Back Side

Before the post, here’s info on a free virtual event: I’ll be talking about fairy tales on June 9th at 7:00 pm Central Daylight Time at the Waseca Le Sueur Fairytale and Folklore Festival. Here’ the link to register for my event: And here’s a link for the festival itself with all its great events: Hope you can e-come!

And I can’t resist showing you this in-depth review of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells:

Onto the post!

On December 10, 2019, Blue Rive wrote, How do you write long periods of character introspection/exposition on their backstory? When I do it, it tends to feel out of scene or ungrounded.

Katie W. has the same difficulty: Yes, help, please! With my traumatized MC I mentioned above, she does a lot of relating her past to the present, and I have her telling other characters about her backstory (so I don’t actually have to write it as narrative, since there are long periods where almost nothing happens), and I don’t want the backstory to take over the main story. Essentially, I don’t want a frame tale, but I want her to think about her past a lot, and I’m stuck.

First backstory, then introspection.

I’ll get to the questions as asked below, but first off, in my books, I mostly turn what might be backstory into the beginning of my book in forward moving action, if, that is, the character with the backstory is my MC and the backstory is important so that the reader can understand her. Fairest is an example of this approach. I start with Aza’s adoption, rather than much later with her first day in the royal castle as the duchess’s companion. This gives me space to develop her family and the consequences of her unfashionable appearance. By the time she gets to the castle, the reader knows what to worry about.

This way also allows me, since I’m a pantser, to make discoveries about Aza and my secondary characters along the way.

My guess for both Blue Rive and Katie W. is that their characters’ backstory is significant and probably dramatic. Then why not let it unfold and give it all the detail that front story allows?

About the long periods when not a lot is going on, we can use telling to zoom past these dull patches. For example, suppose our MC Madi’s trauma is bullying and the bully torments her only when she goes to her dance lessons. We can use the times in between to show events in other parts of our story, but when none of these are available, we can just say something like, Time flies when you’re having fear. It seemed like only seven minutes had passed in the seven days since the green-paint incident. Poof! The week (or months or even a year) is gone.

The problem with backstory can be that it interrupts forward momentum for the reader, who has to leave the excitement, get engrossed in the backstory, and then return to the story, which will have cooled in his mind.

If backstory is a must, though, we have choices. We can reveal it in memory or dialogue, or we can show it in a flashback. If in memory, we can use short bursts that provide bits of the history, which the reader assembles over time. Bursts mean that the reader doesn’t have to leave the unfolding action for long at all.

If we use dialogue, we can make the conversation part of the drama. Or we can have the chatting take place between high-tension scenes, when the reader is happy to have a little break.

If we choose flashbacks, we can show what happened in detail. This one does have the problem of interrupting the flow, but if the reader is invested in our story, he’ll make the leaps. I’ve posted here on the blog about flashbacks, so you can take a look, if you like.

Next introspection.

As a reader, I love being inside an MC’s head. I want to know how she’s reacting to everything that’s done to her and everything that she does back. Otherwise, I feel on uncertain ground. Sometimes I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.

When we’re writing in first person, the reader learns everything from the narrator, who is usually the MC. Unless she’s emotionally flat, her thoughts and feelings will flow naturally onto the page.

I just pulled out a few of my books to see how I handle thoughts, which, weirdly, I couldn’t describe without looking. I generally include them in little bits dropped into my story, but I found two pages of pretty solid thinking in The Two Princesses of Bamarre when MC Addie makes an important decision.

So that’s a strategy to keep the reader engaged in thoughts: use them to advance the plot.

Another is to use them to develop character. The reader learns how our MC processes what happens to her by thinking. A great example of this is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I think is for high-school age readers and up. It’s a classic, though I was never fond of it. Still, when I looked a minute ago at an online sample, I saw that it’s all thoughts and without them I don’t believe there would be much. Worth looking at if you’ve never read it, or worth revisiting.

Our MC can also enhance the reader’s understanding of other characters through her thoughts. The reader, who’s gaining insights, is happy.

Voice and surprises are another strategy for keeping readers interested in our MC’s thoughts. If they’re entertaining to read (they don’t have to be happy thoughts), if she keeps surprising us with the workings of her mind, the reader will be eager to follow her through her ramblings, knowing he’ll be pleased with the journey.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing “Cinderella” from the POV of a stepsister. She has a backstory that explains her cruelty to Cinderella. Think of what that backstory might be. Make a list of possibilities. Reveal the backstory in thoughts as the front story moves forward.

• Now do it the other way around. Start the stepsister’s story with what happened to make her cruel. Write it that way, as front story. Compare the ways the two versions unfold.

• Let’s use “Cinderella” and the bullying idea I introduced above. One stepsister is worse than the other, and every interaction with her–even just the sight of her–sets off compulsive thoughts in Cinderella. Write the story, including these thoughts, but vary them. Sometimes they show how Cinderella thinks, sometimes what she decides, sometimes her perspective on other characters. Explore the workings of her mind as if you’re on a tour: in this part charming flowers grow, but here is the circus of performing monsters, and here is the tunnel to early memories.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Out of the Info Dumpster

This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:

From Nicole:

Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?

Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?

From Christie V Powell:

2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.

3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.

Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!

What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.

Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.

In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.

That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.

Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.

We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.

In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.

I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.

So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.

Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.

Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.

But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.

If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.

We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.

Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.

Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.

∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.

∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

Backstory story

On October 31, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …how do you know where to put those important backstories, the ones that are pivotal to a character? Is there any way to know, or do you just put it where it seems “right”?
There are lots of ways and places and times to work in a backstory, and I think where it seems right is a good guide.

You can do it in dialogue. For example, Elizabeth and Pamela are sleeping over at Marianne’s house. They’re in their pajamas in Marianne’s room. They’ve been friends since they were in kindergarten. Pamela starts a conversation about the first time she was in this bedroom. Others chime in with their early memories. These reveal their backstories.

Or Elizabeth, Pamela and Marianne are marching against the umbertis, enormous intelligent crabs that have invaded their homeland. The soldiers have a long way to go, and they pass the time talking about memories of home, their backstories.

Or you can do the same in thought. Pamela is the POV character. At the sleepover she thinks about her friendship with the two girls. She’s felt close to Marianne since the beginning, but her relationship with Elizabeth has had ups and downs. She can obsess over details of their run-ins. Or she can think about her own home, where she’s never invited the others to sleep over. Or, on the march against the umbertis she can think about her fellow soldiers or she can think about her mother’s teachings on warfare.

Or in narration. An omniscient narrator can chronicle the sleepover or the foot soldiers’ advance. The narrator can directly provide background for each girl.

The danger with backstory, which I suspect writeforfun is worrying about, is interrupting the flow of the story. For backstory to work, in most cases anyway, the front story needs to be underway. The reader has to care about the character with the backstory and the ongoing action of the story. Again in most cases, backstory will fit best in, say, the first third of the novel. Much later than that the reader is likely to have come to his own conclusions and backstory may just annoy. And at the end of a book backstory may feel too convenient, like a deus ex machina arrived to save the day or at least to explain it.

Let’s take the case of the umbertis. The reader has watched with Marianne as a crab’s purple pincer cruelly pinches her little brother Patrick and pulls him away. Another crab’s beady metallic eyes scan Marianne’s family’s living room, where she is crouched in horror behind a couch. Patrick’s screams are heard from the hallway. This is not the time for backstory about how much Marianne loves her brother or how much he annoys her. Unless–

Unless this interrupted action is going to be a motif in the story. Whenever things get exciting, the narrator switches to something else, which could be backstory. The reader groans while smiling, knowing that the main storyline will continue later. This is a way of creating distance and making the reader aware that he’s reading, reading the work of a very clever author. I’ve enjoyed books like this. I think the crime novelists Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake (high school and above) have written this kind of thing, although I can’t think of a particular title.

However, in this sort of story, even if it’s really well done, sometimes I will gnash my teeth and thumb ahead to where the action resumes. Then, after I’ve read the continuing crab drama, I may be reluctant to go back to the intervening pages. If I don’t, I may lose the thread of the story and I may abandon the book entirely. So there’s a risk. In general, quiet moments are best for backstory.

When I wrote the early drafts of Fairest, writing in omniscient third-person POV (I switched to first person later), I put in backstory for Queen Ivi. I included several scenes between her and Skulni, the creature in the mirror, and one between her, her mother, and her brother (who didn’t make the final cut). The scenes and backstory explained Ivi’s behavior. But third person didn’t work and most of the backstory had to go. I miss these scenes. They deepened Ivi’s character for me. But they weren’t necessary, and they gunked up the story. The reader accepts Ivi without the explanations.

What I’m saying is, consider if you need the backstory at all. You may need it for yourself, to understand why your character behaves as she does and to figure out what she’ll do in future situations, but the reader may not. Take the sleepover example. Let’s say Elizabeth makes fun of Marianne’s pajamas, which are cotton with a print of climbing vines that Elizabeth calls poison ivy. And Elizabeth keeps complaining that she isn’t going to be able to sleep because of Pamela’s snoring. I don’t think the reader needs to know that Elizabeth’s mother is hypercritical and her father is uninvolved in family life. The reader takes Elizabeth as he finds her. He’ll also be watching Elizabeth’s and Pamela’s response to her. If they treat her with understanding he’s going to suspect they understand her or that she has virtues he hasn’t experienced yet.

I’ve been watching the HBO series Girls, which is definitely without a doubt for adults. One of the girls, I don’t have the names down yet, the one with the British accent, is so far unfailingly unkind to her friends. I can’t figure out why they like her, and no amount of backstory would condone her bad behavior for me.

And lets go back to Elizabeth and her judgmental mother and disengaged father. Well, plenty of people have terrible parents and they rise above them. The moral is: Be judicious with your backstories. You can put them in (you may need to) in early drafts but try your story without them as you revise.

If the backstory is important and you’re sure you don’t want to cut it, consider telling it in forward time. Start the tale at an earlier moment. In Fairest again, I could have begun the book with Aza’s arrival at Ontio castle and slipped her earlier life in through flashbacks and thoughts and dialogue, but that would have been tricky and it might have given the book a jumpy quality I didn’t want. Same thing has happened to me with other books. I start somewhere and then I move the beginning back and back and back. You can too.

Here are four prompts:

∙    Write from the POV of the umberti crab who kidnapped Marianne’s brother and work in the backstory of these intelligent creatures. Do they come from outer space or are they mutations of ordinary crabs? Why do they hate humans?

∙    Invent a backstory for each of the sleepover girls. Telling the sleepover in the voice of an omniscient narrator, insert each backstory through thoughts, narration, and dialogue. Cause an argument among the three and have the backstory come into play.

∙    In the crab story, invent a backstory for Pamela and include it in the marching scene. After the army reaches the crabs, Pamela and a crab face off in hand-to-claw combat. Have Pamela’s backstory influence her fighting.

∙    Ina is a writer. Whenever she meets people she makes up their backstories. Her boyfriend brings her to dinner at his parents’ house. She’s meeting his family for the first time, and she engages in her pastime. Write the scene and make the imagined backstories get her into trouble.

Have fun, and save what you write!