Recently, I was chatting with a friend, a talented writer, who was having trouble getting a new short story off the ground. “My new story is very pretty,” she said, “but not going anywhere. I have characters, a setting, and some leads but they stump me.”
My friend had seeds, ideas that sparked her imagination, but was having trouble figuring out how to grow them into a story.
Notice I say grow, because I think of stories as organic, living beings. They need time to gestate before they can be born.
At times, all fiction writers face this dilemma. Here are three approaches that might help you get past the problem.
Using this model, sit down at the keyboard and ask yourself:
What does my protagonist want?
What are the obstacles?
What actions will they take to overcome these obstacles?
What will be the result/resolution?
Keep asking and typing your answers until the muse circuit kicks in and starts to show you the story.
2. The Backwards Approach
A similar technique is to start with the ending. If you already know what conclusion you want, great. If not, start by asking how you want the story to end.
Picture the ending (resolution) in your mind. Then keep asking yourself,” How did we get here?” “What happened before this to get us here?” “What happened before that?”
Rinse and repeat until the story comes clean.
3. The Character Interview Approach
This method works best if you have some of the story pieces but are not sure about the characters. Remember that character goals and conflicts drive most stories, so you need to have a clear vision of who your protagonist is and what they want. You also need to know this stuff for the other important characters.
Treat it as an interview. Imagine your main character sitting across the table from you.
Now ask how you can help them. What is their problem or trouble? What do they need? What’s stopping them from getting what they need?
Once you have some answers, you can also turn this into a group session. Bring in one or two other important characters and lead a discussion. Focus on how the new characters relate to the protagonist and whether they are supporting or hindering the goals.
What do you think?
What do you think about these three techniques?
If you are a writer or aspiring writer, what methods do you use to grow your stories?
Nevertheless, when you invent a magic system as an author, you need to be aware of the First Law in particular. In other words, you have to figure out how to make the magic comprehensible to the reader.
Hard, Soft, and In Between
In his essay on the first law, Sanderson elucidates with examples of different magic systems on a continuum from “soft” to “hard”:
On one side of the continuum, we have books where the magic is included in order to establish a sense of wonder and give the setting a fantastical feel. Books that focus on this use of magic tend to want to indicate that men are a small, small part of the eternal and mystical workings of the universe. This gives the reader a sense of tension as they’re never certain what dangers—or wonders—the characters will encounter. Indeed, the characters themselves never truly know what can happen and what can’t. … I call this a “Soft Magic” system…
Sanderson cites Tolkien as a prime example. In The Lord of the Rings, the rules of the magic are never much explained. By the same token, while magic creates the dangerous situation (the Lord of Mordor and his rings), magic is seldom if ever used to solve the characters’ problems. Frodo and Sam don’t magically teleport to Mordor to drop off the One Ring.
On the other end of the continuum is “hard magic,” where the working rules are explicitly explained:
The magic itself is a character, and by showing off its laws and rules, the author is able to provide twists, worldbuilding, and characterization.
If the reader understands how the magic works, then you can use the magic (or, rather, the characters using the magic) to solve problems. In this case, it’s not the magic mystically making everything better. Instead, it’s the characters’ wit and experience that solves the problems. Magic becomes another tool—and, like any other tool, its careful application can enhance the character and the plot.
Taken to its extreme, hard magic systems can be like table-top gaming, where specific powers are based on point-systems. Many readers want this kind of hard-and-fast rules-based world, but I personally find hard systems less than appealing. If everything is known, where is the sense of wonder?
Fortunately, as Sanderson points out, most writers choose a middle ground between the hard and soft extremes. He cites the Harry Potter novels as a prime example.
Each of these books outlines various rules, laws, and ideas for the magic of the world. And, in that given book, those laws are rarely violated, and often they are important to the workings of the book’s climax. However, if you look at the setting as a whole, you don’t really ever understand the capabilities of magic.
This strategy allows characters to solve problems with magic while avoiding the trap of the magic becoming a predictable, rote system and thereby losing all the mystery and wonder.
Magic in the World of Glimnodd
I am big on mystery and the mystical sense of wonder. Nevertheless, magic is integral to the plot of my fantasy stories. Which means my characters often solve problems with magic. Which means the reader has to have a sense of the limits and the rules. So my stories fall somewhere in the middle of the hard-soft spectrum.
In the Glimnodd Cycle, magic is definitely and consistently a deep aspect of the story lines. On Glimnodd, magic has been around for a long, long time. So much so, that the unrestrained use of magic caused the fabric of reality to fray and the world to change. This brought about a time known as The Age of the World’s Madness, where chaos reigned, new sentient species arose, and one of the three moons flew off into space.
Later, balance was restored. To preserve the balance and vent off excess magical energies, great spells were woven. One causes the seas of Glimnodd to shine with a perpetual light. The second causes magic winds to blow which change the seas to ice or the ice back to soft water.
There are multiple magical systems mentioned in the stories. In terms of magic used to solve plot problems, there are touches of shamanic magic, alchemy, and ancient evil sorcery (with clearly defined rules in A Mirror Against All Mishap).
But the most detailed magical system is that codified and used by the Witches of Larthang. This is based on five arts.
The Five Revered Arts
The Five Revered Arts of Larthangan Witchery are:
Deep Seeing (wei shen) – The art of perceiving thoughts, images, and events through no physical sense but through the mind alone.
Formulation (jai-dah or “weaving”). The creation of mental constructs that are stored and then released at a chosen moment, through incantation and mental casting.
Trinketing (barang-xing). The fabrication of magical objects. In this art, the witch generates a magical design and binds it to a material object, allowing the power to be unleashed at a later time by herself or another person.
Magical combat (weng lei). In this art, a witch trains with dagger, sword, ritual stances, and fighting techniques. With the force of her mind she can send blades through the air or cast weakness into an opponent’s body.
Pure-shaping (quon-xing). The spontaneous use of mental power to create effects in the world.
In terms of their limitations, all five arts depend on the practiced skill and mental strength of the practitioner (the witch or ‘deepshaper’). In scenes where magic is used to solve problems, there is always a sense of struggle, tension, and doubt.
Right now, I am more than delighted because I am finally nearing completion of Tournament of Witches, the third and final book of The Glimnodd Cycle .
The latest novel truly fits the mold of “epic” fantasy, weighing in at a healthy 95,000 words and featuring a multitude of characters and lots of background (aka world building).
Presenting this amount of information in a story is one of the great challenges of epic fantasy. Of course, the best way to present all of this backstory is to chop it up into little chunks and weave it into the narrative. In a past series of posts beginning here, I described Five Techniques for presenting backstory in this way.
Still, no matter how skillfully the author weaves in character descriptions and background details, readers will sometimes get lost. This is particularly true for readers who might start by reading one of the later books in a series.
To solve this dilemma, an author might provide additional tools that the confused reader can flip to to remind or re-orient themselves. One such tool is a Glossary, which can include definitions of things, places, and concepts that only exist in the fantasy world. Another such tool is a list of characters.
In Tournament of Witches I am including both of these, a Glossary in the back of the book and a character list in the front.
We’ll leave discussion of the Glossary for a future post. But here, in draft form, is the character listing. Since this is placed at the start of the novel, one thing I’ve tried to do is not only identify the characters, but give a little (hopefully intriguing) information about who they are and what their situation is at the start of the story. Because there are so many, I’ve also used the information designer’s technique of grouping them under subheadings.
Cast of Characters
Amlina – Wandering witch from Larthang, a nation of great witches. Victorious in acquiring the Cloak of the Two Winds, she now seeks to recover from what it cost her.
Eben – Warrior of the barbarian Iruk people. Inclined to poetry; squandering his loot on a life of ease; enjoying it less than he expected.
Eben’s mates, members of his klarn:
Glyssa (f), brave and loving. Trained by Amlina in the magical arts.
Lonn (m), the klarn leader, strong, passionate, stoical. In love with Glyssa.
Draven (m), Lonn’s cousin, brave and optimistic. In love with Amlina.
Karrol (f), brawny, decisive, outspoken. No longer sure where she belongs.
Brinda (f), Karrol’s sister, quiet and reserved. Loyal above all to Karrol.
Others related to Amlina or the Iruks
Kizier – Scholar and friend to Amlina. Ruminating over his past life as a sentient sea-fern.
Buroof – A talking book, once a human. Three thousand years old and full of knowledge.
Beryl Quan de Lang – Amlina’s great enemy. Now a ghost that haunts her.
Bellach – Iruk shaman and sometime mentor to Glyssa in visions.
Witches of Larthang
Drusdegarde – Archimage of the West. Supreme witch of the Land.
Trippany – Bee-winged lady of the drell people. Envoy from the Archimage.
Clorodice, Keeper of the Keys – Powerful and strict. Adherent of the austere Thread of Virtue faction.
Arkasha – Clorodice’s subaltern and member of her circle.
Elani Vo T’ang – Clorodice’s favored apprentice.
Melevarry, Mage of Randoon -Chief witch of that port city. Loyal to the Archimage.
Larthangan Military and Court
Duke Trem-Dou Pheng – Supreme Commander of the Larthangan Forces and leader of the militarist faction, the Iron Bloc.
Shay-Ni Pheng – Admiral of the Larthangan Navy and the Duke’s nephew. Unhappy with his current assignment.
The Tuan (Me Lo Lee) – Supreme Ruler of Larthang. A nine-year-old boy with access to the memories and knowledge of his 154 dynastic predecessors.
Prince Spegis – drell ambassador to the Court. Cousin to Trippany.
Ting Fo -gentleman tutor and interpreter for the Iruks at the Court.
Or how I won Aristotle’s approval for my novel in progress.
I am working once again on the Glimnodd Cycle, epic sword and sorcery set in a unique magical world.
Presently, I am in the thick of writing the first draft for Book 3, tentatively titled Tournament of Witches. And I don’t mind telling you I’ve had some trouble getting this one rolling. I have a pretty detailed outline, composed some time back, for the second and third parts of the book. The opening was the problem. I needed to collect my crew of characters (six warriors, a witch, and a wandering scholar) where I left them at the end of Book 2 (A Mirror Against All Mishap) and get them going on their next adventure.
Five of the crew are living in a remote colony in the south polar region of Glimnodd. Hiding out, because they now possess the Cloak of the Two Winds, an important magical treasure that , inevitably, powers from all over the world are looking to claim. Meantime, two of the warriors have returned to their former lives as hunters. The other warrior, Eben, has been living in the port city of the polar colony, squandering his loot on drink and dissolute living.
Since Eben is the protagonist of Book 3, I knew I needed to open with him and his sorry circumstances. I imagined him waking up in an alley, hung over and having been robbed. Poor Eben.
One of plot elements that intrigued me most didn’t appear until part 3 in the outline—people with bee wings. By that point, our heroes have arrived in distant Larthang and returned the Cloak to its rightful owners. Now they are embroiled in political and magical intrigue, part of which involves the drell. The drell are insect-winged people from a neighboring land. One of them, a lady, is kidnapped as part of the plot.
So how could I tie all this together and get my characters and story moving.? After worrying over this for some time, a solution came to me. The drell lady from part 3 is an agent for one of the factions searching for the Cloak. She appears in the opening scene with Eben. As I wrote on a social media post:
“Sometimes it’s takes a while to realize that the bee-winged lady from Part 3 is the same as the witch’s agent who discovers the hero drunk in the alley in Chapter 1.”
Shortly after figuring this out, I took it a step further and made the villain from part 3 one of the other parties searching for the Cloak in Part 1. These revelations not only introduce important new characters right at the start, they tie together the dramatic events from part 3 with the book’s opening. The whole plot is now much better unified. And didn’t Aristotle cite unity as a crucial element of drama in The Poetics?
My new book is now okay with Aristotle. What a relief!
Here, in draft form, is the opening scene for the new novel…
Cold wind tickled his forehead and eyelids. Eben blinked, painfully coming awake. Squinting into the gray dawn, he recognized the worn brick wall of an alley, smeared with frost. Rime and icy winds were normal enough in Fleevanport at the end of Third Winter. Waking from a drunken sleep in an alley was also, regrettably, typical for him these days.
Not typical was the sparkling woman floating over him in the air, her vibrating bee-wings blowing cold air on his face.
Eben shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his head. At least the drunken dreams were growing more interesting. Groaning, he reached inside his fur overshirt, fingers groping for his purse.
Gone. Robbed again, no doubt by some doxy he had stupidly followed from a tavern. How often had he fallen for that ploy these past two seasons—roaming the waterfront, drinking far too much, squandering his hard-won loot? At least this time the thief had left his fur cape and hunting knife.
Persistent humming made him open his eyes. Startled, he sat up then squinted hard.
The gleaming lady still hung in the air, her wings a blur. She had the body of a slim woman, dressed in gauzy garments that could have offered little protection from the cold. Black hair, banded by a gemmed silver crown, a slim and angular face, coppery complexion, eyes that turned up at the corners—eyes like black onyx bead, watching him.
Vision or real, Eben thought her the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.
She floated down, dainty belled slippers settling on the cobblestone. Bending to peer at his face, she spoke in halting Low-Tathian.
“You are … all right?”
Stiff and aching, Eben struggled to his feet. He was small for an Iruk warrior. Even so, the top of the lady’s head just reached the level of his chin. He examined her wings, still now, blue-veined, silvery, rounded like bee-wings, sprouting from her back.
“Oh, I am all right,” he said. “And how are you?”
She smiled, revealing white pointy teeth.
“And what are you?” he added.
The wings fluttered and she rose into the air, stopping when her eyes were level with his.
“I am named Trippany. And you are an Iruk?”
“That is so, my pretty flying girl. But from what nation do you hail? For, assuming you are real and not an illusion, I have never seen the like of you.”
Her tone grew solemn and proud, the words coming like a speech she had rehearsed. “I am an envoy from the House of the Deepmind in Larthang.”
That might make sense. Larthang was far away and strange, known to be a land of great mages. Who could say they had not bred such creatures as this by their magic?
“That is odd,” he said. “You do not look Larthangan.”
Her mouth quirked in a half-smile. “My people are the drell. You know … how Larthangans look then?”
Suddenly, Eben realized this was leading into dangerous territory. He rubbed the back of his head. “Well, of course. Their trading ships sometimes sail these waters.”
The lady seemed to sense his secretiveness—and was having none of it. “I seek the Cloak of the Two Winds,” she stated flatly. “Do you know where it can be found?”
Eben tilted back. He forced himself to show a puzzled frown. “Why no … How should I know such a thing?”
Of course, he did know. The Cloak was in the possession of the witch Amlina. She, along with three of Eben’s former mates, lived in hiding at a farmstead in the hills half a day’s journey from here.
The lady floated a bit higher, glaring down at him now. He hoped she could not read his thoughts
“I’ve head tales of it,” Eben muttered casually. “A great thing of magic, is it not? Stories have reached this port that it was stolen some time back, taken from some great witch of Tallyba who has slain in the battle.”
“Those same tales reached Larthang,” the bee-lady said. “Some of them say the Cloak was stolen by a witch of Larthang, in league with warriors of the Iruk folk. Others say that same witch used the Cloak to scatter a Tathian fleet … at an island called Alone.”
Eben shrugged, wondering if he should reach for his knife. He would hate to kill this lovely creature, but he was sworn not to reveal Amlina’s hideout. “You seem to know more about it than I do.”
“I am not so sure.” the lady peered hard into his eyes. “You are Iruk. And you were heard in a tavern last night, boasting that you had seen an entire Tathian fleet blown away by magic.”
Casually as he could, Eben slipped his hand toward the knife handle. “I don’t remember saying that. To be honest, I’ve been told I am a terrible liar when I’ve had too much to drink.”
She eyed his hand on the knife hilt. “I see. Perhaps also you lie at other times?” She flew higher, floating out of reach. “So then, you cannot help me find the Cloak?”
“I fear not.”
“You … disappoint me. But I shall keep looking.”
The angle of her wings changed, and she looped away, higher into the air. Light flashed, and Eben thrust up an arm to shield his eyes. When he looked again, the lady was gone.
Eben wiped his forehead and heaved a deep breath. He glanced suspiciously up and down the alley.
Had the winged lady been real? Certainly the conversation was too prolonged for a simple drunken dream. But perhaps she was a vision, sent by some sorcerer or witch to interrogate him? Amlina had said that many mages would seek the Cloak of the Two Winds, once it became known that it was loose in the world.
Eben vowed to be careful … and avoid so much drinking.
But imagining an entire world is no easy task. For all the great resources available, writers often struggle. In this post, drawing on examples from expert authors, I’ll provide three tips for setting up a fantasy world that is both imaginative and unique.
1. Story Before World
World-building can be great fun. It can also be a rabbit hole. Many people spend endless hours defining every nook and nuance of their world—history, climate, geography, sentient races, religions, magic, technology.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But if you want to write fantasy stories, you need to put the story first. Put your focus on the primary elements of story. Who are your characters? What are their goals? What are the obstacles to those goals? How will they seek to overcome those obstacles? Let all your world building efforts be driven by those questions.
Take for example The Queen’s Poisoner by popular author Jeff Wheeler. The story takes place in a pretty standard medieval-style world (with a few unique and intriguing elements). But the focus is first and foremost on the characters—as we follow our young hero Owen through the tribulations of being held hostage in the castle of a tyrant king. The history, politics, and other background information are revealed gradually and always in terms of how they relate to the dramatic story.
Or consider the massive and massively popular The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss constructs a complex and richly-detailed fantasy world. But again, the setting is only gradually revealed in the midst of dramatic action. In this case, we are presented with multiple narratives—the first, a framing device that introduces the hero, then multiple sequential stories as the protagonist relates his history to the “Chronicler.” This is also a truly epic example of story construction.
2. Make It Distinct
For all the efforts spend on world-building, many writers fall into the trap of imitation. All too often readers find themselves in worlds that seem like copies of Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons: orcs, witches, werewolves, elves, dragons, shapeshifters, vampires…
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But the best fantasy worlds have something that makes them unique and special.
In The Name of the Wind, we find (among other things) a complex set of “arcanist arts” (including Sympathy, Sygaldry, Alchemy, and Naming) which function according to precise scientific laws.
Or take NK Jemison’s award-winning TheBroken Earth Trilogy. In Book 1, The Fifth Season, we meet the orogenes, a unique kind of humans with the power to sense and tap the tectonic forces of the Earth. These books might best be called science-fantasy, since the orogenes’ powers are linked to a biological explanation. But the author’s depictions of how these powers feel and are experienced are nonetheless fantastic.
In world-building for my own novel, Cloak of the Two Winds, I tried to imagine one thing to make the setting unique. The world, Glimnodd, is a place where arcane arts have been practiced for ages. Part of the legacy of all this witchery is that magic winds blow over the seas, changing water to ice or ice to water. Yes, I came up with that on my own!
3. Make it Relevant
Fantasy is escapist literature, and I’m all for it. But unless a story is relevant to readers, they won’t care about it. And for a fantasy story to be relevant, the experience of the world and the characters must be relatable.
In other words: What about the current state of our world does this fantasy world portray?
I learned this lesson when a friend read an early draft of Cloak of the Two Winds. The freezewind and meltwind in the story were created in ancient times as a kind of pressure-release. So much magic and sorcery were practiced that their cumulative effects had plunged the world into chaos. To keep the world in balance, the two winds now bleed off excess magic energy.
In the story, the Cloak of the title can control these magic winds. But it has been stolen and is being misused by a mad sorcerer intent on bringing the world back to chaos.
What about all that is relatable to our world? I didn’t realize it myself until a friend referred to the story as involving a “climate emergency.” In our world, overpopulation and technology are threatening us with chaos. Perhaps technology, wisely applied, will help us restore the balance.
As another example, consider Jemison’s The Fifth Season. The treatment of the orogenes by the dominant humans is relentlessly horrible—and depicts how oppressed people are and have been treated throughout history. The depiction is powerful and brutal. Jemison herself discusses this in a thread on her Twitter feed.
Best of All Possible Worlds
So, if fantasy writing is your thing, consider these three tips to make your world-building and your story as great as they can be.
In last month’s post, we introduced Berenicea, one of the main female characters in The Treasure of the Sun God. She is a prosperous hetaera (courtesan) and also a Priestess of Aphrodite.
As mentioned last time, because of the historical circumstances of the ancient world, I found it challenging to create women characters who are both realistic for their time and relatable for a contemporary audience.
The challenge was brought home to me in the reactions of some of my beta readers to Berenicea. One woman had a hard time understanding the character, and in particular thought the scene between her and Thalia (see last month’s post) added nothing of value to the story. Another reader, a man, found Berenicia “too good to be true” and said that she read too much like “a male fantasy.”
Responding to Beta Readers
Of course, every reader is different, and it can be hard for a writer to know when to make changes based on beta feedback. But when more than one reader finds a similar problem with a character or plot point, it tells me I’d better examine the issue.
In this case, at least two readers were not finding my priestess understandable or sympathetic. When this happens, I think the writer needs to take a close look at the character and “imagine harder.”
Re-imagining the Priestess
Who was Berenicia in my mind?
Her type of character was based on historical sources: an accomplished hetaera, a mistress and companion to leading male citizens. But she is also more than that. As a teenager, she heard Korax sing of how he saw the Goddess of Love within her. That moment changed her life, and set her on the path to become a priestess. In her mind, being a priestess means embodying her ideal vision of the goddess she serves.
A theme of the whole Conjurer of Rhodes series is that the immortals can only act in our world through human vessels. Berenicea conceives of herself as a vessel for the Goddess of Love. She strives each day to embody that ideal and express love for everyone.
Rewriting the Scene
With these thoughts in mind, I rewrote the scene where Berenicia speaks with Thalia. Here is the revised scene, with the changes in bold. (You can compare this to the original scene in the previous post.)
Standing on the harbor quay, Berenicia pours a libation and speaks a prayer to Aphrodite. She asks that the goddess bless the men of the Rhodian navy who have just sailed off to war, and asks particular protection for two men she loves, Korax and Patrollos. She is overheard by Thalia, a young noblewoman who is the sister of Patrollos and betrothed to Korax.
At last, she turned to leave. But along with her servants, someone else watched her, a small young woman with golden hair and eyes red from crying.
“That was beautiful,” she murmured. “I am Thalia.”
“I know who you are, my lady.”
“I knew that Patrollos and Korax both love you. But I did not realize how you also love them.”
Berenicea smiled. “You did not think a woman like me capable of such love?”
“No … Please forgive me, I meant no insult.” Thalia started to withdraw.
“Wait.” Berenicea approached her. “I took no offense.”
Thalia peered into the hetaera’s eyes. “May I ask you a question, priestess?”
“Mistress Thalia! Your parents sent me to find you.” One of the woman servants from the House of Philophron called from a few yards away. “It is time to go home now.”
“Tell them I will be there in a moment,” Thalia said.
“Mistress, you should not be speaking with … that woman.”
“I will come in a moment. Go!”
The servant scowled but turned and bustled off.
“What is your question?” Berenicea asked.
“Why are they both so in love with you? You are very beautiful, of course. But so are many other women. I feel there must be more to it.”
“They are my friends, but they are not in love with me, not in the way you mean. Patrollos responds to the goddess, because she loves him so much, loves his weakness as well as his strength. And Korax—Well, he just needs a place to rest his head.” She ended with a fond smile.
But Thalia frowned in confusion. “I do not understand you.”
Berenicea sighed. “They do not love me, but the goddess within me. I am simply her vessel. She is what most men seek in women. Because, whatever love men bring, she blesses it and makes them feel it is wonderful, and that it is enough.”
“But, then … is there nothing for you?”
“Oh, yes.” Berenicea said. “There is service and sacrifice, but also much joy. Because I feel Aphrodite’s love inside me every day. And she loves the whole world.”
Thalia blinked and shook her head. “I am no priestess, and I could never be so selfless. I fear no one will ever love me the way Korax loves you.”
Berenicea stared at her, as if listening to a whisper. “I suggest you pray to the goddess. Ask her to fill your heart. I feel that … First she must teach you to love yourself. After that, well, you may be surprised.” Smiling kindly, she caressed the girl’s hair with both hands, then bent and kissed her forehead. “I give you her blessing, dear child.”
The priestess straightened, to find Thalia’s eyes shining with fresh tears.
Excerpt from The Treasure of the Sun God (c) 2019 by Jack Massa
I sent the revised scene to the two beta readers mentioned above. Both of them felt it was an improvement, and that it gave them a clearer picture of Berenicia.
What do you think, gentle reader? In the context of an historical novel, can you relate to a priestess who strives to live the ideal of loving the whole world?
This month we wrap up our series on conveying backstory in fiction without losing dramatic momentum.
Review: What We’re Talking About
In the Introduction to the series, we discussed the elements of dramatic writing as described by Jerry Cleaver in his book Immediate Fiction. As illustrated, these essential elements are
Conflict, defined as character want/goal plus obstacle
Action by the character to deal with the obstacle.
Resolution, success or failure, leaving the character closer or farther from their goal.
All of this is supported by
Emotion. To identify with your characters, readers must feel for them.
Showing, the crucial method of presenting the story.
Again, we’re defining backstory as all of the background information a writer needs to communicate so that readers 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.
The problem we’re exploring is how a writer can convey all of the backstory without losing the reader’s interest in the immediacy of the drama.
Technique #5: Start a Scene Then Drop in Sections of Backstory
This is a technique that is often employed but not often discussed. As a reader, once you start noticing it, you’ll see it is used often.
Basically, the author starts a scene in the present, ideally with an emotional hook to engage the reader. Then after a few lines, the narrative skips back to reveal backstory. This is not a flashback, just bits of exposition sprinkled in, usually from the point of view of the character that we are following in the scene.
Essentially, the writer drops a scene in the reader’s lap, gets them involved, then steps back here and there to explain the backstory.
Example from Kim Stanley Robinson
Science fiction and Fantasy typically require the author to cover a lot of backstory—specifically, details about the world in which the story is set and how it differs from our world.
This example is from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an epic, award-winning novel about the colonization of the Mars. The scene takes place on one of the first colony ships, right after launching. One hundred carefully-selected colonists are celebrating.
In Torus D’s dining hall, they mingled in a kind of cocktail party, celebrating the departure … Maya wandered about, sipping freely from a mug of champagne, feeling slightly unreal and extremely happy, a mix that reminded her of her wedding reception many years before. Hopefully, this marriage would go better than that one had, she thought, because this one was going to last forever … Maya turned down an offered refill, feeling giddy enough. Besides, this was work. She was co-mayor of this village, so to speak, responsible for group dynamics, which were bound to get complex. Antarctic habits kicked in even at this moment of triumph, and she listened and watched like an anthropologist, or a spy.
“The shrinks have their reasons. We’ll end up fifty happy couples.”
“And they already know the match-ups.”
She watched them laugh. Smart, healthy, supremely well-educated—was this the rational society at last, the scientifically-designed community that had been the dream of the Enlightenment? But there was Arkady, Nadia, Vlad, Ivana. She knew the Russian contingency too well have to have many illusions on that score. They were just as likely to end up resembling an undergraduate dorm at a technical university, occupied by bizarre pranks and lurid affairs. Except, they looked kind of old for that sort of thing …
Excerpt (c) 1992 by Kim Stanley Robinson
What Do We Learn Here?
This passage, part of a longer scene, drops us into the middle of the action. We’re in the viewpoint of the psychologist Maya, and each action and snippet of dialog is followed with her reflections— which provide much backstory about Maya, her colleagues, and the mission.
We learn about the colonists and how they were selected.
There are different international contingents, and we learn something of the character and behaviors of the Russian contingent in particular.
We learn Maya’s role, and her concerns about it. Notice the comparison to a wedding reception. This skillfully connects a context with which the reader is totally unfamiliar (a spaceship community) with something very familiar (a wedding party) which has common emotional associations.
We also find out that Maya’s marriage did not last, and that this group community has to last forever. For these folks, there is no coming back from Mars.
Finally, the comment about ‘the rational society dreamed of by the Enlightenment’ links this story of a future time with an earlier period of human history. This reflection on big-picture philosophical/historical ideas is something that quality science fiction can do in a way no other kind of fiction can.
Using This Technique
Using this method in your writing takes some practice. Begin by searching out good examples in writers whom you admire, and analyze them carefully.
Start the scene with an emotional hook. Engage the reader on the feeling level.
Be clear who the viewpoint character is. See the scene from their point of view and note their responses to each bit. As these responses arise, describe them and link them to the necessary backstory that the reader needs to appreciate what is going on.
Keep the chunks of backstory small.
Finish the backstory exposition no later than halfway through the scene. Then write the rest of the scene—like all of your scenes—to show conflict, action and resolution.
This concludes the series on conveying backstory in fiction. I would love to know what you think about this and previous posts.
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.”
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.
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.
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…<
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:
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.
Summarize the backstory from the character’s point of view. Why are they thinking about his? How will they be effected?
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next time, we’ll look at the 3rd of our 5 Ways to Show the Backstory: Creating a Scene where a single character reflects.