Five Ways to Show Backstory:
4. Characters Tell Each Other

Returning from our mermaid adventure last month, we are back to talking about the craft of fiction.

In previous posts in this series, we’ve examined different ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

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

Technique #4: Characters Tell Each Other the Backstory

We’re all familiar with scenes where a character learns some backstory by hearing it from another character. When done well, this is a seamless and effective way to convey information.

But you have to be careful. Done poorly, this technique can easily seem contrived, the dialogue ‘stagy.’ In science fiction writing, we are warned to avoid the “As we all know, Jim” syndrome. Never, never start a speech with “As we all know.” If we all know it, why are you saying it!?

Example: From Robert B. Parker

In this example from Parker’s , Death in Paradise, Jesse Stone is chief of police for a small town in Massachusetts. He’s investigating the murder of a teenage girl, and it’s led him to meet Lily, the principal of the high school. They’ve covered the details of the case, and now the conversation turns personal.

Lily crossed her legs the other way. Jesse waited.

“How did you go from shortstop to policeman, Jesse?”

“My father was a cop,” Jesse said. “In Tucson. When I couldn’t play ball anymore, it seemed like the other thing that I might know how to do.”

“And how did you end up in Paradise?”

“I was a cop in L.A. I got fired for being a drunk. And my marriage broke up. And I figured I’d try to start over as far from L.A. as I could.”

“Are you still drinking?”

“Mostly not,” Jesse said.

“Was that why your marriage broke up?”

“No,” Jesse said. “It didn’t help the marriage, and the marriage didn’t help it. But there were other things.”

“There always are. Aren’t there?”

“You’ve been divorced?”

“Twice.”

Excerpt © 2001 by Robert B. Parker

What We Learn in this Scene

In just 130 words here we get a lot of backstory. We learn not only about Jesse’s history (which readers who have read this far know some of already), but also a bit of Lily’s.

In terms of story-craft, notice how the exposition comes up in a scene that is mainly about something else. Suddenly, it shifts gears and moves the characters’ personal stories along.

Also, it not only tells some of Jesse’s history, but it shows us how he sees himself and presents himself to others: world weary, straight and direct, brutally honest about himself. Significantly, the prose style mirrors these characteristics, and is also extremely easy to read.

Tips for Using This Technique

Again, to disclose backstory in dialogue, you need to be crafty:

  • First, make sure the character would realistically learn the information from the other character. (Avoid the “As we all know” pitfall.)
  • Secondly, present the dialogue in short chunks, not long speeches.
  • Finally, make the disclosure part of an emotionally-engaging scene. Your readers must feel for the characters or they won’t care about the backstory.
Up Next

Next time, we will wrap up this series by discussing the last of our Five Techniques, one that is frequently used but rarely discussed: Sprinkling Backstory into a Scene.

The Real Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

This month we’re talking a Blog break from discussing the art of the backstory. Instead, we’re visiting one of the most magical places in offbeat Florida, Weeki Wachee, home of the live mermaids.

Where it’s at

Weeki Wachee Springs, now a Florida State Park, is located on Highway 19, about an hour north of Tampa.

Entrance to the park. Photo copyright by Jack Massa.

Weeki Wachee is one of a large number of natural springs in Florida, and one of the deepest.  According to the park website, each day more than 117 million gallons of water gush out of the underground aquifer and form the source of the Weeki Wachee river, which flows 12 miles to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the park, you can take a boat ride on the river, and you can also rent kayaks nearby.

View from the river cruise. Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa
History

The real attraction, of course, is the mermaids.

In all began in 1946 with a man named Newton Perry. Perry had trained Navy frogmen during World War II, and also invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose. At the time, the area was pretty much a wilderness and “the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.”

Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)

Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.

Source: https://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.

During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”

Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Souce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7lmxhIKd2o

I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Mermaids Today

Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.

Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa

So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.

Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 3. Create a Scene where a Character Reflects

This is the fourth in a series of posts (beginning here) explaining five ways that successful fiction writers present backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

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

Technique #3: Create a Scene where a Character Reflects  on the Backstory

In real life, we all spend time thinking about our problems. Your characters can do the same.

In this method, the author writes a scene in which—rather than two or more characters interacting—a single character reflects. The scene might be written in first person (internal monologue) or third person, but it is an immediate scene. That is, we are present with the character, and the character takes some actions along the way. But the focus of the scene is on the character’s reflections: on where they are in the story, how they got here, what problems they face, what they might do about them.

This technique is a very efficient way to convey lots of backstory economically.

Example: from John Grisham

This passage is from Grisham’s best-selling crime thriller, The Client. Set in Chapter 2, the scene presents lots of backstory setting up the rest of the novel. We’re following a New Orleans criminal named Barry the Blade. Expecting to meet his lawyer (Jerome) for dinner, he’s just phoned the lawyer’s office and been told Jerome left the office at 9 AM and has not been seen since.

The Blade slammed the phone down and stormed through the hallway, then caught himself and began to strut as he neared the tables and the faces. The restaurant was beginning to fill. It was almost five.

He just wanted a few drinks and then a nice dinner with his lawyer so they could talk about his mess. Just drinks and dinner, that’s all. The Feds were watching, and listening. Jerome was  paranoid, and just last week told Barry he thought they had wired his law office. So they would meet here and have a nice meal without worrying about eavesdroppers and bugging devices.

They needed to talk. Jerome Clifford had been defending prominent New Orleans thugs for fifteen years—gangsters, pushers, politicians—and his record was impressive. He was cunning and corrupt, completely willing to buy people who could be bought. He drank with the judges and slept with their girlfriends. He bribed cops and threatened the jurors. He schmoozed with the politicians and contributed when asked. Jerome knew what made the system tick, and when a sleazy defendant with money needed help in New Orleans, he invariably found his way to the law offices of W. Jerome Clifford…

Barry’s case, however, was something different…

Excerpt © 1993 by John Grisham

What do we learn here?

The scene goes after on the above, but in just these 200 words we learn a lot.

We get a clear picture of Barry, conveyed both by how he acts in public and how he thinks. Notice in the first paragraph how he begins to “storm,” then catches himself and resumes his characteristic “strut.” He is emotional, but carefully controls what he shows to the world.

Notice also the rapid-fire summary of his thoughts in the second and third paragraphs. This conveys not only the information content of the backstory, but Barry’s emotional state in thinking about it.

The third paragraph is all about Jerome Clifford, and gives us a clear picture of him and his shady business dealings. While this might be characterized as an “info dump” it is kept interesting by the strong, direct writing. In that regard, note the colorful adjectives and action verbs: “cunning and corrupt”, “bribed”, “threatened”, “schmoozed.”

Tips for using this technique

To use this method in your fiction:

  1. Set up a scene where a character can think about their problems. This might be while taking a walk, working out, taking a shower, waiting for a bus—any situation where a person might spend time reflecting.
  2. Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
  3. Make it emotional. Why are they worried or tense about the situation? What’s the worst that could happen to them? (Bonus points: Can you raise the stakes and make it even worse?)
  4. Keep it short. Info dumps are only deleterious when they’re long. Then they interrupt narrative tension and cause readers to yawn. So break up the character’s reflections with present actions, keeping the reflective passages brief.

Again, this technique of building scenes where the characters are reflecting can be very effective in conveying a lot of backstory information in a short space.

Coming Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 4th of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory, that tried and true technique where characters tell each other the backstory.

Five Ways to Show Backstory: 2. Using a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

Following up on the previous two posts (see this post for the start), here is the second of five ways a writer can convey backstory while maintaining dramatic momentum.

Reminder: 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.

2. Show the Backstory in a Sequel Connecting Two Scenes

This technique makes us of the Scene and Sequence model, which is frequently discussed in books on writing fiction and on screenwriting.

Scene and Sequel model, adapted from various sources

The basic idea is that a story is constructed of scenes and sequels, with rising tension as we go from beginning to end. In this model, a sequel shows a character’s response to the preceding scene and sets the stage for the next scene.

A sequel is also a great place to work in some backstory.

Example: From Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

This example is from Fool Moon, the second of Jim Butcher’s famous Dresden Files urban fantasy novels. Harry Dresden is a private eye who also happens to be a wizard. He consults with the Chicago Police Department on supernatural cases. The following is part of the sequel to Chapter 1. In a bar, Dresden has met with Lieutenant Murphy, and she has asked him to come along to help investigate an unusual murder…

"Murphy declined to ride in the Blue Beetle, my old Volkswagen bug.

The Beetle wasn’t really blue, not anymore. One of the doors had been replaced with a green duplicate, the other one with white, when something with claws had shredded the originals. The hood had been slagged by fire, and my mechanic, Mike, had replaced it with the hood from a red vehicle. The important thing is that the Beetle runs, even if it doesn’t do it very fast, and I’m comfortable with the car. Mike has declared that the VW bug is the easiest car in the world to repair, and so that’s what I drive. He keeps it running eight or nine days in ten. That’s phenomenal.

Technology tends to foul up around wizards—flip on a light switch, and it’ll be the time the bulb burns out. Drive past a streetlight and it’ll pick just then to flicker and die. Whatever can go wrong will, automobiles included.

I didn’t think it made much sense for Murphy to risk her vehicle when she could have taken mine, but she said she’d take her chances."

Excerpt (c)  2001 by Jim Butcher

What Backstory do we learn here?

On the surface, it seems simple. The main thing we learn is that Harry Dresden drives an old, beat up car. But this tells us several things about him:

  • In typical hard-boiled private eye fashion, he lives on the edge financially.
  • He’s not pretentious in the material sense. He doesn’t need a status symbol car to bolster his ego.
  • His car takes a beating from various monsters. He’s had some interesting cases.
  • And, he is nonchalant about dealings with these supernatural dangers.

We also learn that “Technology tends to foul up around wizards.” In Fantasy, the writer has to convey a lot of exposition, because the world is, at least to some degree, different from the everyday real world we all think we know and love. How does the magic work? What are its limitations, drawbacks, and consequences? This passage conveys some of this critical information while describing Harry’s car.

One thing more: We not only learn about Dresden’s character, but also Murphy’s—again, indirectly. We learn that, despite the hazards of exposure to a wizard, Murphy is “willing to take her chances” and use her own car. Why? Perhaps she not willing to be seen riding in a beat up old VW. But also—and we are shown this again and again about her character—Murphy is tough and wants to in charge. She wants to drive.

Principle

So, what looks at first glance like a simple bit of backstory about the character’s car, turns out to convey a lot of information.

This illustrates an important principle of good fiction: Everything in the story should be accomplishing several goals. Every passage does double or triple duty: moves the action forward, delineates character, perhaps describes the setting, or explains the background for what goes on.

The best-written stories are multi-layered in this way.

Up Next

Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.

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.