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: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScephrVVNjHtNTfOZnDeyYDjZ4JrQlF9_1ZKiQWZWY9clgB4g/viewform. And here’s a link for the festival itself with all its great events: http://wasecalesueurlibraries.com/festival/. Hope you can e-come!
And I can’t resist showing you this in-depth review of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/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.
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!