Monthly Archives: February 2021

How to work with backstory

Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,
Unforgiven is a master class on how to work with backstory,

Do you know how to work with backstory?

There is no shortage of how-to articles on writing on the internet, not least of all material on this website; there are articles on the inciting incident, turning points, on character arcs, dialogue and a multitude of other narrative elements. 

And this is all to the good. 

But there are some subtle aspects of the subject that are not as often discussed, such as how much exposition or backstory to reveal, and when to reveal it. 

The Whodunit, for one, can’t succeed without mastery over this element, but truthfully, most stories deploy the technique, since most stories withhold information from the backstory to intrigue and surprise. 

The question hence arises, when, where, and how much information to reveal or withhold?

“The more knowledgeable you are about story structure the more easily you’ll work with backstory – the art of when, where and how to best reveal background information.”

Enter the three act structure. Knowing that the first act’s task is to introduce the world and its characters, to create a ripple in the status quo and to state the goal—the first few pages that include inciting incident and the first turning point are good places to slip in nuggets of backstory. Ditto for the second act’s midpoint and second turning point, and the third act’s climax and resolution.

Information, at these junctures, may be leaked through action, direct dialogue, or subtext. 

When, in Unforgiven, one of the deputies doubts Little Bill Daggett’s courage, another deputy quips (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Little Bill scared? Little Bill grew up in (the mean streets of) Kansas. Little Bill ain’t scared. He’s just no carpenter.” 

The dialogue is laconic, befitting men of action. Nevertheless,  it does leak enough backstory to reveal just how tough an opponent Little Bill is going to be for William Munny.

Earlier in the story, at the inciting incident, the Schofield Kid rides into Munny’s pig farm to ask him join him on a job to kill two cowboys who cut up the face of a prostitute. He asks if Munny is the same William Munny who killed so many people, including women and children, in the past. Munny simply replies, “I guess so.” The scene is understated and rather humorous, playing on the Kid’s naive awe for Munny’s ‘achievements’. It nonetheless gives us important background information about Manny’s past as a ruthless killer.

Additionally, Munny’s constant chatter about how his wife helped him abandon his wicked ways is an adroit way of sneaking in backstory. For example, he tells his children how, at one time, he might have whipped and cursed a horse for throwing him off, then later tells his old friend Ned that he ‘ain’t like that no more’.

The point is that the writer has to place nuggets of backstory at appropriate moments, preferably around the structural pivots, and even then, only as many as necessary to serve the drama.

Exercise: Consider a story you have written. Are there sections that leave you confused, rather than intrigued? Could this be solved by introducing more backstory elements? If so, tuck in only as much new information as is necessary through subtext, skilful dialogue or telling action. Try to locate it inside or close to one or more structural beats (discussed on this site). Use character emotion in the scene to distract the reader away from this slight-of-hand.

Summary

Sneak in just enough exposition to keep the reader or audience hungry to know more. Tucking in information around the structural beats and filtering it through the psychology of a character helps to keep the information unobtrusive.

The power of setting – how to tap into it

The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.
The power of setting in Wuthering Heights.

ONE way to tap into the power of setting in your stories is to place your characters in locations that add to the mood, and more specifically, locations that raise the tension.

In 2001 A Space Odyssey, the HAL computer turns against its human crew. HAL, who controls all systems on the space station, has even more power over them, given the hostile environment of space.

In Wuthering Heights, the brooding Yorkshire moors form the perfect backdrop for the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and the wild and dangerous Heathcliff. In many ways, the moors are as powerful a character in the story as any of the players.

“Tap into the power of setting by treating it as if it were another character—dangerous and even more ubiquitous.”

In Edge of Tomorrow Lt. Col. Bill Cage’s initial narcissism and cowardliness is accentuated by placing him in a war environment against alien beings. A time loop causes him to relive the conflict innumerable times, a conflict in which he is repeatedly brought back from the dead to learn from his mistakes.

In my novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the peaceful village of Mission Beach forms a perfect contrast to the violence of cyclone Yasi and the protagonist’s self-realisation, which occurs at the height of the drama. Setting the story in a busier town or city would lessen the impact.

When choosing settings for your stories, then, situate your characters in spaces that feed the plot and increase the dramatic tension between them.

Exercise: Pick a story that you’ve written. Where does the drama unfold? Does the location add to the danger and tension? If not, consider relocating the story to a more hostile environment

Summary: Utilise the power of setting by having it add to the danger, tension and conflict between your characters.

Character arc structure at a glance

James Scott Bell’s character arc structure.
James Scott Bell’s character arc structure

Typically, a protagonist in a story grows—at the very least he changes. The hero at the beginning of a tale is no longer the same person in terms of his skills and self-awareness he is at the end.


Making this change believable involves aligning the character’s actions to his inner growth. This is a point I have made several times on this site, though it bares repeating:

A change in self-awareness must lead to a change in the quality of a character’s actions.

In his chapter, The Arc Within The Plot (Creating Characters, the Complete Guide: Reader’s Digest), James Scott Bell explores the process in some depth. He provides the following example, which, I paraphrase here:

If your story is going to feature four major incidents in the life of a criminal—the crime, time in jail, a trial and sentence, and an aftermath in prison, create a table with four columns. In the first column, “The Crime,” briefly describe who your character is on the inside.

Next, go to the last column, “Prison.” Describe how the character has changed at the end. What has been his life lesson? Now go back and fill in the other columns to show a progression toward that final outcome. Create incidents powerful enough to justify the shifts in the character.

The character arc structure table will give you ideas for scenes that illustrate your character’s growth, which, in turn, will deepen your story. Start with the first and last events, then go back and fill in the middle parts.

“Use the character arc structure to help make your protagonist’s actions believable by mapping the growth in self-awareness to the lessons provided by outer events.”

In Scott Bell’s example, the columns show growth that culminates in a shift in character values.

The Crime.Jail. Trial and Sentence.Prison.
Initially without pity, cynical.Mistreated, but helped by another con.Has to face the victims of his crime.Compassion and empathy are what is needed in the world.
Changes his opinion of other prisoners.Witness testimony shows him how he’s wasted his life so far. This sets the course for a future transformation. Proven by how he treats a prison guard.
The character arc structure table.

In this example, then, the protagonist has gone from being cynical and callous to someone who regrets his criminal acts and comes to feel compassion for other people—even his jailers. The progression occurs through a series of impactful events. Tabling the events and tying them to inner growth helps to structure a believable transformation of the character.

Exercise: Review a story you’ve written. Can you tabulate four (or more) major events and correlate them to your protagonist’s shifting values and perceptions? If not try to do so.


Summary

One way to lay out the character arc structure is to map major events impacting your protagonist against his inner transformation.

What makes for enduring writing?

Leo Tolstoy and enduring writing.
Leo Tolstoy’s relentless search for enduring values at the expense of religious dogma led to his excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church.

What makes for enduring writing? Is it style or subject matter? Perhaps both?


But if, as is certainly the case, style and subject matter are tied to the changing ethos of the times, how may we judge the merits of the old against the new, given this flux?

Even so, most scholars would agree that the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, and Steinbeck are indeed great writers, even though their work is as different as Baroque music is different from Rock & Roll.

Some timeless, unchanging standard must surely be at play here.

“Enduring writing stays relevant less from style and content and more from the values it encapsulates.”

Although some scholars argue against the validity of universal values, such values do exist and have always done so. Foundational thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love ennoble us as a species. They form the bedrock of civilization.

Throughout history great writers have served as humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the undying relevance of such values. They have written stories that chart the dire consequences of love being supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition, and the like. They have warned us that blind ambition can lead to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth); they have shown how a cathedral’s newly added spire might collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire); they have chronicled how families and villages are torn apart by greed (The Pearl).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal values and the warning against negating them that renders writing immortal.

Long may it continue to do so.

Exercise: Examine a story you have written. Jot down its theme. (The theme usually contains the value system of the tale.) Do the values in your story rise to the level of a universal truth? If not, consider changing the theme to suit.

Summary

Enduring writing contains superlative style and content, but more importantly, it affirms high universal values.