Games Systems, Inc. for their kind permission to use images from the RIDER WAITE SMITH TAROT for my Octavo example. I’m also grateful to Illustrator Dylan Meconis, whose image of Luther as the Fool accompanies this post.

Finally, thanks to George and Sal, who knew I wouldn’t be able to resist a story based on a tarot spread.

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