Category Archives: Literature

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.

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…

 

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

 

 

Fun and Games with Shakespeare

Or What You Will

My wife and I are Shakespeare enthusiasts in the extreme. So we were delighted to discover the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. Last Friday evening, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, in a courtyard between two Victorian houses, under an enormous oak tree, we watched a wonderful performance of Twelfth Night, one of our favorite plays.

We’ve seen it a number of times before, and talked about some of the puns and hidden meanings. On the long drive home over the Sunshine Skyway, we had another of those conversations.

souce: https://www.emaze.com/@ATOIZTFR/The-Sunshine-Skyway-Bridge

One thing we find interesting is the similar names of several of the characters—Malvolio, Olivia, and Viola. All share the same letters.

According to the website BehindtheName.com, the name Malvolio was invented by Shakespeare and means “ill will” in Italian. From the same site, we learn that “Olivia” was also first used in Twelfth Night, and is probably derived from the name of the olive tree. “Viola” meanwhile, is Latin for violet.

Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00423

So if we think of all characters as being projections of the author, and recall that Shakespeare went by the name “Will,” we have Malvolio, or the bad Will. We also have Olivia, the Will who is like the olive, because she is bitter and melancholy. And Viola, the Will who is bright and clever.

Okay, those last two might be a bit of a stretch.

But then again, Shakespeare subtitled the play “What You Will”

Hmmm.

One line that’s always been a bit of a mystery is in Act 2, Scene 5. Malvolio is reading a letter left for him to find by the servant Mary and meant for him to mistake as coming from the Countess Olivia. The letter does not name him, but hints at his name by spelling out M O A I. Malvolio puzzles over whether this is meant to be him, and then reads:

“If this fall into thy hand, revolve…” and there follows the famous quote that “Some are born great, etc.”

But “revolve”? This is sometimes played on stage for comic effect by Malvolio twirling around. That’s good.

According to the Annotated Twelfth Night the word revolve means “think things over.” Also good.

But my brilliant wife discovered that if you revolve the page (turn it upside down) and look at the letters MOAI…

you get something that looks very much like “I VOW”…

…Which also fits the meaning of the text.

Hmmmm.