Legendary backstory

Before I start the post, I want to mention that last week I recorded Writing Magic, which is going to be an audio book with me reading. I’ll let you know when it’s out. I just wanted to share my joy about having done it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. My voice cracks when I’m nervous, and I thought the people doing the recording would give up in disgust, but we all soldiered on. I repeated many sentences and had to read the whole beginning over at the end, but we did it! If you get it, you won’t hear a young voice or even a smooth voice, I don’t think, but the inflections will be the way I hear the book in my head, the way I wrote it.

Now for the post: On June 28, 2013, Michelle wrote, Mrs. Levine, in Writing Magic, you said that in a story, you can’t begin using subjects before you have introduced them. The example you gave was of a boy delivering a message on a foreign planet. He gets attacked by wulffs, and that’s interesting, but the author hasn’t mentioned wulffs until then. This is the problem I have. I have a complicated story, and it contains a lot of legends. There are three different trials that my character has to pass through, and each one requires a legend to explain it since it is so complex. How do I slip all of that information in before the trials come up while still being subtle?

Advice from anyone else is also more than welcome.

Athira Abraham weighed in with, I remember that example!!!

Mrs. Levine had also mentioned to try to slip something about that earlier in the story. So for the wulffs, maybe his best friend had a scar from them.

For your story, maybe you can have the legends being mentioned in a book your character might have been reading, or if he/she was in a library, maybe the librarian was caught reading something about it.

Or if this is top secret information (the legends) you can have your character eavesdrop or overhear two people that are important to these trials talking about it. Then you can have your character recall them speaking, and racking his/her brain trying to remember what the two people were saying and eventually remember.

These are wonderful ideas. I especially love the library idea.

I’m not sure why subtlety is necessary in this case. If legends are a big part of this world, you can be bold about them. In the case of the wulffs, I was imagining that they weren’t very important, just one more danger for an MC who is already in a perilous situation. If I were writing a story in which wulffs were one of the main plot strands I’d introduce them more powerfully.

I’m guessing, so I may have what you’re doing all wrong, but if the legends are part of the culture of this society, then everyone knows them. There are lots of possibilities for introducing them to the reader. For example, the story can start with your MC being told them by her grandfather when she’s a child. The reader feels both the terror of the tales and the comfort of the grandfather’s rumbling voice, maybe the feel of his dry hand stroking her forehead, and the taste of the hot ginger tea he’s prepared for her. Then we flash forward to the present where the body of the story will take place.

The only trouble with this approach is that if the trials are a hundred pages in the future, by the time the reader gets there, he may have forgotten the details of the legends and may need to be reminded in the narrative or in the MC’s thoughts.

Or, the story starts in the present. The legends are mentioned once or twice in the narrative or hinted at in dialogue. When we come to the trials, there can be some kind of ceremony during which the first legend can be recited by someone who has that role in the community. Action stops for the recitation.

For me, as a reader, I don’t mind the cessation of action for a legend. Just the word, legend, puts me in a receptive state. Mmm, delicious, I think. The recitation runs its course, and then the trial takes place. Trial over, we’re ready for the next legend.

The only problem I can see is that we don’t want the reader to be lulled by the format into a sense of security. We don’t want him to think that the MC is going to succeed because there are two more legends coming up, so we have to work in tension, maybe with dialogue about promising candidates of the past who’ve failed the tests. Maybe with suggestions that new candidates step up regularly. If our MC fails, someone else will come forward. Or in our MC’s worried thoughts. Or in the legends themselves, which incorporate a dismal record of failure. Maybe no one has ever succeeded.

Another way to go would be to start the story with a legend in third person from a voice that’s outside the ordinary narration. What’s told could be one of the trial legends or a creation myth for the entire culture. Starting this way would prepare the reader for the story to be stopped occasionally for legends.

Here’s a caution about dialogue, which also appears in Writing Magic. If everyone in this world knows the legends, we have to be cautious about how we put them in our dialogue. It sounds unnatural when characters talk to one another about matters they already know. Brandon is unlikely to say to Jenna, “Remember how in the Legend of the Fish seven carp will swim in a circle?”

And Jenna answers, “Yeah. They swim so fast a funnel is created for the contestant to dive into. That’s the beginning of the trial.”

This is just information for the reader, not real dialogue, unless they’re explaining to a foreigner. But if not, we have to find another way.

However, if the legend is complicated, there could reasonably be disagreement about the details. Brandon might say, “Remember how in the Legend of the Fish seven carp will–“

Jenna can interrupt with, “Six carp.”

They can argue over the number until Sura breaks in. “Stop counting carp. I’m hungry.” The action moves on, but when we get to the trial the difference in the fish count is important, and the reader remembers the number, because we’ve highlighted it with the dispute.

There may be many other ways to introduce the legends. If you think of some, you can post them.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s say that a week after the number-of-carp debate, Sura is chosen as the candidate to undergo the trials. Her lack of interest in the details of the legend becomes a factor in her performance. She has to enter the funnel to get to an underwater (dry) prehistoric world where she has to find the only talking dinosaur, who can answer a question vital to the survival of her people. Write the trial, keeping in mind her flaw.

• Or, Sura, the chosen one again, enters the funnel when only six carp have created it, without waiting for the arrival of the seventh. The funnel isn’t strong enough to hold. Write what happens. What other strengths might she have to offset her heedlessness?

• Write the legend of the carp and the underwater kingdom as the introduction to your story. Move into the narrative with characters and the upcoming trials. Get us worried, then interrupt the story with the next legend. Keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Another option would be to include snippets from the legends at the beginning of each chapter. (I think Catherine Fisher does this in Incarceron.) This could either replace or supplement a full telling elsewhere in the story. It might not work if the legends are lengthy or complicated, though.

    I want to say that either The Thief or Queen of Attolia (or both?) have the main character tell stories, and in both cases, I got a bit itchy. I like to know that the legend will play an important role in the plot before jumping into what feels like a separate story. That's just me as a reader, I guess. Before telling the legends, you might establish that the trials have high stakes for the main character, and that the legends play an important role in the trials. Good luck!

  2. The legend of the carp. I like that. I'm glad you addressed this issue because it's one I have problems with, too. I have an old trunk novel where an important legend is one the heroine was taught in finishing school before the story started (rather like one would study Shakespeare.) She ended up telling it to the hero when he was wounded in order to distract him from his pain.

  3. I had another couple thoughts as soon as I logged out. A lot of old wives tales were told while doing chores, like husking corn. You could show a little about the society and slip in a legend with a quiet working scene. Also, baby-setting would be a good place for something like that. Say Sura has to watch her annoying little sister. She might put her to bed with the legend of the carp. Or if they're afraid of being alone in the house (or are lost in the woods or something) she might tell her sis a legend where the heroes end up safe despite danger as a means of reassurance.

    One method I've noticed Emily Rodda use in her `Rowan of Rin' books is to have her hero see something that reminds him of the legend and then kind of paraphrase it in his thoughts. You could do something like this:

    Sura stared down at the dark water, trying to fight back a shiver. She could just imagine the cold, fishy bodies of the carp sliding below the surface, waiting for the summons to create the swirling funnel into the strange city below. What if their clammy bodies brushed against her as she swam? Did carp have teeth? Sura rubbed her arms to warm them, and wished she hadn't come into the cave, that she was still out in the sun drenched meadow picking black-eyed susans with her little sister.

  4. I'm sooo excited for Writing Magic!! How long did it take to record? I've considered wanting to go into the audio industry but I really know nothing about it, just thought it'd be fun. Was it? Congratulations!

    • It took about nine hours over a day-and-a-half. I think I would need an actor's trained voice to do it often. Sometimes I hit a groove and then it was fun, but often it was hard though rewarding, and I'm very glad I did it. There are other jobs, not just the reader. I had a director, who often made me repeat (in a nice way), and there's an editor, who goes through the recording and edits out unwanted noises and maybe chooses between the reads and rereads.

  5. A very good post Mrs. Levine. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And now I have a problem: Detail. I am very bad at using detail. I think this is because, as a little girl, I told stories to myself when I was bored, and I'd describe everything. Then I moved on to telling my younger siblings bedtime stories before I went to sleep. When I was around eight or nine I sort-of tried to write stories, but they were very bad, and when I looked back on them, I realized that the main reason was because they were WAY too detailed. Seriously, I used two and a half pages to describe a bedroom, all the way down to the little floral patterns on the china knobs on the girl's chest of drawers. After realizing this, I cut way back on the amount of detail I wrote into my stories. And then I read an article about details, and realized that my descriptions were still so full of unnecessary facts, so I reined in again, and for several years, I never wrote more than a few sentences to describe anything. It became a habit. And NOW I realize that I have too LITTLE detail. I'm stuck, I've read back on my more recent stories, and realized that I can see the scenes, because I created them, but no one else would be able to. Any advice anyone?

  6. Take five or ten minutes to observe a candle flame, and write down everything you see. I know that that doesn't seem like much, but it really is. Then observe other little things for a couple of minutes. Like dresser knobs and flowers.

  7. From the website:

    Your last post was very helpful. I have two stories that have a lot of background information that's important to the story, so this should help me a lot 😀 Thank you!

    I'm also really glad to hear about your audio book! I never really thought that making an audio book would be complicated, but I can't wait till it comes out; I think it would be amazing to hear it read the way it was written.

    I do have a question for you. So, I have this story that is basically four quadruplet girls who switch places with each other to help one of the girls out. My problem is, I sometimes feel it would work better with twins instead of quadruplets, but there are still some parts that work better with four girls ( plus, I don't want to have to get rid of two characters :-() So, so you have any advice for being able to make the story fit all the main characters? ( I apologize if that question made no sense)


    Thoughts, anyone?

    • I can understand your problem, I am writing about twelve girls, and there is a set of triplets and a set of twins, (unidentical of course, but it's still similar to what you're doing). If you really love your characters and your story is better with four girls, then, by all means, use four, but, they need to be sufficiently different from one another. Lets say Erin has bangs, and Lisa's hair falls to her hips, while Jennie has braces and Lenore is short. Little features that distinguish them from one another. Also, character quirks will get you out of nearly any tough spot. Or, at least, I've found that. Lisa has a lisp, and she switches places with Lenore oftener than not because she can't pronounce her own name. Erin and Jennie squabble constantly because Erin is Catholic, and the rest of the family is Baptist, and Jennie is a very adamant that anyone who is not a Baptist is a sinner and she wants to get her sister back on track, so she hides Erin's rosary etc. So, when the reader sees a girl wearing a necklace with a crucifix on it, she thinks "Okay, that'll be Erin", and when she reads a lisped sentence she thinks "Lisa." I hope I was able to help.

    • Elisa's character quirks idea is a good one! However, I'm guessing that since your quadruplets are switching places, they must be identical (or nearly). That rules out a lot of physical quirks… Unless they dress differently than each other, I suppose. But you'd have lots of room for giving them quirky personalities!

    • Well, no two people, no matter if their twins or anything, ever look exactly alike. It's scientifically impossible. Plus, Most twins, triplets, quadruplets etc. are rarely identical. Most often they're un-identical. Plus, if I was one of four and looked a lot like my other three sisters, I'd hate that and change what I could. So, like I said, there really should be a few minor differences in their appearances. Or else it will be illogical and REALLY confusing.

  8. I have a problem….
    So, sometimes I begin my stories with telling, and when I try to transition to showing, it gets difficult. Like (this isn't from any of my stories):

    I have a curse. My ears turn green and turn into frogs every full moon. The witch who gave it to me was a vengeful one, alright. She distributed many curses in her day, but mine is the worst.

    How would I go from that to my actual story without making it feel choppy?

    • I have this problem too, and I think Ms. Levine did a post on it. Yeah, I don't really know how. Maybe you should start off showing then go to telling. I think that that is what I normally do when I write, so the problem doesn't, to my knowledge, occur too often.

    • I also do this, and then when you get into the real story, well, it feels like you are in a mixture of rainbow paint and treacle, until the rainbow paint dries like cement. Well, what I try to do, following the truth of the story is to 'turn it inside out' if your story feels stiff and hard to manage, pull parts out, add more in, change them. As for the telling/showing aspect I would say that for the back-story try doing a mixture of subtle showing and a little telling. Then, slowly change it to only telling, when you get back to the story. Also, try not to put huge amount of detail and the least amount of dialogue possible, because the dialogue and detail make the back story deem like the real story, and then you just get a tumbled mess. If this doesn't help ignore me, it might only work for me, and rarely when I even get to that stage.

  9. About the legends:
    You could divide your book into parts-say three, one for each legend (or maybe more, like a before the quest and after the quest etc). But for the three parts with the legends in it you start out each part with the legend.
    so it would be like part 1-the legend of seven carp. And then give the tale of the legend before going on to the main story.
    hope something helps!

  10. I'm writing a trilogy that's centered around an ancient legend, and in the first book there's another legend that's a major part of the story. I introduce the main legend by having the MC read it a a book at her boarding school's library, because she loves to read. My MC has a friend who's a sort of expert on ancient legends and myths, and she loves to share her stories, so that's how the other legend is told. There's also a lot of historical background, and I reveal that through the friend too. The only legend I write out fully is the one the MC reads. The other legends and myths are told in the words of the MC's friend, who tells them like they're stories. You could try something like that, if there's a legitimate reason that your MC wouldn't know the legends and another character would.

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