Five Ways to Show Backstory: 1. Dramatic Narrative

We’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that the reader understands each scene. This information might include descriptions of settings, the characters’ past experiences, motives, and psychology, and past events that are not shown on stage.

Following up on last month’s post, here is the first of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Show the Backstory in a Dramatic Narrative that Sets Up a Scene

This type of narrative can come at the beginning of a story or fitted in between other blocks of story. It can cover a short or long time period. A key element is that it conveys information by showing, not telling, and therefore supports the story’s drama.

Example: “Homely Girl”

This dramatic narrative is from a short story by Elizabeth Brown called “Homely Girl.” The passage is quoted in the book Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver (© 2002). It is the opening of the story, leading to a scene of the girl going home as an adult to visit her mother.

“She’s a homely girl. I don’t know where she gets it,” my six-year-old ears overhear my mother saying to my Aunt Beth. I don’t know what “homely” means, but I know it’s bad. I run to my room, bury my head in my pillow and cry. Eventually, I learn what homely really means. It means to be taken to the dentist for my buckteeth: “Can you make them straighter?” To the plastic surgeon for my nose: “Can you make it smaller?” It means I am dragged to walking classes, talking classes, and posture classes: “Chin up. Shoulders back. Enunciate. Smile.” Homely means that everything I put in my mouth is carefully weighed, measured, and calculated beforehand, so I don’t take up more space than I already do. “Will she ever lose weight, Doctor?” my mother asks. “She’s just a big girl,” says Doctor Chen. Homely means that you see a look of disdain on the face of a mother who wishes her daughter could be a beauty queen. You see that look every day of your life.

What does this passage accomplish?

What does this passage do for the story?

First, it sets up the central conflict between the protagonist and her mother: the daughter’s need for love and acceptance by her parent, the parent’s unwillingness or inability to provide it. Extremely powerful stuff, on a deeply emotional level.

Second, it presents crucial information about the two characters, and gives the reader a good idea of who both of them are.

Also, it raises thematic questions: Why is physical beauty considered so important? Why does society judge women (in particular) by their physical appearance?

How does it work?

The quoted narrative accomplishes all of this with incredible economy. It spans many years of the character’s life. But it presents crucial events from those years in tiny “micro-scenes,” which are themselves dramatic. That is, they show character, dialogue, conflict, and resolution.

All of this in only 177 words! Magic.

How to use this technique

Again, this technique is to write a narrative summary that sets up the drama in the subsequent scene. To be effective, the summary must show more than it tells. As in the example, the summary may contain snippets of dialogue and micro-scenes. In any case, it embodies the critical elements of drama: conflict and action that are emotional, because they involve critical issues in the characters’ lives.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 2nd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: using a sequel that connects two scenes.

Models of Storytelling

This month, I was honored to speak to the Sarasota Fiction Writers group. My topic was “Five Ways to Show Backstory without Losing Dramatic Momentum.” The talk was partly based on a guest post I did earlier this year for Anita Rogers’ Indie Spotlight.  In that post, I described three techniques for conveying backstory in scenes.

For the Sarasota talk, I expanded the topic, and we discussed examples from some well-known writers. I’ll be blogging about each of the Five Ways in upcoming posts.

To set the stage, this post discusses models of storytelling and dramatic structure in fiction. As in a previous post,  I’ll be drawing partly on what I’ve learned from a wonderful book called Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Here’s a picture of me at the meeting holding the book:

A Model is a Map

There are lots of good books on the craft of writing, and many of them use frameworks or models. I view these models as analogous to maps. A Map is an abstraction, a picture that helps us find our way. But you want to be careful not to confuse the map with the territory.

Your story is the territory. It will always be richer and more complex than any map. Also, no model perfectly fits every story.

So, if you’re a writer, you don’t want to get so worried about adhering to a particular model—no matter how good—that you lose the creative energy of writing your story. This is especially true when writing the first draft. Basically, I find models most useful during the revision stage; they help me figure out where the story might be losing effectiveness. And this lines up well with the approach recommended by Jerry Cleaver in Immediate Fiction.

The Five Elements of Storytelling

In his model, Cleaver breaks down the craft of story into five essential elements. Pictorially, it looks like this:

Five Elements of Storytelling, adapted from Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver

The first 3 elements are a model of drama. They apply to every scene and to the story as a whole.

  1. Conflict. We all know that drama is created by conflict. Conflict, Cleaver says, arises from a character wanting something and facing an obstacle to that want. For the story to engage a reader, the want must be very strong and the obstacle very tough to overcome.
  2. Action. Faced with an obstacle, the character takes action to try to resolve it. In fiction, this action can be physical activity, talking to other characters, or even just thinking about how to resolve the problem.
  3. Resolution. The action leads to a resolution, either success or failure, victory or defeat. Again, this applies to each scene and to the story as a whole.
  4. Emotion. As pictured, the three-stage dramatic structre rests on a fourth essential, which Cleaver calls “the active ingredient.” The story has to engage the reader on an emotional level. Fiction does this by conveying the strong emotions of the characters. The characters must care deeply about what they’re facing, and the reader must feel it with them.
  5. Showing. All of this is wrapped up in showing. Showing is the essential technique for presenting the story. Showing means that we present the conflicts, actions, resolutions, and emotions with immediacy, as they are happening to the characters.

Scene and Sequel Model

This second model derives, I believe, from theories of screenwriting, although I see it discussed often in terms of fiction as well. As pictured, a story consists of scenes and sequels, with the intensity rising over time.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

In this model:

Scenes can be understood as consisting of the five elements discussed in the first model.

Sequels are pieces of narrative that connect scenes. A sequel shows the characters’ response to the previous scene and then sets up the scene that follows. As shown in the picture, not every scene needs to have a sequel. Sometimes one scene immediately follows another.

Conveying the Backstory

Based on these models (and on lots of other expert opinion) fiction works best when it engages readers with immediate presentation of characters’ conflicts, actions, and emotions. This takes place mainly in dramatic scenes. Fiction can also make use of narrative sequels used to connect scenes.

But a story inevitably contains a lot of information the reader needs to understand in order to understand what’s going on in the scenes and sequels. This data includes descriptions of settings and past events, and of characters’ backgrounds, psychology, and motivations. In science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, it also includes information about the world and how it differs from the current “real” world.

For convenience, I call all of this information the backstory.

How does fiction convey the backstory without losing the immediacy of engagement or dramatic momentum? Skillful writers use a number of techniques, which I will explore in upcoming posts.

Fixing Your Fiction – How to Rewrite for Dramatic Momentum

“Good writing is rewriting” is a lesson I learned early in studying the art of fiction. Some successful authors go through 3 or 4 complete drafts, some do many more.

But what exactly is rewriting and how do you go about it? More importantly, how can you be sure rewriting makes your story better?

There lots of good books out there on how to write fiction. My latest favorite is Immediate Fiction, published in 2002 by Jerry Cleaver. Cleaver boils down fiction writing into a model that I both find both easy to understand and compelling.

Cleaver’s model shows a story as consisting of three critical elements:

Conflict is further broken down into characters wanting something and facing an obstacle. To this equation, Cleaver adds two other elements that support dramatic storytelling: Emotion and Showing.

I will probably have more to say about Cleaver’s model in future posts, but for now I’m going to concentrate on how it applies to rewriting.

In the chapter on Rewriting, Cleaver explains that you need to start with Conflict (Want and Obstacle) and Action. Make sure they are working in every scene and section. As you rewrite every page, focus on these questions:

1. Who Wants What?

What is the character’s goal? Can it be stronger? Can it appear earlier? Is the character as determined and driven as possible to get what they want? Can you raise the stakes?

2. What is the Obstacle?

What is thwarting the character’s want? Can it appear earlier? Can it be stronger? Can the character ignore it without suffering? If Yes, it needs to be tougher. Fiction is dramatic when it shows characters struggling with troubles.

3. What is the Action?

What is the character doing to overcome  the obstacle? Is it an all-out attack on or defense against the obstacle? Can the character do more?

It’s also important to note that “thinking is action.” In some scenes or narrative sections, the action might be to show the character planning and struggling with how they will solve the problem. That too is drama.

The Other Elements

What about the Resolution? Cleaver says that if you have Want, Obstacle, and Action worked out sufficiently, the Resolution becomes obvious. The character finds victory or defeat, and this moves us on to the next scene or section of the story.

But it is also critical to remember the last two story elements. In laying out all this drama, you need to remember to Show the want, obstacle, and action. And you need to show not only what the character is thinking and doing, but what they are feeling.

Remember: people read fiction for engaging experiences with characters they can identify with. And that is about Emotion.

This graphic summarizes the process for rewriting as laid by Cleaver.

Jack’s Crazy Writing Life, and the Goddess Hekate

While waiting for beta reader feedback on The Mazes of Magic (the first book in the brand new Conjurer of Rhodes series), I have been making a start on the next Abby Renshaw adventure. My initial plan was to write another novella, perhaps a bit longer than Ghosts of Tamgrove Hallbut still something that could be written quickly.

BUT … sometimes a writer’s plans go astray. Stories take on a life of their own. They grow into unruly children, though we love them for it all the more. The next Abby story (working title, The Secret of Lock Tower) wants to be longer, perhaps a full-length novel. It is growing in several directions at once.

One of those directions, I discovered last night, circles back to the Goddess Hekate.

As I wrote in a blog post in 2016, Hekate was the name given by Neoplatonist occult philosophers of antiquity to a female deity that they conceived of as seated at the portal between the “uncreated fire” and the manifest Universe. This figure was the inspiration for the “Goddess Who Shapes All Things” in Ghosts of Bliss Bayou.

Hecate Image
Goddess Image, possibly Hecate, from antique tile.

But Hekate, of course, appears much earlier in Greek mythology, and is also a Goddess figure honored today by neopagans worldwide. Those interested in learning about the many facets of this fascinating deity would enjoy the book Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate published in 2009 by Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

I was honored to be included in that anthology under a pen name, Corbin. Here is the poem I contributed, which I will let speak for itself:

Hecate

She stands at the crossroads under the cowl
Of the sky with goblets in all her claws.
Wind flutters her cloak, obscuring the moon,
Revealing the Book of the Laws.

Ruby wine beckons but I dare not drink
In the night with her eyes like coins of gold
Watching and her silence as ominous
And deep as the sea is old.

O seedless vision, Daughter of the Gates
Of Time, is your offer enlightenment,
Your gift illumination or demise?
Which brings the best contentment?

Kind Dark Mother, I will decline all cups,
Slip away, head bowed as in reflection.
Let me walk a bit longer in the air,
Goddess, but which direction?

Copyright 2009 by Jack Massa. All rights reserved.

Presenting Backstory in Scenes

This is a guest post on  Anita Rogers’ “Writer Chick” Blog, using examples from Ghosts of Bliss Bayou.

As fiction writers, we often hear the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” But what exactly does that mean?

To me, it means to present your story with immediacy. Write it mainly in dramatic scenes, and focus each scene in a single character’s point of view.

But a rich story embodies a lot of information. If you try to convey all of it in scenes, you can easily find yourself writing lots of extraneous scenes, as well as using obviously contrived dialogue (“As we all know, Tom, the Druna are an ancient elvish race who live in Dampwood.”) This is a great way to ruin a story.

Read more…

 

Story Structure in The Everett Exorcism by Lincoln Cole

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new author whose work you admire. I experienced that joy this past week reading The Everett Exorcism by Lincoln Cole.

The book is a skillful blending of thriller, mystery, and horror, involving demonic possession in a small town. An investigator is sent by the Vatican, and we follow him as he meets the local parish priest, bishop, and townspeople. We also encounter a “hunter” from a shadowy world-wide organization that troubleshoots supernatural threats, sometimes working with the Vatican and sometimes not.

Here is how I summarized the book in my review on Amazon:

Plenty of action and suspense; unusual and well-drawn characters who grow and change; and a beautifully structured story. I especially enjoyed the use of two protagonists and how the author skillfully mixed their story-lines, showing certain key scenes from both of their points-of-view to add layers of drama.

From a craft-of-fiction point of view, I really liked that last bit. The book starts with an action scene featuring the Vatican investigator menaced by a demon. We then flash back several days to show how he got here. We replay the opening scene and then the Hunter shows up and rescues the Investigator. We then flash back and tell the story of how the Hunter got here. This takes us to about the 2/3 point of the story. The rest of the book skillfully alternates the points of view of the Investigator and Hunter as they work together against the supernatural evil.

All of this worked beautifully for me as a reader, adding plenty of interest, character insight, surprises and drama.

There are many, many ways to tell a good story. It’s always fun to discover a new one.

You can learn more about The Everett Exorcism and Lincoln Cole’s work here.

The Day of Thoth

While researching an upcoming historical fantasy series (working title, A Conjurer of Rhodes), I read a lot to refresh and deepen my knowledge of the gods of ancient Greece and Egypt.

One of my favorite deities has always been the Egyptian Thoth, equated by the Greeks with Hermes. Thoth is the god of writing and magic, indeed of all the mental arts.

Thoth’s Egyptian name was Djehuty (or dhwty) meaning “He Who is Like the Ibis”  (1)  He is usually depicted in the form of a man with an Ibis head.

Source: https://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/thot/esp_thot_9.htm

According to some sources ( 2 and 3) August 29 is the first day of the month of Thoth. This time was associated with the annual flooding of the Nile, on which the Egyptians depended to make the land fertile.

Someone once pointed out to me that on our modern calendar August 29 is directly opposite in the wheel of the year to February 29, a day which only occurs every four years. This is an odd coincidence given another myth about Thoth. In this story, he established the 365-day solar calendar.

According to the myth, the year was originally only 360 days long, and Nut (the goddess of the sky) was sterile and unable to bear children. Thoth gambled with the Moon for 1/72nd of its light and won five days to add to the year (360/72 = 5).  During these five days, Nut gave birth to the next generation of gods.

Depiction of the Goddess Nut holding up the sky. Source : http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/ancient-egyptian-mythology/egyptian-creation-myth

Egyptian mythology has several creation myths. This seems to relate to the fact that the priesthoods in different major cities proclaimed their god as the creator. In Hermopolis, Thoth was the chief deity and the story was that he created the world by uttering a single word. Some sources say this was a primal vibration, others that it was a song.  Still others claim it was the name of the primordial water goddess, Nun.

In other stories, Thoth is credited with helping steer the boat of Ra, the sun god, with helping Isis in her quest to resurrect her husband Osiris, and with assisting Horus in his battle with the evil god Set.

Thoth is also featured in the scroll known as The Papyrus of Ani, (aka, The Egyptian Book of the Dead). In the scene where the soul of the deceased is weighed by Anubis, Thoth writes down the result.

Source: http://slideplayer.com/slide/4362462/

Taking all of this into account, I wrote a little ditty in appreciation of Thoth. A hip hop meter seemed appropriate.

Hip Hop Thoth

At Hermopolis town, on the Nile
They’d say Thoth made the world (with a smile)
Spoke one word with his Ibis tongue
And the world spilled out all fresh and young.

Many tough ages have come and gone,
But Thoth still sings his ibis song.
Hanging in the swamp, dressed like a bird:
At night he whispers the magic word.

Older than the Moon and older than the Sun,
He’s the bird with the word and the word is “Nun.”

When Ra sails the sky, Thoth steers his boat;
When Horus fights Set, Thoth holds his coat;
When you die Anubis may weigh your soul,
But it’s Thoth who writes it all down on his scroll.

Now Thoth played dice with the Moon and he won,
And Thoth taught Isis how to con the Sun,
And when this world at last spills to its end,
Thoth might just say “Nun” again.

Older than the Moon and older than the Sun,
He’s the bird with the word and the word is “Nun.”

 

Review of Zorro by Isabel Allende

I have loved Zorro since I was four years old (so, eh, for 60 years). I have enjoyed his many incarnations, from the original 1919 Johnston McCulley story, through many many film, TV, and comics incarnations, and straight up to this unlikely literary, somewhat magical realist, and (dare I say?) feminist novel.

Source: http://www.sffaudio.com/libivox-the-curse-of-capistrano-by-johnston-mcculley/

The writing is impeccable. Allende IS a grand master, and her Spanish prose is beautifully rendered into English by translator Margaret Sayers Peden. I did not mind at all the long paragraphs and focus on narrative rather than action scenes (which many readers seem to have disliked). Although, I must admit at times this style made for a slower reading experience.

The story comes up with many surprises, including Diego’s half-Native American family tree, his early shamanistic experiences, on to his adventures crossing to Spain, and the political intrigue there involving Gypsies, a secret society, and his involvement with an unfortunate noble family.

The narrative persona is especially intriguing. And, without giving away any spoilers, I can say that it wraps up the whole novel beautifully, even while the character of Zorro himself remains ultimately mysterious (as he always should!)

A quirky but worthy addition to the Zorro canon.

Cover of Allende’s novel. Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24796.Zorro

 

 

Remembering My Brother Robert

I learned that yesterday was Siblings Day and that made me think of Robert. Robert was my younger brother, third child and second boy among four siblings. We grew up in suburban New Jersey, in the orbit of New York City, in the 1960s. When we were kids we played board games together, drank too much soda, and stayed up way too late in the Summer watching old movies on a black and white TV.

All four of us kids were smart in school, but Robert was scary intelligent. He was top of his class for four years in High School, then went on to Notre Dame University. Later he got a Masters in English from Columbia.

During and after college, he spent a lot of time in Europe, especially Germany. A High School friend of mine, who was in the military, ran into Robert in a Beer Garden in Bavaria. What are the odds? Years later, Robert visited me in Atlanta and gave me a fragment of painted concrete that he said “might have been” part of the Berlin Wall. I still have it.

Robert settled in New York City, and while attending Columbia got an internship at the Village Voice. He started writing theater reviews and before long the Voice was running them. Later, he founded a newsletter on the AIDS epidemic, and in 1989 was named the Voice’s editor in charge of AIDS coverage.

I knew Robert was HIV positive, and in the autumn of 1993, he called me long distance and told me he had contracted a related condition that proved terminal “in most cases.” I asked if there was anything I could do, and he asked me to be an executor of his will, to make sure his partner was able to keep their apartment. I flew up to New York to visit him and deal with the legal stuff.

The day I was to leave, we talked about his condition and the chances of survival. He said, “You know, I might get better. But think of how embarrassing it will be after causing all this excitement.”

On my way out the door I hugged him and said, “Get better. Risk the embarrassment.”

He laughed.

Five months later he died, at the age of 37.

I know he was only one of many, many wonderful people who died too early because of AIDs. He documented the epidemic in his writings and helped shape public awareness and policy. The saddest part for me is how his life was cut off, unfinished, and thinking about what other contributions he might have made.