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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.

How the Moral Premise Drives your Story

The moral premise in there will be blood

The Moral Premise in There Will be Blood

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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

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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

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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.

Writing Great Dialogue Hooks

Unforgiven contains great dialogue hooks

The film Unforgiven contains some great dialogue hooks

Great dialogue is such an important part of successful storytelling that its study fills countless of books.

In this article I want to touch on one technical aspect of great dialogue – what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity.

(See Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual).

Swain suggests that in order to have dialogue hang together it needs to contain a dialogue hook. That is, each speech needs to acknowledge the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.

There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition and question/answer:

Two Technical Keys to Great Dialogue

In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story.

Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead.
Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead.
Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that.
Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?

This question and answer structure, as well as the repetition of the word ‘dead’ and ‘killed’, not only links the dialogue between the two characters, it bridges the second and third acts of the film. Munny’s shock and disbelief turns into unrelenting revenge with dire consequences for the perpetrators.

In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate.

President: Can there be a peace between us?
Alien: Peace? No peace.
President: What is it you want us to do?
Alien: Die. Die.

There are other ways to link dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question/answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.

Summary

Question/answer and repetition are two simple but powerful techniques to help you write great dialogue hooks for your novels and screenplays.

Archetypes and Characters in Stories

Archetypes - Gandalf in Lord of the Rings

Gandalf as one of the Mentor Archetypes in Lord of the Rings

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood studios, offers us eight character archetypes found, in one or other combination, in many successful stories.

They are the Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, and Trickster.

Most writers are familiar with some of these archetypes, albeit by different names, such as the Protagonist (Hero), Antagonist (Shadow), and Sidekick (Ally). Others, such as the Shapeshifter and Trickster, however, are less obvious.

The Trickster and Shapeshifter Archetypes

The Trickster represents mischief and the desire for change in the story. Clowns and comical sidekicks are examples of this sort of character. A chief psychological function of the Trickster is to cut the Hero’s ego down to size, typically through humour, in order to spotlight some absurdity in his thoughts and actions.

The Trickster’s dramatic function, as distinct from his psychological one, is to add comic relief to the tale. Some Tricksters may even rise to the level of a Trickster Hero, such as Bugs Bunny or Duffy Duck. Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop, captures many of the energies of this archetype, disrupting the Californian police system, while remaining unchanged himself.

The Shapeshifter expresses the energy of the animus and anima, which, in Jung’s psychology, characterises the male and female elements in our unconscious mind. We all embody aspects of the opposite sex within us, traits which are often repressed by society. We are told that girls play with dolls and teddies, and boys with cars and guns. When they cross over, it creates conflict in the characters, which, in story terms, enriches the plot.

The Shapeshifter’s dramatic function is to bring uncertainty and suspense to the tale. When the Hero keeps enquiring, “Is he friend or foe? Does she love me? Will she betray me?” a Trickster is generally present. A famous Trickster, who also embodies the attributes of the Shadow (Antagonist), is Iago who helps push Othello to murder and despair.

Women, portrayed through sudden changes in mood and appearance, typically make great Shapeshifters. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the woman quickly shifts from passionate lover to murderous harpy when the man with whom she is having an affair tries to end it.

Wizards, witches, and ogres are typical of this archetype in fairytales. The femme fatale, found in the noir films of the forties and fifties, finds deadly expression in cop and detective stories – Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Kathleen Turner in Body Heat.

Archetypes, then, allow us to create more complex characters by mixing them together to create more unique characters. At the same time, they allow us to map and track the psychological and dramatic requirements of a story – a boon to any writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Understanding the psychological and dramatic function of archetypes allows us to mix specific elements from each. The result is new, exciting, and viable characters for our stories.

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.