Part the Veils of the Past

Authors tend to think of background stories as a one-time event. You want to cover how the heroine’s father was never around, so you tell a story about missing the opening night of her high school musical. Problem solved, check Dad off the to-do list. Yet you can be more flexible, employing strategies that enable background to become dynamic in its own right.

One very effective technique is breaking up a skein of background information into increasingly larger parts. With this method you are employing background in the fashion of an unfolding mystery. At first the reader knows only a little, and as the book goes on, he learns more and more. The first background piece can be short, setting up as a single sentence early on that intrigues the reader. For instance, the hero thinks: “He never figured out what Kelly found so repellent that she would divorce him.” That’s it. The reader reads that line, and the wheels start turning. What the heck was that all about? I want to find out more about that.

In another thirty pages you drop the next piece, a paragraph this time: “Kelly only wanted the good life. She couldn’t understand why he was so lacking in ambition. He supposed it stemmed from their different backgrounds. He grew up pretty well off—not rich but his father had a good job, his parents never fought about money, and they lived in a nice suburb. Kelly came from Revere, one of those northern Massachusetts towns that time spat out long ago. In college the difference was charming, like Ryan and Ali in Love Story. By thirty it had become more of a horror story. That’s when she first started dressing like a porn star.”

Then a plot event—Kelly shows up in his life again—can tip off the main back story, the one in which the character suffered trauma. We learn the full sad saga of how Kelly fished after young executive types, embarrassing the hero repeatedly at parties, and finally ended up with a fast-talking salesman who held the hero underwater in the surf until he nearly drowned—while everyone laughed their heads off at him. Then she remarried, had three delightful children, and drives around in a BMW 325i, while our hero is groveling for dimes.

When parceled out this way, the back story can generate a good deal of emotional power all its own. That’s because you’re employing a standard storytelling technique—whetting our appetite with a glimpse, sharing a little more of the secret, then delivering the full juicy goods. You’ve also created a plot progression of a form. Even though the background information is static, because it already happened, the way in which it is told is dynamic.

Exercise: Review the background pieces you have in your story. Is any one of them crucial to understanding the protagonist? Now consider the possibility of breaking it into stages, showing the reader more and more. Could you break what you already have into such pieces? If not, think about what the crucial element is. Could you write a new background pieces that employs the step-by-step strategy?

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Resurrecting from the Past

If you are writing a sequel, your first concern is to escape from the clutches of the first book. You can do that by being deliberate about your outlining the second book. Forget about being organic. If you plunge in, thinking the characters will guide you through, you will likely find that your story is noodling right along the same grooves you pursued last time. Set down clear lines you want the new story to follow first.

One primary objective is devising a way to foment new tension between your established characters. Let’s say that sexual tension between Jack and Amy built nicely during the first book. Yet once they become a pair by the end, where do you go from there? As the old writing dictum goes, you either have to build up or tear down a relationship. The one thing it can’t do is remain on a plateau all book long. So you better start creating some problems if you want Jack and Amy to keep entertaining the reader. The reasons that a couple has problems are many: infidelity, undue jealousy, money, and/or divergent interests among them. Which type of problem would lead their plot line in a distinctly different direction from the first book?

You should consider other sources of friction as well. Perhaps Amy’s father hated Jack, but by the end of the book has come to respect him. What is going to replace that agent of friction? Unless you have a new concern for her father, you might want to relegate him to a minor character in the second book.

When you are outlining the next book, take one important step. Create new major characters right from the start. Write sketches about them, just as you (hopefully) did for your major characters in book one. When you set out a preliminary order of scenes, make sure the new characters are heavily involved with the ones being carried over. That way you’ll avoid any scenes that mainly explicate the past. Once you’ve created a run of 10 or so scenes, you’ll have a good start to a fresh book.

Exercise: Draw up an initial plot chart with three columns. The headings should be: Chapter, Main Characters (in that chapter), and Scene Synopsis. For the Synopsis, try to write 5-6 sentences, laying out the plot points in some detail. You can see right away the advantages of sketching out in brief what you’d like to pursue, and with which characters. You’re moving beyond the hazy one-line comments in your outline. You can also see at a glance whether you’re replicating relationships or plot ideas from the past.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Problem with I

Journalists justifiably feel proud when they venture out and capture a good story. That news would not have reached the light of day without them. It takes a special type of person to do that, and they know it. I have never met a reporter who lacked self-confidence.

Excelling at a short form does not, however, guarantee success at book length. The studious hiding behind the stage curtain—merely the microphone at the interview, folks—is harder to accomplish over a long span of pages. The author may be swayed toward injecting personal opinions on the proceedings. After all, they know the real low-down on this creep, and that simply isn’t emerging in the tale they’re telling.

Worst of all is a reporter becoming the center of the story. Because they were granted exclusive access to luminary X, they fall into the delusion that the narrative should be governed by their relationship to X. The story starts when they meet X. The affection or disaffection that marked the relationship becomes an integral part of the tale. The steps along the way become tinted by the reporter’s interpretation of whether that scoundrel X was lying or not.

In the meantime, the reader’s is kept at arm’s length from the subject—uh, the person whose picture on the cover caused us to pick up the book in the first place. Such vital elements as chronology can be subverted to the author’s chronology with X. The selection of victims can be limited to the author’s personal knowledge of victims, often because of laziness to do the research required to fill out a proper list. Lowest of all are the frequent tangents in which the all-knowing author relates examples from their own career of reporting to supplement the events X experienced.

At this point self-confidence has fully descended to arrogance. The author has committed the worst excesses of using a first-person narration. Far from being a microphone, the reporter becomes the story. That doesn’t even serve the author well, since such a manuscript may be summarily rejected by a publisher.

Experience in journalism applies to the long form as well. If you are to step out from behind the curtain, a wave now and then to the audience will suffice. They are, after all, interested in what is happening onstage.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and stop every time you see the word “I.” In that case, would it be better for the narration to remain neutral? A fact is a fact, whether you are telling it or not. Then go beyond that. Is your opinion about the matter necessary? Do the facts speak for themselves? You will find, by pruning 80% of such personal interpolations, that the story gains much more authority than you could ever provide.

“We are the recorders and reporters of facts—not the judges of the behaviors we describe.”
—Alfred Kinsey

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Different Voices

Your characters suffer from a universal limitation. They all spring from inside you. They tend to sound alike, because you’re the one who is thinking up all the things they are saying. This muddle is exacerbated by the fact that dialogue, while easy to write, is usually the least distinctive element of your narrative. Why is that? In dialogue you need to capture the cadence of the way people speak. Otherwise, conversations can sound artificial, labored. What people say, on paper, usually sounds like what a lot of people might say.

So, how do you make your characters speak in unique ways? As with other elements of building a compelling character, your difficulty probably stems from the fact that you are writing about them from the outside. They’re all sound like you because you are dictating—the puppet master—how they should talk.

Dialogue needs to be spoken from the inside. Once you grasp that simple principle, separating out voices becomes one more function of creating vivid personalities. Let’s take the example of a boy and girl that have fallen in love in New York City. What are the most outstanding characteristics of the boyfriend? First, let’s say he hails from Ohio. As any Easterner can tell you, people from the Midwest are so nice. He’s lived in New York for three years. Now ask yourself: what are the sorts of things you would talk about when you’ve lived there for (only) three years?

Now let’s consider the girlfriend. She’s from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, streetwise but shy. What is her frame of reference? She’s lived in New York all her life, so she’s going to complain about all its irritations. That’s how being cooped up in a city feels. Maybe add in that her conversations are sprinkled with scientific references, because that’s what she studied in school. Maybe she can’t wait for the Science section in the Times to come out on Tuesday.

Are these two characters going to talk differently? They will if you keep in mind, as you begin every conversation between them, where they’re coming from. Once you get a feel for operating from inside their head, your characters are going to talk to you first—in their own voice. Then just write down what they say.

Exercise: The most straightforward difference between two characters is: one’s an extrovert and the other’s an introvert. How do extroverts talk? You can start with the premise that they do their thinking out loud. They’ll do a lot of announcing. An introvert will tend to stumble more aloud. They will blurt out something, then have to correct themselves halfway through, or want to correct themselves because they are thoughtful enough to desire the right nuance. Try it: listen to people talk, and you’ll see the difference right away.

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.