Tag Archives: novelist

How to Make the Backstory Relevant to Plot and Character

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The backstory is essential to plot and character in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

I remember reading somewhere that in order to write a great character you first have to know that character’s backstory in great detail.

Only then, it was suggested, would you be in a position to know how the character ought to respond to certain situations. Only then can you think about developing the plot.

My gosh, how daunting. It’s like asking me to plow a large field with a spade. If I took that advice I’d never finish any story.

 

“The point is that the backstory is important only insofar as it sheds light on a character’s responses to the challenges posed by the plot.”

But how could we possibly know that in advance?

Yes, it might be interesting to note that your hero smokes cigarillos on his birthday if that quirk will enrich his character, but do I really need to know that he wore red scarves as a child if that observation might be of no significance to the story?

It shouldn’t be that complicated, folks.

Drilling Down to the Essentials of the Backstory

So, where does one begin looking for significant events in the backstory, especially when the story is not fully determined yet?

Let me tell you what works for me.

Because I sit halfway between being a pantser and a plotter, I begin with a sense of what my protagonist needs to achieve in the story—his goal.

Nothing too specific yet. Perhaps he needs to defeat an adversary from his past. Perhaps he needs to arrive at a certain destination at a specific time. I know he will encounter external obstacles in trying to do so, but I do not need to know exactly what they are yet.

I also know that I need to challenge his ability to achieve his goal by complicating his decision making process through a dilemma, or some inner flaw.

These clues come from thinking about the plot and character simultaneously, and in general terms—nothing too specific, at this time.

Let’s say my protagonist suffers from agoraphobia or is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

This immediately forces me to think about what incident in the past might have given rise to this condition. Such an incident is truly worthy of being part of the backstory.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, my protagonist’s addiction to smoking directly affects the plot of the story. Indeed, his desire to have one last pack of cigarettes before boarding the Sidney ferry with his wife is the chief cause of his predicament.

This realisation led me to sketch in some background regarding his smoking.

Thinking about your character’s goal and relating it to his positive and negative traits, then, encourages you to come up with that part of the backstory that sheds light on why your character might have those traits in the first place.

Think of this approach as a goal-trait-backstory triad of techniques that helps grow the story in a more integrated and economical way.

Summary

Find the story goal. Relate it to your protagonist’s flaws and traits. Come up with the backstory that explains them.

Writing Distinctive Dialogue

Distinctive dialogue in The Simpsons

Distinctive dialogue in The Simpsons

ONE of the most common mistakes we make early on as writers is that we do not give each of our characters distinctive dialogue.

All too often Tom tends to sound like Dick and Dick like Harry. There is little separation in tone, style, idiom, colour, let alone subtlety or shading. We mistakenly concentrate on having the dialogue promote plot, rather than simultaneously using it to reveal character, too.

Yet, dialogue, when written well, is one of the most efficient ways of establishing texture and variety in our characters. Watch any episode of the Simpsons and try to redistribute the dialogue between characters. Close to impossible to do. That’s because each utterance belongs to that character and that character alone.

“Distinctive dialogue brims with life and individuality. It transmits the values, manners, texture, idiom, and unique personality of each character in the story.”

The Power of Distinctive Dialogue

In Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers provides us with this example, taken from his adaptation of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me, by Suzanne Kingsbury:

MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
(auctioneer fast)
I’m doing good. Annie May’s on the phone this mornin’, her son
Walter he run around with that little Peterson boy. The Petersons,
they can’t hold themselves together. Big James Earl Peterson,
that’s that boy’s daddy, he gone shot himself through the mouth
last month. Just last Sat’day, that little un done the same thing, .22
on his tongue, and pulled the trigger. Walter gone and have to watch
it. He ten years old.

RILEY
Son of a bitch.

MAN ON A SODA MACHINE
That boy’s fat as a hog, too. Dead fat kid on a back porch in this heat’s
a Goddamn buttache.

Compare this to the career diplomat who’s appalled with America for lying to the South Vietnamese:

MCKILLOP
I’ve been here five years…
(looks at Ellen)
This is my home…And now we’re just running out…
(this kills him)
Nobody asked us to come here. We told those people we’d save
them from the boogie man. And now they trusted us…And now it’s
over…Just shot too pieces. We came in here with our “we wear
coats and ties, we know what we’re doing here folks” attitude, and…
we didn’t…And now… and now, we’re just leaving them like a thief
in the night…leaving them… in such a mess… and, and… I’m so
ashamed and so sorry…

The pace, idiom, texture, and speech patterns between the two is clearly very different, as is the attitude to life. Each character sounds like himself and no other. Try to emulate this in your own characters and watch them spring to life.

Summary

At its best, distinctive dialogue conveys, in a subtle way, the values, texture, idiom and unique personality of each character in the story.

Perseverance and the Writer

Writer, Steven King

Writer, Stephen King received many rejection letters before gaining traction.

THEY say it’s lonely at the top. But the truth is that it’s even lonelier at the bottom.

It’s also more frightening and more frugal. Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.

Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.

Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.

These sorts of accounts are legion.

But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.

The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.

Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some closer to earth, followed.

Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.

Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.

Sound familiar?

“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them made and read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. It may sound like a platitude, but it takes strength, endurance, and an unflinching belief in yourself to finish in good time.”

There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.

But perhaps the solution is all around you.

How a writer beats the blues

Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.

Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put them into practice.

But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.

Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.

That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.

Summary

Keep writing. Keep learning. And never give up.

Emotion and Story Engagement

EmotionAS my mentor, the veteran South African filmmaker Elmo De Witt used to say, if we don’t feel emotion for our characters then we won’t care about their stories.

And if we don’t care about their stories we won’t care about the ideas behind them.

It is as simple and as complex as that.

Simple, because once we come to feel for the characters we will come to care about their fate and its meaning. Complex, because it takes great skill to find the words to make it so.

“The point is that emotion prises us open like an oyster. It shines a light on ignorance and prejudice. It discovers that precious and timeless wisdom residing inside the most shuttered heart.”

Primarily interested in communicating lofty, existential, philosophical concepts about the nature of reality and the human condition? Go write for a philosophy or psychology journal. Don’t focus solely on making your characters vehicles for conveying ideas. If you do, be prepared to have diminished success.

The Primacy of Emotion

Emotion that supports profound insight, however, makes a story unforgettable. Consider the following passages:

“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.”
― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.”
― Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not

“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

Moving, insightful, stuff and a reminder to writers that insight and emotion go hand in hand.

Summary

Use emotion to force your readers and audiences to care about characters and ideas.

Dramatic Beats and Turning Points in Stories

A dramatic Beat and Turning PointsA dramatic beat is a small but significant knot of information in a story.

Beats generally take the form of an event or action resulting in a reaction. Although a beat provides additional information, it is not strong enough to spin the story in a different direction.

Consider the protagonist in a story getting ready to meet his fiancé at a restaurant. He opens the door to find his mother standing outside. She’s come for a visit. He politely informs her that her visit will have to wait as he is already late for his date. His mother leaves, somewhat disgruntled.

The unexpected arrival of the mother and her having to leave constitutes a single dramatic beat.

The number of beats can be as low as one or two in a short scene, to five or more in a longer one. There is, however, no set number. Importantly, the rate of beats in an entire story varies from genre to genre. Art cinema and literature typically has a slower rhythm than mainstream films and novels.

The Dramatic Beat and Turning Points

A turning point, by contrast, is new information that is so forceful and, often, surprising, that it turns the story in a new direction. Things can no longer continue as they are.

“Turning points are beefed-up dramatic beats that turn the direction of a story.”

In our above-mentioned example, imagine our protagonist opening the door to have his mother reveal to him that his fiancé has just told her that she’s leaving him for another man. In a love story, that would constitute a turning point – a beat on steroids that changes the direction of the story.

Not all turning points come from outer events. Sometimes a sudden insight about some hitherto hidden truth about a character’s life can turn the story on its head – as in Benjamin Vlahos’ realisation about his true ancestry in The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

Summary

The dramatic beat is a small but significant unit of action and reaction in a scene. Turning points are beefed-up beats that change the direction of the story.

Good Scenes – Essentials

Scenes and story thrust in Dances with Wolves

Scenes and story thrust in Dances with Wolves

.
IN her book, Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger reminds us that in reading through scene after scene in a conventional novel or film script, we occasionally observe that something feels off with the story.

At best, the tale seems to have grown limp. At worst, it has ground to a halt. Yet, when we think about each scene individually, there seems little wrong with any one of them. This can be particularly marked in a long story.

The problem, more often than not, lies in a scene being disconnected from the story by being merely descriptive and static.

“A good scene must, at the very least, contribute to the forward thrust of the story.”

Compare the intensity of films such as Schindler’s list and Dances with Wolves to The Last Emperor and Hope and Glory.

The last two films certainly contain their own magic, but they feel long and drawn out because they are filled with static and descriptive scenes rather than scenes that propel us inexorably towards a specific goal. Such scenes slacken a story because they lack outer and inner momentum.

Checking your Scenes

In trying to avoid this pitfall in your own writing, ask yourself five crucial questions, and make sure the answers are in the affirmative:

1. Is each scene absolutely essential in my story?
2. Does each scene drive my story forward?
3. Are most of my scenes cinematic – do they conjure up images in the minds of the readers?
4. Do most of my scenes involve ongoing character relationships?
5. Do I enter a scene late and leave early, after the point has been made?

There are other articles in this website that provide more replete checklists, but the questions mentioned above are some of the most crucial.

Summary

Run your scenes through a checklist to ensure that they fulfill their essential functions within your story.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood

The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

.

.

ALL great stories have a moral premise – a deep structure that shapes the narrative from below the surface of the novel or film.

The moral premise is why writers write stories. It is the expression of cause and effect seen from an ethical and moral perspective.

“The Moral Premise exists at a level below the plot, shaping narrative actions and their consequences according to its own internal logic.”

Some of the writers have only a vague notion of their moral premise upon commencing their stories. They know there will be good characters, evil characters and in-between characters, and they leave it at that, choosing, rather, to concentrate on the machinations of the plot. After all, the plot is where all the visceral, sticky, fun stuff happens.

Yet, the moral premise is inherent in every story whether we consciously put it there or not. It should, therefore, be as much a part of our conscious intent as the plot. Ignoring it may result in our thinking we are writing one sort of story while we are really writing another.

Even more importantly, the moral premise helps us understand the reason our protagonist acts in the way that he does. It helps us craft the trajectory of the story.

The Moral Premise in There will be Blood

In There Will Be Blood we follow the consequences of what happens when Daniel Plainview, a man with no scruples or morals, gains wealth and power through oil. His initial charitable act of adopting the son of one of his workers who has been killed in a drilling accident, soon gives way to relentless self-interest.

He sends the boy away because he has become deaf in yet another drilling accident and is now a burden to his operations. The boy later returns, but as Plainview sinks deeper into the mire he becomes incapable of maintaining friendships or family bonds.

He murders the man who has claimed to be his long-lost half-brother when he discovers he is an imposter. He rejects his adopted son when he learns that he wants to make his own way in the oil business. And finally, he murders Eli Sunday, the evangelist with whom he has been butting heads over land and oil.

If we take the moral premise of the film to be that the pursuit of wealth and power, at the expense of love and family, leads to loneliness and defeat, we can place each scene in the story along a trajectory that finally ends in Plainview lying drunk in the bowling alley in his home – bloodied, spent, alone. In a sense, he is as dead as the body of Eli Sunday sprawled next to him – the man he has just murdered with a bowling pin.

Summary

The moral premise guides the writer in identifying and placing narrative incidents along a trajectory in a story.

Character Action and Character Dialogue

Clint Eastwood: Quintessential Minimalist Character Action

Clint Eastwood – Quintessential Character Action in the Spaghetti Western

.
.
.
.
DIALOGUE, as I have often stated in my classes and articles, is an important part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, reveals character, and, at its best, draws us into the minds of the story’s characters.

But, sometimes, scenes are better served through action alone.

When Character Action Trumps Dialogue

The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind. Here the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence, from ape to spacefaring humanity, is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

And who can forget the laconic style of the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gun slinger whose draw is lightning fast?

As he faces off against man after man, willing them to draw, tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, unflinching gazes, twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns, and the like. No need for dialogue here.

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggest that he is disconnected from the world.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very existence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

An absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on character action and its significance.

A Good Villain?

Pablo Escobar as the chief villain

Pablo Escobar as the chief Villain

.

IN his book, Screenwriting, UCLA professor Richard Walter, reminds us that just as there are few purely good or purely bad people in life, a well observed character, particularly a villain or an anti-hero in a story, should contain at least some small trace of good in him.

“What Makes A Good Villain?”

In Narcos, for example, the drug lord, Escobar is responsible for establishing the cocaine trade in Miami, and murdering many innocent people in his own country, Colombia, as a show of force against the government.

Yet, his love for his family and his generosity to the poor people of his own town point to some good traits in him. When the tables are turned on him by rival cartels, as well as an equally brutal police force, he is separated from his family as he attempts to get them out of the country to safety. To make matters worse, they end up in the hands of the Colombian police. That is the beginning of the end for Escobar.

As his men are killed off one by one he becomes increasingly isolated. His father rejects him. His wife asks him to turn himself in. Despite his record, we cannot help but feel a wisp of sympathy for him.

    “A villain who is completely villainous, without a single trace of humanity in him, is essentially uninteresting and unconvincing in a story.”

In the 1970’s television series, Archie Bunker, the lead character is portrayed as stubborn, not very bright, and bigoted, hardly traits that we admire.

But who amongst us has never felt some prejudice or acted in a willful way towards others? Despite his negative traits, and because of the skillful writing of his character, we, unexpectedly, come to love the bigoted, stubborn Archie. Richard Walter suggests that part of the reason for this lies in that in comparing ourselves to Archie, we can at least feel relief that we are not as bigoted as he is.

Additionally, we are forced to recognise that prejudice can reside in anyone – a beloved grandfather, a friend, even a spouse, and we strive to guard against it in our own lives. The reason that we give such characters the time of day at all, then, is because, at the very least, we feel some sympathy for them. Without sympathy, without liking some aspect of their character, we would not waste our time on them.

Summary

Add some sympathetic traits to your most unlikable characters, especially to your villain, to avoid making them flat and stereotypical.


Signaling Emotional Changes in Story Characters

Emotional changes

Signaling Emotional Changes in Character

ONE of the hallmarks of good writing in films and novels is that there are emotional changes to the characters through time.

In stories, as in life, people learn from their mistakes, from life’s hard knocks, and try to prevent them from recurring by adjusting some aspect of their character.

Some, of course, never do, but that’s a topic for a future article.

But how do characters move from one state to another? How does love turn into hate? Passion into indifference?

Cueing Emotional Changes

Novice writers often make the mistake of creating characters who erratically jump from state to state. I’ve written before in this blog about the need for introducing transitional emotional states.

But how do we specifically convey these shifts to our readers? Is it through dialogue? Is it through narration?

In most cases, the best way to signal change is subtly, through small but telling actions. In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty offers the example of a girl falling out of love with her boyfriend.

Does the girl tell him outright that she no longer loves him?

That might be too abrupt (unless that is the specific effect we are after). It would also be spoon feeding the reader. The story might require that the breakup be dragged out a bit.

In the example provided by Geraghty, the character stops using hair conditioner when washing her hair. It is a sign that she no longer cares about looking her best for him – that he’s not worth the extra cost of conditioner.

Subtle, but telling.

In planning for an emotional shift in your characters, then, identify the spot where the shift is to occur, then insert a telling but subtle action to signal it. This technique will add polish and finesse to your writing.

Summary

Signal a significant change to the emotional state of your characters through subtle but telling actions.