Writing Backstory

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website written by Jenna Kernan in which she says, “How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough?”

Jenna Kernan

‘Bestselling author Jenna Kernan writes gripping domestic thrillers. Her 2021 release, A Killer’s Daughter, won the bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards in the popular fiction category and her next release, The Adoption, arrives in May 2022 and features a couple whose adoption goes from blissful to terrifying when a dark secret and menacing stranger threaten the baby.’

Ms Kernan says, “My upcoming domestic thriller, The Adoption, has a complicated backstory. That got me thinking how best to weave all those interesting, life-changing events from the past into the book. These experiences proved pivotal in the thriller, but how to reveal the past for the biggest punch in the present?

1. Don’t relate more than the briefest backstory in the first chapter because you need to create momentum, and backstory will stop progress dead. Too much too early can halt the main plot. Also, the reader won’t care about all those details until you’ve established empathy for and curiosity about your protagonist.

2. Do avoid dropping a block of backstory as introspection, where the protagonist is deep in thought. Consider dribbling in backstory, drop-by-drop, like a drip coffee maker. I know of one popular author who writes out the entire traumatic experience of each protagonist in real time, including dialogue. After she has this all-important, pivotal, life-shaping, worldview-shifting scene, she breaks it into tiny pieces and inserts it as internal thought at critical times in the first half of the story. It works and keeps the narrative moving. So, consider breaking up the flashback and weaving it into several scenes for greater impact.

3. Don’t forget that introspection is only one way to introduce backstory. Other options are dialogue and action.

4. Do use actions to present core beliefs forged in the past. Does your character repeatedly check the front door lock as they recall a traumatic experience with a home invasion?

5. Don’t skimp on the use of discourse to reveal backstory. A conversation or argument is an interesting way to reveal a character’s past. Dialogue amps up the conflict more effectively than a slap. Who can forget the plot shifting backstory dialogue, “Luke I am your father?”

6. Do show a character holds a certain mistaken core belief because of a past trauma or life-shaping event. Such backstory details can make irrational actions believable. In fact, if you want a character to adopt a particular conviction, creating the right past experience is critical. Your characters come to situations holding certain core beliefs and assumptions and will respond accordingly. A person attacked by a strange dog might assume all big dogs are dangerous unless additional life-experiences oppose this belief and cause the character to change, for example, by meeting several lovely, gentle big dogs.

7. Don’t make the backstory more compelling than the forward story. The backstory creates the character’s worldview, their belief system, and the mistaken belief which will change as they experience their journey. But the past isn’t the story, or it should be told in real time.

8. Do consider using a flashback for a longer backstory incident which relates to the forward narrative. Some writers avoid flashbacks, others use them to great effect.

9. Don’t create details which do not affect the narrative or aren’t needed to understand the story or your protagonist’s motivation and beliefs. Remember, not everything which happened in a protagonist’s past applies to the main plot. If there is no dog in your story, you don’t need to have the protagonist mention he hates them unless this is the reason for the fight with his dog-loving girlfriend.

10. Do relate backstory naturally, avoiding contrived reveals. You know, those scenes when one character explains something which another character already knows for the sole purpose of disclosing this information to the reader. “Remember when we were attacked by that bear, and it tore your arm off?” The reader might be thinking, “Oh, so that’s how that arm came off!” and then, “Wait a minute, that other character should definitely know that without being reminded.” Two characters talking about stuff they clearly already know is an awkward way to deliver backstory, so avoid it when possible.

11. Don’t let anyone tell you backstory shouldn’t be in your story. It might well be the most important part of your characterization.

12. Just do be conscientious about how, where, and why you include backstory.

This all very good advice. Backstory can be vital to a vibrant story, if just enough is revealed. Too much becomes a distraction. I should add that there is another way to tell backstory apart from introspection, dialogue and action. It can also be told through research on the Internet or the media.

New Novel: Grand Uncle Bertie

My tenth novel “Grand Uncle Bertie” has just been published by Austin Macauley.

The synopsis of the novel is: Granduncle Bertie is the story of a frightened but determined man’s struggles to live a life that has value for him and others in the face of death.  It is set in contemporary Wandsworth, London.

Sarah, a gay, free-spirited artist in her late twenties, accepts the assignment from her granduncle, Bertie Smithson, to write his memoir.

In her first interview, Sarah discovers that Bertie has a morbid premonition of his own death brought about by his father’s remonstrations against God during his fatal illness.  During his mother’s funeral, Bertie reveals his own agnosticism, and his brother’s partner tells him that the fear of death can be overcome by a combination of faith, a deeply satisfying vocation, and meaningful family relationships.  Bertie has none of these.  With the death of his mother, Bertie must also become the patriarch of the family.

Bertie and his wife, Jo, move into his parents larger, memory-filled home.  During a holiday in Seaford, Bertie is shocked by the sudden death of a close relative.  This reinforces his own fears that his life may be cut short.  Bertie turns to his Catholic wife, Jo, for solace but Jo tells him that for his faith to be real, he must develop it himself.

Later, Bertie is shocked to discover that Jo had an affair with another man.  He confronts Jo who confesses her ‘dreadful sin’ in agony.  Bertie weighs the alternatives and forgives her.

Confronted with a series of family misadventures, including an incipient affair, theft, and selfishness, Bertie learns that a patriarch must be a disciplinarian as well as a wise leader.

Bertie is unable to relieve his younger brother Jason’s depression. When Jason commits suicide, Bertie fails to understand Jason’s death.

Sarah recalls Heather, Bertie’s granddaughter, who dies of leukaemia in spite of a stem cell transplant. Bertie wishes he could have given up his life to save her.

There is an argument between Bertie and Jo about whether their youngest, Elizabeth, should have an abortion as a result of a failed liaison, Bertie accompanies his daughter to the clinic.

In chance meetings with the ‘Professor’, a black mystic-philosopher, Bertie is introduced to the idea of a ‘fourth dimension’, a spiritual universe which parallels the matter-space universe.

Later, Bertie, in his struggle to find faith, discovers the Jewish concept of Emunah, a commitment to God. In debates with a Catholic priest, he acknowledges the role of the devil in human tragedies. 

Determined to start a meaningful second career as a writer of children’s books, Bertie overcomes obstacles and enjoys success with Sarah as a writer-artist team.  He learns that Sarah is gay.  Despite her fears, Bertie accepts her.

 Bertie discovers Hindu concepts of an infinite universe. He tries to reconcile the events of his life, concluding that life comes from God in the form of a spirit.

Enrolling on the Alpha Course, Bertie experiences awareness, completeness and asylum that never leaves him.  With Jo, he discovers the delight of teaching year four Sunday school.  He learns that he has an incurable brain cancer and dies in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends.

When I first drafted Granduncle Bertie, the narrator was the protagonist, and one literary agent told me that the story lacked tension. In order to increase the temperature of the narration, I re-wrote it to make Sarah, a young woman with a different view of life the co-narrator. This allows for disagreements and different interpretations of events.

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.

Describing a Character More Effectively

An article offering eleven secrets to writers describing characters appeared in the Writer’s Digest on January 14, 2015.   It was written by Rebecca McClanahan, whose website describes her as ‘author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.’  She has written 10 books.

Rebecca McClanahan

Ms McClanahan says, in part: “The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair.

Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.

6.In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

Be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

With writers like Milan Kunera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …”

 

Publishing Proverbs

A post by Paula Munier on the Career Authors website two days ago caught my attention.  It begins, “Publishing is rife with conventional wisdom but some of it is actually useful.”

Ms Munier’s website says, “My professional evolution mirrors that of publishing itself.  From my early days as a reporter to my latest incarnation as all-around content queen and bottle washer, I’ve reinvented myself as the publishing industry has changed—and keeps on changing. The only constant: My love of the written word. Over my 20-plus years in the business, I’ve conceived, created, produced, and marketed exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Fidelity, Disney, Gannett, F+W Media, Quarto, Greenspun Media Group, among others. ”

Paula Munier

Some of the publishing proverbs she mentions are as follows:

“1. The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.

I repeated this recently at a Zoom event and like an old dog full of old tricks I was surprised that so many writers there had not heard it. But it’s as true today as it was when I got my first job in book publishing some 25 years ago. The first page must grab the reader, the last page must satisfy the reader.

2. If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it better fire in act two.

I’m paraphrasing Anton Chekhov here, whose classic advice on foreshadowing has become so beloved a dramatic principle that it’s now known as Chekhov’s Gun.

3. Don’t get it right, get it written.

I used to tell my reporters this when they were running late with their stories back in my newspaper days. I wasn’t the first to say it, but I do say it a lot, not only to those reporters but to authors when I was an acquisitions editor and to clients now that I’m an agent and ultimately to myself whenever I get stuck in my own writing. All you need is a first draft —and then you can fix it.

4. Writing is rewriting.

I repeat, writing is rewriting. Embrace the revision process and the advice of smart editors. Rewriting what separates the wannabes from the pros.

5. When in doubt, delete.

This is every editor’s mantra. So the next time you find yourself struggling to make some aspect of your story work, delete it instead. I learned this lesson again while revising A Hiding Place. . . . My editor suggested I lose one of my favorite clues, and I balked. I’d done all that research! But eventually I caved and the book is far better for it.

6. You can’t start the fire, but you can fuel it.

This is what the sales and PR and marketing people always tell you when you complain to your publisher that they’re not doing enough to promote your book. Which means that if the book doesn’t catch fire when it debuts, they’re not going to spend what they see as bad money after good trying to light up sales.

7. Hook, book, cook.

I heard an editor quote this just recently; apparently my swell fellow agent and author Eric Smith uses this phrase to describe the best way to pitch a project: 1) hook, as in high-concept premise; 2) book, as in what happens in the story; and 3) cook, as in you the author and what about you personally and/or professionally informs your work. A good formula for a pitch.

8. It takes a million words to make a writer.

When I was in my twenties, I joined my first writer’s group. The grande dame of the group was an erudite professor who was a far more experienced and successful writer than the rest of us. She regarded me as the neophyte I was and told me severely, “It takes a million words to make a writer.” She was correct, of course. A million words or 10,000 hours or just a hell of lot of writing and rewriting.

9. You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.

I first heard this attributed to James Michener, but many people have said it. And why not, since this is the unfortunate lot of artists, especially in America. Most artists can’t make a lavish living doing their art, but a lucky few find fame and fortune. Here’s hoping it’s you and me.

10. There’s no crying in publishing.

. . . I say There’s no crying in publishing. And then I quote the inimitable and prolific Jane C, Cleland, Agatha-winning author of nonfiction and fiction, who never complains about the vagaries of the publishing business. Rather, she says that she just tries to write a better book.”

I agree with all of the above, except for number 3.  I find that when I force myself to write at pace, as I did when I started writing, I produce too much cliché and uninteresting text.  This is particularly true when you’re trying to write a literary novel.  For me, it’s better to spend time trying to get it nearly right, an then go back and do some polishing.

Review: Authors A. I.

In my post the week before last, I introduced Authors A. I. as a new tool to help authors improve their fiction writing, and I said I would try it out.  Last week, I went on the Authors A I website, paid my $89 for a single review, and an hour later I received an email from Marlowe – the name of the persona who has the artificial intelligence – attaching her report on the draft of my latest novel, for which I’m seeking an agent.

Authors A. I. doesn’t permit subscribers to sent out copies of Marlowe’s reports, but they would be happy if I send out copies of graphics from my report.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a way to copy and paste the graphics, so, I’ll describe them.

The first graphic is a plot of narrative arc and plot turns against the percentage of the novel from 0% – the beginning to 100% – the end.  For my novel, the narrative arc in green is a complete sine wave, starting at its low point, going through a positive peak, a negative peak and ending on a positive peak, which is accurate.  The plot turns, in purple, starts very negative, goes through two positive peaks, turns negative and trends upward through twp peaks to end positive.  I don’t disagree with this but the commentary in this section is general and is not specific to my novel.

The second graphic is narrative beats, a series of ten fairly evenly spaced vertical purple lines, each marked with the percentage of the book at which it occurs.  Beats are turning points where conflict is resolved or introduced.  The commentary says that beats should be evenly spaced and about ten.  I have to confess that’s the way my novel turned out; not the way I designed it.  This section quotes from the text of my novel where Marlowe says the beat occurred.

The third graphic is pacing and shows the relative pacing versus the length of the book.  For my book, there are five peaks of relatively high pace and four valleys, two of which are very low.  Again, the peaks and valleys are marked with percentages, and the text at those points is printed out.  The commentary is general and not specific to my novel.

The fourth graphic shows the personality traits of four of my characters in terms of the top five of nine trails each character exhibits.  This section is useful in observing whether the characters are different enough from each other and are they as intended?

The fifth graphic is dialogue vs. narrative.  My novel is 58% dialogue in purple and 42% narrative in green.  This is heavier in dialogue than I would have wanted, but at least the dialogue is evenly spaced throughout the book.  A graphic of a multitude of purple and green lines shows how each is used throughout the book.  Two characters act as narrators in the novel, and much of the story is revealed between their quotation marks.

The graphic on major subjects in the book is disappointing.  It shows the most important subject – at 5.47% – as Important Decisions and it descends through nine other subjects to Description of the Body at 2.47%.  The major subjects of the book are: death/dying, faith, family and vocation.  None of these makes the list.

There is a section on explicit language.  I said ‘damn’ five times.  A section on cliches says I used ‘hands on’ five times.  Repetitive phrases says I used  ‘to be a’ thirty times.  This could be interesting data.

There is a graphic on sentence length vs. number of sentences of that length.  In popular fiction, most sentences are two to ten words long.  My average sentence length is 12.82 words.  Popular fiction typically has a complexity score of 2.0 to 3.0  My novel has a complexity score of  2.76, and my most complex sentence scores 7.19. My reading grade score is 7.18.  To put this in context, you need to have a look at https://contently.com/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/

The graphic on use of adverbs shows that I (disappointingly) used ‘very’ 121 times (out of 81,000 words), and similarly for adjectives, I used ‘good’ 149 times.  There is a graphic on verb choice and use of the passive voice.  This, though, requires use of the find function in Word to see whether ‘is’ is part of the passive voice.

There is a table which shows the frequency of various forms of punctuation.  There is no spell check in this version of Marlowe.

I feel that my $89 were well invested in at least provoking my thinking and stirring me to action on a couple of points.

Marlowe is under development.  Hopefully, later versions will produce more manuscript-specific comments on the metrics used.

Moral Dilemmas Make Better Characters

Writer’s Digest has an article on making characters more impactful written by Steven James and dated September 1, 2016, which is quite interesting.

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”

Steven James

Selections from the article follow:

Give Your Character Dueling Desires.

Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.

So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.

That creates tension.  And tension drives a story forward.

So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.

For example:

  • How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
  • What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?

Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.

That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.

Force Your Character Into a Corner.

Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:

If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.

For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first point above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?

The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:

What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?

Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?

Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?”

Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre.

Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?

Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?

Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?

Look for the Third Way.

You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.

There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”

It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.

We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.

Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.

And then help him find the Third Way out.”

Putting characters into a difficult dilemma is a great way to add tension to a story and ramp up the reader’s interest!

Personalities of Successful Authors

There is a two-year old article in Inc. magazine by Kaleigh Moore titled ‘6 Characteristics Every Great Write Has in Common’, which I found interesting.  Ms Moore’s website says, “I write blog content for eCommerce platforms and the SaaS tools that integrate with them.  I’ve been hired by top companies on the Fortune 500 as well as growing SaaS companies. Some of my past and present clients include AT&T, ReCharge Payments, Shopify, and IBM.  I also write about retail for major publications like Forbes, Vogue Business, and Adweek.”

Kaleigh Moore

While it is unclear where Ms Moore gets the expertise to write about writers, perhaps she is self-taught.  Here is what she said:

“It’s hard to know if you’re a good writer–especially if no one has ever torn apart a piece you’ve written or “ooohed” and “ahhhed” over your work. But one of the easiest ways to spot a great writer is through the qualities he/she exhibits on a daily basis.

These qualities are essential for an effective writer because they spotlight a certain devotion and openness–both of which are necessary to achieve writing greatness. Read through this list and see if you line up with the 6 most important qualities of an effective writer.

1. Attention to Detail

Great writers are observers, always taking mental notes and noting subtle changes around them. This attention to detail not only makes them fantastic editors who can spot the smallest grammatical error during a read-through, but it adds a special touch to their writing, too. No descriptive detail gets left behind.

2. Discipline

Writers who excel are familiar with frustration because re-writes, edits, and improvements all come by maintaining a disciplined approach to writing. Great writers are devoted to constantly re-evaluating their work, no matter how small the task may be. They focus on their craft and are constantly working to get better through intense discipline.

3. Clarity

An effective writer is able to distil complex thoughts and ideas into simple, clear language that’s quickly and easily understood by others. This valuable quality helps them tackle even the densest subject matter by breaking it down into uncomplicated pieces.

4. Strong Vocabulary

No one likes to read the same words over and over again, so a strong, robust vocabulary is an asset to any good writer. Incorporating interesting and unusual words into their writing, this skill helps them maintain a reader’s interest and allows them to communicate more effectively by accessing the perfect word for any situation.

5. Open to Changes

Being open to external edits and suggestions is key for exceptional writers because it enables them to improve their writing, even though it might damage their ego in the meantime. Open-mindedness allows them to see their work through the eyes of others and improve weak points.

6. Passion for Reading

Voracious readers often make great writers, because being immersed in a world of words helps one better understand the nuts and bolts of writing (like syntax, tone, framing, etc.) The more one reads, the more learned he/she becomes on all of the different writing tools and stylistic angles that exist.”

 

The Self-Publishing School website lists these five characteristics of authors: Exercise Patience, Apply Consistency, Practise Optimism, Value Criticism and Be Empathetic.

It seems to me that Discipline and Apply Consistency and both Discipline; and Open to Changes and Value Criticism are both Value Criticism.  For me, both characteristics are important.

Attention to Detail is important in the text one produces, but being observant of what goes on around you is less important than Being Empathetic; after all, novels are ’empathy machines’.

Clarity is definitely important, and rather than Strong Vocabulary, I would say Excellent Command of English, as being a general skill.

Passion for reading, as Ms Moore says, is important.

Patience can be a useful trait, but I think that if one is Disciplined, one must necessarily also be patient

Practise Optimism doesn’t feel right for me.  While I am an optimist, I think the valuable trait is Be Motivated.  In other words, I think it’s OK to be a pessimist as long as you’re motivated.

For me there is one essential ingredient, particularly if one is a novelist, that is left off both lists:  Creativity

My list of the top 8 characteristics is therefore:

  • Be Empathetic
  • Be Disciplined
  • Be Motivated
  • Be Creative
  • Clarity
  • Excellent Command of English
  • Open to Changes
  • Passion for Reading

 

Four Tips from Shakespeare

There is an article by Karin Abarbanel in the February 12, 2020 issue of The Writer’s Dig in which she reports on a challenge from a friend to spend an hour a day for a month on something that would improve her writing skills.  She decided to spend an hour each day revisiting and analysing Shakespeare’s plays.

Ms Abaranel has an M.A. in Renaissance English Literature from Columbia University. She recently completed the manuscript for her first novel, Britomar and the Forest of No Return, a middle-grade fantasy adventure, which she is currently submitting to agents. As a nonfiction author, she has been published by Penguin Random House, Henry Holt, and McGraw-Hill.

Karin Abarbanel

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

Getting Started:

Search the internet for advice on how to start a novel and you’re likely to see the words in media res pop up. The message: parachute your readers into the middle of your story. Would Shakespeare agree? Not necessarily—he’s far more versatile and audience-friendly.

Yes, he begins Macbeth with thunder, lightning, and three witches just itching to stir up trouble—his version of an action opening. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare makes a different choice. He might have cut to the chase and dropped us into the middle of the action with, say, a love-struck Romeo wooing Juliet while she swoons on her balcony. But he doesn’t. Instead, he uses a prologue to bring the audience up to speed about the two warring families his “star-crossed lovers” spring from. Romeo and Juliet don’t even meet until the end of Act I. The balcony scene? Act II.

Generally, Shakespeare wants those viewing his plays to be curious, not confused; led not lost. So he opts for slow builds in place of flashy gateways that can be exciting but disorienting. By choosing to anchor his audiences—not set them adrift—he provides a framework for the events and actions of his characters that propel his dramas forward.

Among the gateway strategies Shakespeare artfully employs to ease his way into a story: 1) stage-setting prologues that frame and clarify the action about to take place; 2) minor characters who serve as “stand-ins” for viewers and discuss recent disturbing or puzzling developments; 3) brief “history” lessons recapping past occurrences so viewers have a context for understanding present events; 4) monologues by major characters revealing fatal decisions that trigger ensuing action.

Tell Well

Popular thriller novelist Lee Child once told a room of writers, “Forget ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Writers are storytellers—and that’s what readers depend on us to do. They don’t care about telling or showing. They just want to be carried through a book. There is nothing wrong with just telling the story. So liberate yourself from that rule.”

Lee and Will are on the same page. “Show, don’t tell”—this is one widely cited “rule” that Shakespeare would have ignored if he’d ever come across it in his day. Yes, he loves to “show” dramatic moments: those three witches stirring their black, bubbling cauldron on the heath, the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father haunting his castle ramparts, Brutus stabbing Julius Caesar. But Shakespeare also woos his audience with words through targeted telling—deft descriptions that fire the imagination.

We don’t just see Juliet in that famous balcony scene, we also eavesdrop on her rhapsodizing about Romeo. Hamlet’s riveting “To be or not to be” speech is a master class in telling: Hamlet reveals his paralyzing indecisiveness as he tries to rouse himself to action by describing the steps he could take to avenge his murdered father. And in Antony and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen’s luxurious “love boat” is nowhere in sight; instead, Shakespeare has an observer conjure up a vivid word picture, and scores an impressive feat: simultaneously telling and showing.

Time and again, Shakespeare captures a character’s essence by piling on colorful adjectives and descriptive phrases—telling us in no uncertain terms, who or what a person is—or is perceived to be.

Make Minor Characters Count

Who knows better than Shakespeare how to make minor characters come alive? Not only are they lusty and full-blooded, they’re also hardworking. Shakespeare consistently gives them high-impact jobs to do, from dropping important clues to making fateful mistakes that advance his plots.

Read his plays back to back and you can’t help but admire his inventiveness: He uses his bit players in a stunning variety of ways, depending again, on the needs of the story he’s dramatizing. Sometimes they set the stage, so to speak, so we know what’s going on before the main characters hit the boards. Sometimes “lowly” characters offer wry observations about the high-born masters they serve. Some minor characters provide moments of great drama and insight; and others, humorous interludes.

In fact, he’s so artful that he can breathe life into even the most fleeting of characters with a few deft strokes of his pen, much the way an artist creates a clever caricature with a few bold slashes of ink. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Juliet’s nurse makes just the slightest mention of “Susan,” her own daughter:

“Susan and she [Juliet]—God rest all Christian souls!—were of an age.

Well, Susan is with God; she was too good for me.”

In two stark lines, we learn that Juliet’s nurse had a daughter who would have been exactly Juliet’s age if she hadn’t died years before as an infant. We feel the fresh pain of the nurse’s loss, but even more important, we instantly grasp the reason for her deep, motherly devotion to Juliet. We never hear another word about Susan, but her life echoes through the play in the tragic steps the nurse takes to help her beloved Juliet.

Create Anticipation

Setting readers or viewers up for what happens next in a story keeps them hungry, curious, and engaged. The more often and skillfully we fuel anticipation, the more we heighten the drama of major events. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare excels at releasing just enough information to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting anxiously for what happens next.

At the end of Act III of Macbeth, for example, the ruthless, besieged Macbeth reveals to the audience that he plans to kill the family of his enemy, Lord Macduff. In the next scene, Macduff’s wife and her precocious son enact a warm, winsome scene that is painful to watch because viewers know what the characters on stage don’t—that they are about to be murdered.

To ratchet up the drama—and viewer anxiety—Shakespeare has a stranger burst in and warn Macduff’s wife to leave. As helpless onlookers, we yearn for her to escape but know it’s too late—she has mere minutes to live. When Macbeth’s henchmen burst in and murder her and her son, it’s a terrible moment—made far more devastating because Shakespeare so cleverly and economically sets us up for it.

I agree with Ms Abarbanel’s conclusions except on telling well, and I think that Lee Child is wrong when he says that readers don’t care about showing or telling.  If the reader can be shown rather than told what a character is feeling, s/he has to interpret what s/he has been shown.  In the process of interpreting, s/he is drawn closer to the character.   So, I would say if there is an effective way to show the character’s feelings, chose that rather than telling what the feelings are.

 

Creating and Sustaining Suspense

There is an article on suspense in the Writer’s Digest online blog by Steven James, one of the Writer’s Digest editors, that was recently featured but dated nearly seven years ago.  He discusses six techniques for crating and sustaining suspense, which I think are quite good.

1. Put characters that readers care about in jeopardy

Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension.

We create reader empathy by giving the character a desire, wound or internal struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathise, the closer their connection with the story will be. Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be invested when they see the character struggling to get what he most desires.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will get what he wants. Only when readers know what the character wants will they know what’s at stake. And only when they know what’s at stake will they be engaged in the story. To get readers more invested in your novel, make clear: 1) What your character desires (love, freedom, adventure, forgiveness, etc.); 2) what is keeping him from getting it; and 3) what terrible consequences will result if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience apprehension when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution to sustain the suspense.

2. Include more promises and less action.

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t typically mean that no action is occurring, but rather that no promises are being made.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is payoff. You don’t increase suspense by “making things happen,” but by promising that they will. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”

Stories are much more than reports of events. Stories are about transformations. We have to show readers where things are going—what situation, character or relationship is going to be transformed.

3. Keep every promise you make.

In tandem with making promises is the obligation of keeping them. The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff.

When stories falter it’s often because the writers didn’t make big enough promises, didn’t fulfill them when readers wanted them to be fulfilled, or broke promises by never fulfilling them at all.

Here’s a great way to break your promise to the reader: Start your story with a prologue, say, in which a woman is running on a beach by herself, and there are werewolves on the loose. Let’s see if you can guess what’s going to happen. Hmm … what a twist this is going to be—she gets attacked by the werewolves! Wow. What a fresh, original idea that was.

How is that a broken promise? Because it was predictable. Readers want to predict what will happen, but they want to be wrong. They’re only satisfied when the writer gives them more than they anticipate, not less.

Make big promises.  Then keep them.

4. Let the characters tell readers their plans.

I know, this seems counterintuitive. Why would we want readers to know what’s going to happen? Doesn’t that give the ending away?

I’m not talking about revealing your secrets or letting readers know the twists that your story has in store. Instead, just show readers the agenda, and you’ll be making a promise that something will either go wrong to screw up the schedule, or that plans will fall into place in a way that propels the story (and the tension) forward.

Simply by having your characters tell readers their schedules, you create a promise that can create anticipation and build suspense:

•         “All right, here’s what I have lined up for the rest of the morning: Follow up on the fingerprints, track down Adrian, and then stop by the prison and have a little chat with Donnie ‘The Midnight Slayer’ Jackson.”

A story moves through action sequences to moments of reorientation when the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. We do this in real life as well—we experience something moving or profound, we process it, and then we decide how to respond. Problem is, in those moments of reflection, a story can drag and the suspense can be lost. During every interlude between scenes a promise must be either made or kept.

And, if you resolve one question or plot thread (that is, you keep a promise you made earlier), introduce another twist or moral dilemma (in other words, make another promise).

When a story lags it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making it even more difficult to get.

5. Cut down on the violence.

The more violence there is, the less it will mean.

A murder is not suspense. An abduction with the threat of a murder is.

The scariest stories often contain very little violence.

And, of course, different genre elements dictate different means of suspense. In a mystery you might find out that a person was beheaded. This occurs before the narrative begins, so the focus of the story is on solving the crime. If you’re writing a horror story, you’ll show the beheading itself—in all of its gory detail. If you’re writing suspense, the characters in the story will find out that someone is going to be beheaded, and they must find a way to stop it.

Reader expectations, and the depth and breadth of what is at stake in the story, will determine the amount of mystery, horror or suspense you’ll want to include. Nearly all genres include some scenes with them. As a writer, it’s vital that you become aware of how you shape those sequences to create the desired effect on your reader—curiosity, dread or apprehension.

Also, remember that valuing human life increases suspense. Because readers only feel suspense when they care about what happens to a character, we want to heighten their concern by heightening the impact of the tragedy. Show how valuable life is. The more murders your story contains, the more life will seem cheap, and if it’s cheap, readers don’t need to be concerned if it’s lost.

6. Be one step ahead of your readers.

Here are some ways to amp up the suspense:

→ As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. (Phobias are irrational fears, so to be afraid of a cobra is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all snakes is.) Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

→ Make sure you describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the storyIn other words, let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

→ Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

→ As you build toward the climax, isolate your main character. Remove his tools, escape routes and support system (buddies, mentors, helpers or defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

→ Make it personal. Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let Grandma live there.

No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense. Follow these six secrets, and you’ll keep your readers up way past their bedtime.”