Unless, possibly, they are Science Fiction, our novels don't happen in a time void. Each of the characters has a past that colors his or her view of what is happening and what will happen. The past also affects how these characters react to each other. So no matter how active the present story may be, there are going to be times when we have to fill the reader in on something that happened before the events started. We also need to cue them to where we are physically because, again, stories don't happen in a void. HOW we cue the reader, however, matters. Unless we do it well, we risk stopping the forward momentum of the story.
Fortunately, there are many different techniques for getting cues to the reader without interrupting story flow. Think of them as different brushes in an artist's toolbox. Which one we choose will depend on the type of scene we are painting and the energy we want to invoke in the brushstrokes.Narrative Balance
I love how Les Edgerton describes passive description in HOOKED, his excellent book on writing craft. He talks about the "writers of yore" who took up paragraph after paragraph after long paragraph describing "skittering waves, rolling toward the breast-shaped hummocks of the sun-kissed beach." Today, even a sentence or two of that kind of description makes a reader skim. Frankly, today, a long paragraph of any kind of description, whether it's describing a setting, a situation, a character, or even a character's thoughts or emotions, puts the reader at risk of developing a roving eye. Bad writer. No cookie.
Think of this in terms of picture composition. Imagine that you are looking at a painting. A Rembrandt. There's the obligatory dark background, the customary light shining on an interesting, perfectly-rendered face, the jaw-dropping precision of the lace or fabric detail. In Rembrandt's painting, all of this is balanced. There is just enough dark background, just enough clothing, to set off the money shot, the face that is the artist's true objective.
These days, I think we writers have to look at our scenes more in the way that an artists studies a canvas. We need to have a good balance of dialogue, action, description, and introspection. Our target audience and the type of story will dictate how much of each will be successful, and the placement in the scene and within the book overall will also change the balance. Slivers of Detail
As a rule, video games, television, blockbuster films packed with special effects, and just the general speed of life these days means that long passages of description of any kind aren't going to work. So how do you get in your description and backstory? In slivers sandwiched between action and dialogue.
Here are a few examples from randomly opened pages of recent books:
"We have to find my sister," I finally say, the thought of her kick-starting my mind away from the horror of what's going on, giving me a goal--something to focus on so that I'm not pulled under in the tide of panic.
"How?" Catcher stands facing me. He looks as helpless as I feel.
"I don't know." I start jogging across the roof, dodging around old barren gardens thick with dead weeds. I vault a low wall onto the next building and thread my way toward the bridge at the end of the block.
"Where are you going?" Catcher shouts, following me across the spindly bridge, the boards under my feet almost rotten.
"Home," I call over my shoulder as I race south. This corner of the City was practically abandoned even before the horde hit, and most everyone who tried to scrape out an existence here already left after the Rebellion, when it became pointless to pay such high rents to live in a city that no longer promised safety and order.
We cross past a few panicked families, their backs loa
A writer hears it from me when we do a plot consultation -- the mother needs to die at the 1/4 mark / the end of the beginning. Flash forward several years (I mean several, like four or five or six), she hears it again from her critique group. Then she starts reading The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master and unravels that old plot planner I created years before and affixes it to her wall. There it is again, at the one quarter mark -- the mother must die.
Hers is a novel based on a true story.
In real life she had not been there when her own mother died. The writer has carried guilt and remorse in her heart ever since. Suddenly she gets it. Why she never killed the mother in the story. She believes she is, on some level in real life, already responsible for the dastardly deed.
For the good of the story and for the good of her life, she needed to revise her belief system. She needed to transform.
The writer has the tendency to catastrofize (imagine final events of dramatic action around her in real life as tragedies) about life in general, OCD or posttraumatic stress if you will, from all of her imaginings and family stress. After reading the book, rather than beat herself up for the time she's lost, she seems a bit dazed and happily confused.
Of course she also recently started taking mood enhancing prescription drugs but as I was saying...
What was I saying?
Oh... I remember this old alcoholic who used to always say during our consultations, no psychology. It was over the telephone but I always imagined him pointing his finger at me as he spit out the words.
But how can you not? Writing, especially when you lose your way is so deeply wrapped up in our own personal lives.
And, anyway, is it psychology really? I see it more through the Universal Story.
Okay. My dream. I'm putting it out there.
I see people reading to the very end of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
. Yes, I see you a better writer because of all the plot and writerly stuff in the book. I also see the Universal Story making you more at peace and able to do that which is necessary for both the good of the story and also for yourself.
This writer's story improves as does her life when she finally puts the mother in t
By: Lisa Gail Green,
Ahh, the elusive backstory. We spend countless hours filling in the holes in our characters lives so that they become multi-dimensional, and then we go to write the book and are told not to put that information in. It's true though - how do you like reading info dumps?
So how do you know when it's time to put the info in? And how do you know how far to go?
I'd say the answer is deceptively simple. Put in only the information necessary in order to fully appreciate the story you are telling. And do it when the information is needed in order to go any further.
If you withhold the backstory until the last moment, you are creating tension. But if you withhold it to the point where things are unclear and frustrating for the reader, instead of an intriguing mystery, you've withheld too much for too long.
Example time! We must go with Harry Potter for this one. (I will focus on one part in particular, but the wonderful blogger SP Sipal had a fantastic post on JKR and how she handled the backstory of this portion of HP if you want to read more on this)
In the beginning of book one we learn that Hagrid has borrowed the flying motorcycle from young Sirius Black. We need this info to understand how it is that Hagrid arrives as he does on Privet Drive with baby Harry. But JKR doesn't fill us in with all the details of who Sirius is, or why he would have been at the crime scene. And in fact, we don't give it a second thought, do we? We are far too concerned with the enchanting trio of Dumbledore, Hagrid, and McGonagall, who Harry Potter is, why he is special, and what on earth it has to do with these horrible Dursleys.
But come the third book we meet Sirius again. And throughout the book, at the right moments, JKR reveals the story to Harry, and vicariously, to us. Throughout the series, we learn enough to be satisfied, and yet, just like Harry, don't have all the important information until the end. In fact, as much as we learn, we never know everything JKR does. And that magical balance is precisely what we have to aim for in our own work. photo credit
Just about every story has some element of back story that provides critical detail that the reader needs in order to make sense of what is going on. Unfortunately, back story not only tends to be boring, but it can literally pull the reader out of the story and cause them to lose interest if not handled correctly. Imagine a fast paced chase scene packed with action and intensity that gets interrupted by a narrator popping onto to the scene, giving a monologue that explains why the results of the chase scene are so crucial to the story. All the action is suddenly brought to a halt. The intensity is deflated. And you just lost your reader.
Some beginning authors make the common mistake of trying to put all their back story at the beginning of the book, thinking that the story can’t begin unless the reader already knows everything that has happened before. That’s a big mistake, unless you want to lose the reader’s interest in the first few pages. Nor does it work to just drop a big chunk of back story in later chapters either.
One overused way of handling back story, is to leave it in big chunks by including it in a flashback or dream sequence. While this can work, it often has the effect of still pulling the reader out the present action of the story. I’m not saying, you shouldn’t approach back story in this manner, it’s just not always the best method and has become a bit cliché.
Back story has to be handled with care. It’s usually best if sprinkled and woven into the story in a way that it hardly goes noticed by the reader. One way to do this is to break it down into small pieces that can be injected a piece at a time throughout the course of the story; maybe a quick comment in a dialogue, a tiny memory that a character recalls, a headline on a newspaper (not the entire newspaper article), and as needed, short bits over time from the narrator can be effective if done in an unobtrusive manner.
The point is, be careful about how you handle back story. Pay attention to what it does to the flow and interest level of your story. Find ways to use it to enhance your story, rather than drag it down.
What have been some effective ways that you’ve learned to handle back story?
Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what, in the past, made the character who they are today (in story time).
Writers want to cram everything right up front.
"I know all their history, why would I want to withhold it from the reader?"
"I wrote it that way."
"It's the good part."
Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every little detail about a character's past, be it for a child or an adult. So, of course, writers want to tell everything right away. Perhaps, in the process, even show off a bit how clever they are. Until, one understands how curiosity works.
Not telling everything makes the reader curious. Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. The reader wants to fill in the "who," "what," "how" (the "where" and "when" have already been clearly established right up front to ground the reader). They keep reading. This is good.
Tell the reader only what they need to know to inform that particular scene. This is especially true in the Beginning (1/4 mark). During the first quarter of the project, the character can have a memory. But, if you feel you just must inject a full-blown flashback, where you take the reader back in time in scene, wait until the Middle.
(PLOT TIP: If you're absolutely sure you absolutely have to include the flashback, try using one when you're bogged down in the middle of the middle.)
In a recent post, Gail Carson Levine discusses how to get background material into a story without the use of a flashback scene,
along with tips for when you do use a flashback.
Weaving in Backstory
Poem. She points out that in her story, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, she uses an epic poem: everyone knows the poem, quotes from it at times, or even perform parts of it.
Newspaper clippings. Levine also points to The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which uses newspaper clippings to introduce backstory.
Dialogue in a counseling session. Of course, a character could spill the beans during a session with a counselor.
Sometimes, I’ve heard the opinion, though, that these “techniques” are cheats of sorts, ways to work in material that doesn’t really belong. A story should start in one place and pretty much progress linearly. Using backstory is like this picture of tattoos on a woman’s back: for her, there’s no easy way to SEE these tattoos (mirrors, photo, description), it’s unnatural for her to visualize them.
A bold opinion, that backstory is a cheat — there are certainly shades of this.
Do you think backstory techniques like this are effective, or do they feel like cheats? When are they effective? Do you like prologues as a way to introduce backstory? What’s your favorite way to deal with backstory?
We've talked all this week about the challenges of writing backstory in summary. Specific details about the past events of a novel may need to be given to the reader, but less is more. Don't tell too much, and be selective and succinct when choosing the details to reveal. But what happens when you need to show the reader a scene? Chances are you will consider writing a flashback.
Technically, a flashback is a shift in the narrative that temporary stops the forward motion of the story. The trick is, of course, to make sure that that temporary stop informs your narrative, rather than distracting from it.
Unlike prologues, I don’t mind flashbacks. In fact, they can deepen the reader’s understanding of a story by showing character emotions and plot twists. But again, less is more. If done too much, a flashback can stop the forward movement of the narrative arc. If done without specific clarity, a flashback and confuse readers, especially reluctant readers.
So, here’s a tip sheet for writing flashback:
- Use verb tense as a way of showing the change in time. If you novel is written in present tense, your flashback should be written in past tense. If the main body of your story is told in past tense, then begin your flashback in past perfect, but transition to simple past tense within two or three sentences.
- Make sure the reader clearly is grounded in the time and place of your flashback. Give them a sentence or two with information about where and when, but as with summary backstory, don’t give too much. After the flashback is over, again ground readers in the present with details of time and place.
- Does your flashback have some kind of trigger that makes the flashback work for the reader at precisely that moment. Maybe it follows a strong action scene, or maybe it follows a reversal in the story. Either way, think about the purpose of the flashback. Does it reveal character? Does it give the reader important information they must know? Does it somehow inform the present? And does it come at a point in the plot so that it is the natural consequence of a plot point or character action?
- Unless you are doing a time travel novel, the same rule applies here for both summary and scene. When in doubt, see if you can get the same information to the reader without using the flashback. If you can, skip the flashback and stay with the story.
- Finally, don’t start a story with a flashback. It’s like using a prologue, and you know how I feel about that.
Next week on the tollbooth, Kelly will be here. Enjoy the weekend. Anon. HH
2 colour lino print. 26cm square. Click to enlarge.
By: Ellis Nadler
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Lino cut 20cm x 25cm. Click to enlarge.
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Just finished "Side Effects" by Adam Phillips.
2-colour lino cut 25cm x 25cm. Click to enlarge.
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By Evan Schnittman
Recently I was on an airplane reading an article in the New York Times when the woman in the seat next to me leaned over and asked what I was holding. I told her it was a Kindle, Amazon’s new ebook reader. I showed her how it worked, explained e-ink, walked her through my collection of titles and subscriptions, and showed how I could look up words in the built in Oxford dictionary. Her response; “That is really cool, but I prefer the feel and smell of a real book.” (more…)
By: Ellis Nadler
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Can't decide whether the cosmic serpent had spots or not.
Proof of wood engraving with gouache paint dots. 5cm x 5cm. Click to enlarge.
A problem I often find in the plot consultations I provide is the misuse of flashbacks.
During a plot consultation, a writer outlines her historical novel to me. Before long, the story takes a u-turn into flashback. My immediate reaction is to refocus myself. I quickly scan the Plot Planner I am creating for her for what I know of the story so far ~ the time frame, the place, and the characters ~ in order to keep in perspective the time and place change.
If you've read Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple, you know I am not a fan of flashback. Mostly, I dislike the whiplash effect, but also because I have seen too many writers, especially writers just starting out, overuse and abuse flashback. It is more difficult and takes more thought and creativity to integrate the pertinent backstory seamlessly into the front-story than it is to create a flashback. Flashback is a depiction of a past, literal experience. Full integration of back-story into front-story involves more nuance and skill.
Three plot tips when it comes to flashbacks:
1) If you feel you just have to have a flashback, wait to use it in the Middle of the story. By then, the reader has had time to ground themselves in the front-story and is better able to transition back and forth in time
2) A flashback is portrayed moment-by-moment in scene. Consider instead using a memory (summary)
3) If flashbacks are integral to the overall plot and structure, do like Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler's Wife, make the story line non-linear and create the very structure of your story based on time jumps.
Most readers skip them entirely. But I went to my bookshelf and randomly picked up five award-winning YA novels, and all of them had prologues. Maybe it’s an easy way to hook the reader into the story or set the tone of the novel, but to me, a prologue should be hacked out of every manuscript like the dearest darling ever written. Why? Because I haven’t read many (or any) novels where the prologue intrinsically added to the overall story.
In most novels, the prologue is nothing more than a blah blah blah of backstory. As a reader, I like the backstory woven into the action. I want to speculate about the story in an interactive way, and the prologue tips the writer’s hand.
I’m going to pick on the most amazing of books as a concrete example to my point.
Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief
is a brilliant book on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin. I loved the book, but I hated the prologue. Let’s take a look for a minute:
Zusak’s prologue is titled Death and Chocolate. An unknown narrator tells us we are all about to die and introduces himself.
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.
Okay, so the narrator doesn’t introduce himself per se, but we get the idea. Then the narrator introduces us to the story and gives the reader some bullet points to consider:
- A girl
- Some words
- An accordionist
- Some fanatical Germans
- A Jewish fish fighter
- And quite a lot of thievery
One of the points of the prologue seems to be sure that the reader understands the concept of Death as narrator, but the writing in this book is so beautiful and so perfect, Zusak doesn’t need to make an announcement to readers. We get it. A few pages into chapter one, readers understand that the narrator is some kind of ethereal and omniscient being. We may not know who or what he is, but that adds to the mystery. With a carefully placed detail in chapter one, Death’s presence could be perfectly clear.
Zusak also uses the prologue to introduce the motif of color in the novel. It’s an important part of the book’s theme and is again wonderfully written. But the explanation of color could have easily been weaved into the main story.
As for the list of items to consider in the story, just let me read the prose. I don’t need a list or an announcement of characters. I just want to read.
So Zusak has a stunning book that’s beautiful and literary and heartbreaking and uplifting, but the prologue doesn’t add much to the power of the manuscript, so why have it? The writer’s mantra has always been that every part of a book must serve the story. Does the prologue ever serve
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K. M. Weiland, author of Behold the Dawn
and A Man Called Outlaw
, does a great job of keeping the reader turning pages. Her latest video post on How to Tell If Your Backstory Is Boring
uses The Three Musketeers
to illustrate how to incorporate backstory into your novel seemlessly. The Three Musketeers
happens to be one of my favorite books, and Dumas does backstory beautifully, so I think it is a brilliant example.
View the video at: http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-to-tell-if-your-backstory-is-boring.html
I like to think of the process of cutting backstory as maintaining urgency. If my backstory interferes with the reader's need to know what happens next, I have to cut it. And I know and angst about every single spot in my work where I have to incorporate backstory and can't do so in the midst of conflict. Seeing the video this morning inspired me to go back and revisit a couple of scenes. My thought for the day: backstory creeps on sneaky feet.