Tag Archives: story craft

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.