Backstory: A Rich Vein to Mine when your plot flags

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Plot is a means to show the journey of characters, their desires, and motivations. Backstory drives your characters. If your plot is failing you, it’s probably time to write out some backstory, even it’s only a few paragraphs on each major character. Focus on seminal experiences for each person.

Backstory is the motherload of ore that gives you answers to The Why. Whenever a character takes an action — and that should be often for essential characters, so we see them demonstrate agency — we always ask why they acted that way. Events make up at the heart of plot. But character journeys are the heart of story. We read books for story.

Once you uncover the characters’ desires, your plot will become a servant to your story’s people. For example, discovering and recounting the ground zero of a protagonist’s abilities — the genesis of a detective’s curiosity manifested in journalism, then the way it brushed up against police work, and how that became a new career finding the answers to questions — gives such a story meat on the bone.

Backstory is the way to learn the why about the protagonist’s failures, as well as the path to leap across the chasms to demonstrate new abilities. Story determines the choice of plot events, not the other way around.

Work done on characters, especially a hero and a villain, will give an author insights for good judgments. The villain really drives the story’s conflicts, so setting them out on paper or on the keyboard can help.

While you may not need to compose complete backstory stretches to appear in your book, you might be moved to do so in selected flashbacks. The flash describes the length of the passage as well as the sudden return to the past. It’s 2018. Keep it tight.

Composing backstory is genuine story development. Taking deeper dives into key characters will drive good judgments — from you as the author, as well as the judgments of the characters in the story.

Great heroes transform a story from the inside

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While there’s plenty of formulas and types of story breakdowns to follow, there’s nothing like an inside job. Things happen in stories because what’s inside the main character, as well as what’s buried in the villains, too.

luke_skywalkerPeople, and how they fare amid trouble, are what keep us reading once we begin. You can start with a fine premise (a college essay falls into the wrong hands and student is called out for an old misdemeanor revealed on its pages). But going deeper keeps me engaged. Showing me why our student was carrying that small amount of dope (her crime) is more important than the circumstances of her arrest or punishment. Knowing what was in her heart when she revealed this secret is a good driver, too.

External events like arrest, breaking the rules, sentencing and being shamed — these are vehicles you employ to show a transformation in your main character. That hero is opposed by antagonists who want something the hero does not want. But even the antagonists must desire something they do not have. It can as simple as denying a hero their desires, or exploiting the hero’s innocence.

“I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” are words the young Luke has been dying to say all of his life. Why he wants to say those words, beyond the sound of it being exciting, is a key to knowing why to care about this character across five movies (so far).

Everyone who’s a significant character in a story follows a path of transformation. The why that leads them to change the world of the story is the most important engine to push them down the path. Doing character work is rarely wasted time when you apply it to serving the transformation in a story. I always want to know what a hero desires, what a hero fears, what a hero must hide than is forced to reveal. Desire, fear, secrecy: They all can be agents of change in a character and in a story, too.

In an old Murder She Wrote, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher said that “character is the soul of plot.” Something interesting taking place is a good start. Learning why it’s interesting—that’s a story.

Writing to Get Into Someone’s Head

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brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. The getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Filling Out that Early Draft of Your Book

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hungry_babyNovels arrive, like babies, at expected weights. A writer who’s poked around websites or attended conferences knows the numbers. It’s tough to consider anything under 60,000 words a novel. The spot that most agents like to see for a debut novel is about 80,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy writers can go as high as 120,000 and get a commercial deal.

But what if you’re 20,000 words short of even the 60K? How do you look for what that early draft of your book needs in order to grow to term, like babies do? It’s tough for a preemie to make it in the world, in the same way that a small book will scuffle to make an impact. Where do you look to fatten up that early draft?

Character is usually the broad-brush answer. Early versions of novels exist in the most complete fashion inside the writer’s head. You can see your hero, the story’s villain, all the trusty sidekicks and baffled authority figures, the mentor and the confidants. The question becomes, do your readers know them like you do? I like to tell writers that if it’s not on the page, then it’s probably not in the story.

Motives: I need to know what your main character wants desperately. I want to see the achievement or the object or the relationship that leaves a hole in their heart, because it’s missing. You can show me this in the part of the story where the story starts. Pixar calls this the “Every day…” part of the writing. I call it Life as Your Character Knows It. If at all possible, try to show that “Every day” instead of telling it to me.

Settings: It can be tempting to paint each loving detail of a house, a shop, a town, or a beloved car. In the same way, your early draft writing can linger on the physical details of significant characters. These details are only important to the story if they keep showing readers that missing element your hero wants. How does the hero feel about the peeling paint on the windowsills? Can you show me that feeling in a scene? There’s a great exercise called the Character of Setting, where details for descriptions are chosen based on what the feeling of the character is at that moment of the story.

Early drafts of novels often need to be unpacked, like the old sea monkey kits that would arrive from the cereal box companies. (That’s a Boomer reference if ever there was one. You used an eyedropper of water.) You drop emotions onto the little moments in your story. You slow down the narrative progress and linger over the sensory moments. Your early draft, if it’s short, doesn’t have to rush toward one event after the next. Plot is the events that happen in a book. Story is what makes the events matter. You can only create the meaning for a book if I understand the characters’ hearts.

If your characters start talking to each other in an early draft, that’s a fine spot to expand the sea monkeys. Conflict drives all lively dialogue. Let me see a bit of battle, confusion, or misunderstanding of one another while the characters sort things out in talk. In the best of scenes, there’s action to provide counterpoint to the talking.

History: Resist this if you can. Flashbacks are tolerable to a point, but what’s happening in the now of the story is the most important thing to a reader. Extended explanations to recount events about why something is significant are often shortcuts. Telling has a valuable place in story creation. Showing is more riveting, and it provides a hard-wired magnet for attention of the reader. Telling compresses time and scoots us through the story’s slow spots. Showing lets us walk through the garden with eyes on every flower.

Keeping your main character’s yearning in every part of the story will give your early draft the food it needs to grow to term. Some writers have to cut back when they get to later drafts. Some need to make more events take place, to cut back on the interior voice of the book and get out of the heads of characters. But for many an early draft, showing the character’s desires and fears, their hidden shame and forbidden joy, is the best nourishment to make it grow.

Creating a Stand-Up Female Character

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Man-woman-PonyJPGMy wife holds a serious measuring stick against female characters created for stories. She’s an avid reader and voracious about her television mysteries, too. Her women have to be smart, plucky, generous, and have a heart ready for love. Those are all good attributes for women who appear in stories. The challenge is creating women who can be good as well as bad in a story, even while they’re heroines or protagonists.

Whatever the name of the character, I like it when their middle name is danger.

I’m working on a historical novel (Monsignor Dad), and my female protagonist is living through the turn of the century more than 100 years ago. This wasn’t a generous time for women, and it was a lot easier for them to live compliant lives, with men in charge. While that happened most of the time, there were exceptions. A sharp, daring, and headstrong woman in 1897 would be a lot more interesting to create and to read about in a book.

So, while building any character, you look for the fears and desires under the surface of their life. With so much withheld from women in the Progressive Era of history, there’s so much to yearn for, so much that’s out of my character Anna’s reach. Education in a formal setting. Control of her finances. Training for better work. Even the ability to choose her own partner in love. Creation, love, safety, the knowledge that leads to wisdom: they’re all fundamentals of a better life. Things to reach for.

So a good female character should be striving, and that striving will get her into trouble. So far, all of this applies to male characters as well, except the part where these things are withheld from them. The only thing that’s withheld from men of the Progressive Era is an easy way to express love, unless the character is a poet or an actor. Anna has better access to the expression of love. She will take chances and make mistakes trying to get all of those other things, and probably over-play her hand in the matter of love in her life.

There’s always injustice to correct, and in the era where I’m writing there’s more injustice for women to push through. Anna will also be bad, do something forbidden and do it often, all in pursuit of those fundamentals. Creating a female character who’s stand-up, rising up to her full height through taking action and agency in her life, is so much better than painting the tired picture of vamp, tramp, or bookish wallflower. This agency and action is exactly the same thing that a male character would want from his creator. And as it turns out, the desire for women to have the same things as men is a major part of the story of Monsignor Dad.

The Power of Prepositional Phrases

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DriveTrainUsing prepositional phrases in our writing is a direct way to the drive train of a storytelling. “After that, and for the next several years” acts like a time machine in the reader’s mind. You’ll see this used in movies and TV, too. The words “Nine Months Later” appeared on the screen during The Imitation Game. Immediately, we  in the audience could make that leap to a moment when many things had changed.

A favorite writing craft book of mine, “Now Write!” shows how to use prepositional phrases as powerful drivers in a story. The first step in this book’s exercise can be adapted to render a memory from a protagonist’s childhood story. The four-step exercise in “Moving Through Time” by Nancy Reisman requires only four paragraphs to experience the power of a preposition.

  1. A moment from childhood rendered in precise detail
  2. Pushing the writing toward summary with a prepositional phrase like “In the next five years,”
  3. Starting with a line of dialogue that moves into scene, increasing the intensity
  4. Using another prepositional phrase like “After that, in the months that followed” to push the writing to the larger view of the story, again toward summary.

This is also useful for developing characters. Their lives are journeys, after all. Using these phrases puts fuel into the story’s engine.

Give Characters Agency to Drive a Story

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Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. It’s not a term that’s common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dy  namic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to product a particular result.

Fiction opens eyes where journalism cannot

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David Simon

Utne Reader has named The Wire‘s co-creator David Simon as one of its 25 Visionaries changing our world. In the Reader‘s package on Simon, a former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, you can follow a link to a 2009 interview with him by Bill Moyers. At the NPR website you’ll see Moyers ask Simon if telling a story in fiction, with characters in the HBO series, gets through to help address injustice.

I did a lot of jounalism, a lot I thought was pretty good. As a reporter I was trying to explain how the drug war doesn’t work. I’d write these very careful and well-researched pieces. They would go into the ether and be gone. Whatever editorial writer coming behind me would write “let’s get tough on drugs,” as if I hadn’t said anything. And I would think, “man, it’s just an uphill struggle to do this with facts. When you can tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

Simon went on to talk about part of that fiction success is the “delivery system of television,” but added that they got to “tell the story we wanted to tell.” When you see the words “Based upon a true story” at the start of any movie or book, that fiction is relying on facts — but they are chosen, because all art is about choices. What’s more they’re wrapped around characters, compelling people who act like the megaphones for the emotions and conflicts around any subject: public education, public safety, and yes, public health, like in Viral Times.

Steadfast vs. Changing Characters

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Life is change, goes the mantra which the Buddhists use. Many of our characters in our stories experience changes. The pull of transformation is strong, a way to keep readers engaged. As Tom Waits said in his great song, we all want to know How’s It Gonna End? Choosing a steadfast character offers a different kind of ride for the reader. This person is buffeted by events that try to pull him away from his core beliefs.

Your Hollywood antiheroes are classic steadfast people: Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. You have a pretty good idea how it’s going to end for a steadfast character: The way they began their life. You take on an extra challenge in putting a steadfast character at the heart of your story. Their code of conduct either has to be absolute, or one worth defending. Empathy provides a smoother path for the latter code; the hero has to be fighting the good fight we can rally around.

A character of evil can be steadfast, too, but you can tax the patience of some readers to stay close to such a character for hundreds of pages. Steadfast characters have a life of their own they must live, and nothing that crosses their path changes their outlook. They can be harder to embrace or root for, though. A changing character is more common, but if your storytelling skills are up to the challenges, steadfast gives you a way to tell your tale against the grain.

Slow and careful writing about love

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I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale this month. Margaret Atwood’s story about a future America dominated by religion and males, with women subjugated and forced to bear children, does contain love and passion, too.

I was struck by the passage below, so beautiful that I made a note of it in my Kindle copy of the book. The writing shows off how loving Atwood is with words of love. Here, the heroine of the book describes her illicit, secret lover, her respite after she’s lost the memory of her husband Luke.

I want to see what can be seen, of him, take him in, memorize him, save him up so I can live on the image, later: the lines of his body, the texture of his flesh, the glisten of sweat on his pelt, his long sardonic unrevealing face. I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars, the singular creases; I didn’t and he’s fading. Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless. For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what he wanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit. But he does not require such trimmings. We make love each time as if we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.

Five summers ago I took a Novel seminar at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we studied Atonement. Our instructor advised us to deliver the details of a body your character has come to know and love. Atwood gives us this as well as anybody I’ve read.

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