Tag Archives: writing

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.

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.

Supporting Characters – Essentials

Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.
Great supporting characters from the Harry Potter saga.

Supporting characters are ones who act to highlight your protagonist’s needs and shortcomings.

In her chapter, CRAFTING EFFECTIVE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS (Creating Characters: The Complete Guide to Populating your Fiction), Hallie Ephron provides several examples of such characters. She points out that Dr. Watson’s function as Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick is to be a sounding board for the brilliant sleuth’s ruminations.

She goes on: 

“Virtually every mystery protagonist has one [supporting character]. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk.”

“Supporting characters should come across as ‘real people’ while simultaneously performing a specific set of narrative functions.”

In designing your cast of supporting characters, then, remember to utilise the principle: Opposites attract. To that end, weigh up your protagonist’s traits against those of your supporting characters and offer a contrast between them: Holmes is brilliant and unconventional; Dr Watson is slow and a stickler for decorum. Inspector LeStrade’s dislike of Holme’s whimsical flair provides an incessant critique of Sherlock’s investigative technique. 

You get the idea.

The point is that a level of conflict between your supporting characters and your protagonist, whether these characters are friends or foes, is a requirement if the story is to engage us.

Of course, it is not all strife and conflict with supporting characters. They can often provide comic relief. Shakespeare’s unforgettable Falstaff comes to mind. Still, even here, the main function of such a character is to act as a foil to the protagonist.

Getting the names straight

A last word on naming your supporting cast. Ephron admonishes us to assign names to characters that help us differentiate between them. She states: 

“It’s not easy for readers to keep all your characters straight, so help them out. Don’t give a character two first names like William Thomas, Stanley Raymond, or Susan Frances. Vary the number of syllables in character names—it’s harder to confuse a Jane with a Stephanie than it is to confuse a Bob with a Hank. Pick names that don’t sound alike or start with the same letter. If your protagonist’s sister is Leanna, don’t name her best friend Lillian or Dana.”

There you have it . A snapshot of supporting character functions to get you started.

Exercise: Go through any story you’ve written but not published. How many of your supporting characters act as a foil to your protagonist? Do they provide a humorous or critical commentary on your protagonist and his views? If not, strike these characters from your story, or combine them into one more pithy character.

Summary

The supporting characters’ function is to throw your protagonist into bold relief through praise or criticism, while simultaneously coming across as ‘real people’.

Plot and character – how to integrate them

Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character
Homer’s Odysseus is one of the first heroes to integrate plot and character

How are plot and character related?


In the previous three articles I laid out the following steps for writing a new story:

  1. Define the premise.
  2. Boost the premise.
  3. Grow the premise into a summary.

In today’s article I complete the process by showing how to integrate the hero and his nemesis with the plot. This is the last stage of story preparation.

Plot and character

To engage us, a hero needs to be in jeopardy; he needs to be active but vulnerable. He must also be sympathetic, yet flawed or wounded, and he needs to harbour a secret. In my story I have a protagonist who feels guilt for having led his followers to the dangerous world of the surface.

Additionally, my hero is hiding a secret of an imminent danger to himself and his followers at the hands of cannibals. This knowledge generates great conflict in him, inviting us to participate in his mental and emotional state. 

But a hero should not be a wilting daisy either—weak, indecisive, or incompetent. That is the domain of the anti-hero. To this end I intend for my hero to stay one step ahead of the enemy in order to increase our admiration of his strategic abilities—he is dynamic.

Lastly, his decision to offer up his infected body to the cannibals for them to feast on, when he is finally cornered, is a clever but devastating move. Importantly, the story’s plot emerges from the hero’s psychology—his flaws and values, his character arc. 

“Writers need fully to understand the essential aspects that motivate the hero and his nemesis. In the light of this understanding, the actions of their characters will yield a plot that is fully integrated.”

His nemesis, too, is driven by his wounds and weaknesses, but also by his pride. As the physically and emotionally scarred leader of a tribe of cannibals ranging over an apocalyptic land, he has long yearned to be more like the blue-eyed heroes of myth—more like the young man he is hunting. He believes that if he were to defeat this interloper, humiliate him in front of the tribe and his own followers, he would usurp his power and elevate himself to the status of legend. This ambition makes him susceptible to the trap our hero lays for him. 

Both our hero and his nemesis, then, act in a way that is in keeping with their psychology—through actions that reflect their scars, ambitions, hopes and fears.

This sort of dual-character-sketch approach, brief as it is, cuts to the core of what makes each character tick. It grants us an understanding of who these people are and why they act the way they do. It offers a method for integrating character with plot— the last stage of story preparation rendered in this series of articles.

Summary

Integrate plot and character by having the action spring from the scars, ambitions, hopes and fears of the hero and his nemesis.

Story beats – how to write them

A typewriter as an illustration of story beats.
Great stories are made up of powerful story beats that perform act-specific functions.

What are story beats, and how does one write them?

Last week I showed how to turn a story premise into a summary by adding a life-altering event to the hero’s path, and factoring in the ending of the story.

This filled out the story somewhat, but it was still missing important narrative beats. In order to make the acquisition of these beats a little easier let us now pose an overarching story question as well as three act-specific ones. Note that the overall story question overlaps with that of the last act’s.

The overall story question is: Does the hero succeed in defeating a tribe of cannibals to lead his followers to a place of safety?

This question helps to keep our sights trained on the through-line of the story—what has to be answered at the end of the tale.

Following on from that, we can use our summary to generate appropriate incidents within each act. Remembering that each act is governed by a question aimed at providing a narrative outcome, we have: 

Act One: Is the land above as idyllic as it first appears to be? 

How about: 

After a short euphoric encounter with the land above in which our hero notices a large eagle watching them from the sky, the landscape turns gloomy: The sun dims under thick plumes of smoke wafting over from the distance, the bones of dead creatures proliferate on the ground, the hero’s grandfather becomes ill and has to be carried on a make-shift stretcher, and acid rain begins to waft down. 

A day or so later a tribe of disfigured wretches approaches the group. A terrible storm is brewing and the tribe offers to lead the youngsters to safety. The leader seems in awe of our hero, rambling on about the legend of a blue-eyed king who will emerge from below the ground to lead the world to salvation. Speaking in a broken dialect, he promises to return the next day for our hero’s decision. 

That night our hero falls into a stupor where he dreams that the tribe is really a band of cannibals responsible of much of the hellish state of the terrain. Convinced that his vision is prophetic he awakens the others and persuades them to leave their campsite before the tribe returns. 

“Story beats are best generated by asking questions related to the state of the hero’s plight within the context of each act.”

Act Two: How does the hero manage to stay ahead of the cannibals against the odds?

Perhaps our hero forms an occult bond with the giant eagle that has taken an interest in the band of youngsters? Perhaps he can see through the eagle’s eyes, giving him an edge as he and his followers flee across the dangerous terrain?

But then the cannibal leader shoots down the eagle with a poison arrow at the story’s mid-point and everything changes.

Our hero now realises he can no longer keep the group safe from the murderous tribe. He has to change strategy: He willingly offers himself up as a sacrifice if they agree to let his followers live. The leader, who is obsessed with the idea of stealing the hero’s power by having him accept a humiliating defeat, agrees. 

Act Three:  What goes wrong with the bargain and how does the hero finally outsmart and defeat the cannibal leader and his tribe?

Perhaps our hero has foreseen his own death in another dream and knows the outcome of this deal—something he has kept secret from the others. However, he has bought himself time; time to contaminate his body with poison from the enemy’s own stock, thus ensuring that the entire cannibal tribe is wiped out after the feast, allowing his followers to escape. 

This final act answers the overall story question too—the hero does indeed defeat the enemy, but at the cost of his own life.

Although these beats are far from complete—I still need to tie in the hero’s weakness/flaw/secret (his character arc) into the antagonist’s motivation and plot twists in a more detailed way—they do grant me confidence about the potential of the story.

Summary
Story questions resolve into narrative events within the context of each act.

Your Story Premise – how to improve it

How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.
How to improve your story premise to avoid shipwrecking your tale.

Nailing your story premise from the get-go can save you a lot of frustration later. A great story premise serves as the basis from which to grow your entire tale.

There was a time when I’d get an idea for a story and start writing right away, letting the muse guide me. The Nostalgia of Time Travel was such a muse-inspired story. But since then, running aground at sea made me think again. Sure, I still encourage the muse to ride on the mast and sprinkle her magic down on me, but I no longer set sail without a story map.

That map is the story premise—a compacted form of the tale, containing essential ingredients that act as a checklist for a yet-to-be-written story.

“Inevitably, your story premise improves when it hints at the secrets, wounds and flaws of your hero, the power of his nemesis, and the difficulty of attaining the story goal.”

There are many opinions about what constitutes a great premise. Here’s mine:

A story premise ought to: 

  1. Introduce a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming outer challenge.
  2. The pursuit of the challenge must be complicated by the hero’s secret, a wound or a flaw.
  3. The story premise must include a powerful and intriguing nemesis.
  4. It ought to exude a sense of verisimilitude, no matter how fantastical the story.
  5. It should hint at a theme that is both personal and universal.
  6. It must fascinate or intrigue.

Take the sentence: After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster must lead a band of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain.  

This gives the reader an idea of the story, but it is colourless and thin. Filtering the idea through the first of our six must-haves we get:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a youngster reluctantly steps up to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety through dangerous terrain, when no one else will.

“If your premise does not grab your attention from the get-go, neither will your fleshed-out story—at least not without many unnecessary rewrites.”

Not there yet? How about:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret has to lead a group of teenagers through dangerous terrain to a new place of safety.

Better, but not quite there yet:

After emerging from a failing underground refuge that once helped a pocketful of humans survive an apocalyptic event, a reluctant youngster with a terrible secret is forced to lead a group of teenagers to a new place of safety while being hunted by a band of mutants led by a cannibal with a taste for healthy flesh.

Although this premise, based on my forthcoming novel, The Land Above, must be refined further it is a more effective snapshot of the potential story than the first version. It addresses the main requirements on the list: 

  1. It contains a sympathetic hero facing an overwhelming challenge.
  2. It tells us that the hero hides a secret, suggestive of a wound, weakness or flaw.
  3. It includes a terrifying and motivated antagonist. 
  4. It feels authentic, given the genre. 
  5. It contains a theme that is both universal and personal—individual and group survival.
  6. It is intriguing.

Running your story premise through these filters will undoubtably improve the potential of your story.

Exercise: Write down your story premise in a single sentence. Don’t be too critical at first, just capture the thrust of your tale. Then, apply the six filters suggested above. The sixth version of your premise ought to be much improved.

Summary

Come up with a single sentence snapshot of your story premise. Improve it by applying the six filters discussed in this article.

Strong Emotions – how to use them in your stories.

Strong emotions - F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a master at using emotions to draw his readers into his narratives, as evidenced in stories such as This Side of Paradise.

Here is an effective way to draw your readers into your stories—infuse your writing with strong emotions.


Strong emotions draw us into intimate situations, allowing us vicariously to experience the characters’ lives as our own. But this demands maturity on the part of the writer. Firstly, to recognise the intricate web of emotions resulting from one’s own life. Secondly, to tie these emotions into a theme or premise. It involves a high level of self-awareness and critical thinking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once offered some advice in response to a short story sent to him by Francis Turnbull, a Radcliffe College student and family friend.

“… I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at the moment. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly … It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile …” 

”Strong emotions are the key to reader and audience engagement.”

What Fitzgerald is saying is that new writers have a better chance of engaging readers if they relate stories that contain heightened emotions based on personal experience. Characters and events can be adjusted to suit, but emotions should be drawn from strong, ‘lived’ experience. Fitzgerald believes this is the price of admission writers have to pay.

He continues, “the amateur, seeing how the professional having learnt all he’ll ever learn about writing, can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming – the amateur thinks he can do the same.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice, then, is to use powerful, personal experience to evoke heightened emotion in readers and audiences, especially when first starting out. Mining smaller, more trivial details for subject matter takes time and maturity to pull off.

Summary

Search your life for big, wrenching emotions and distill them into your stories. It will make your characters more authentic and impactful.

How powerful scenes really work

Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow
Powerful scenes—Tom Cruise, as Major Cage in Edge of Tomorrow

Powerful scenes are the building blocks of successful stories.

Strong scenes bring characters, action and dialogue together. They form strong narrative units that enrich characters and promote plot. As such, we need to master the ins and outs of scene construction. Before attempting to write a scene ask yourself:

  • Who is the focus character in the scene, i.e. which character has the most to lose?
  • What does the focus character (usually the protagonist) want to achieve in the scene?
  • Describe the focus character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene.
  • What is the obstacle standing in the way of the focus character achieving the goal in the scene?
  • If the obstacle is another character, (usually the antagonist or his lackey) answer questions 1-4 for that obstacle character.
  • What is the outcome of the clash between the focus character and the obstacle force or character?
  • What is the emotional stance of the focus character after the clash? How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • Describe the emotional stance of the obstacle character after the clash. How does his physical demeanour and dialogue change to convey it?
  • How does the result of the clash cause the next scene?

“Opposing character goals generate conflict, the life-blood of powerful scenes. They reveal the motivation of the characters, authenticating them.”

In Edge of Tomorrow, Major William Cage, a television personality, hides behind cameras and microphones to dodge the draft. He is called to General Brigham’s office. He believes he will be covering the Allied attack against the invading Mimics from the relative safety of America. The General, however, wants Cage to deploy with the USA soldiers and cover the action on the ground. Both men have distinct goals at the start of the scene. Their demeanour supports those goals.

After the clash, Cage has failed to blackmail the General into letting him off the hook. He is arrested, stripped of his rank and forced to deploy overseas as a private. His cocky attitude has been reduced to one of protestation and panic. The General’s quiet demeanour, on the other hand, underscores his victory.

The scene follows the structure laid out above. Use it in your own stories. Your writing should perk up substantially.

Summary

Powerful scenes display a specific pattern. Study this pattern until it becomes entrenched in your writing.

Who is the Viewpoint Character in your story?

Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby
Nick Carraway as the viewpoint character in The Great Gatsby

Stories are inhabited by many characters, each exploring the theme from a different perspective; only one, however, is the viewpoint character.

All characters exhibit a point of view, of course. And, indeed, one of the functions of a character archetype is to offer a glimpse of the moral premise as seen from a specific perspective. Typically, the hero, or protagonist, being the character through whom we most often experience the story, is one whose moral vision carries significant weight—certainly by the end of the story where maturation has occurred.

Sometimes, however, the hero is not the viewpoint character. The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway is a case in point. The plot does indeed revolve around Gatsby, but it is Nick Carraway who not only relates events from his point of view, but also transmits the moral perspective of the entire story.

It is important to identify the viewpoint character prior to commencing the writing of the story. Start by asking the following questions:

1. Which character is closest to my (the writer’s) point of view? Whose clear, moral perspective pronounces the theme of the story? In The Great Gatsby, Nick is this character—although the pronouncement is about Gatsby himself.

“A viewpoint character transmits the moral perspective of the story.“

2. Who has the biggest stake in the story and has the most to lose? Who cares most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will point towards your point of view character(s). 

In The Land Below, Paulie, the protagonist, is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose, but the Troubadour offers the deepest moral perspective in the story—despite the secret he has kept from Paulie all these years.

2. Which characters are the most interesting or the most intriguing? These are the characters the reader or audience wants to know most about.

3. Which of the characters are most involved in driving the story forward? Passive characters are the least interesting and tend to slow the story down.

4. Which characters are the most complicated? Complex characters hold our attention through their unpredictability, complexity and depth. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is such a character—we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story. 

Summary

Create a viewpoint character by granting that character the moral perspective of the story.