Do you know the right way to use backstory?
Last time I gave Six tips for constructing effective, interesting backstories for your characters. I promised I’d follow that up with some how-to on using the great stuff you’ve invented in your novel.
It’s not always as simple as it seems. As I wrote last month, there are lots of rookie mistakes you can make with backstory, ones that undermine your story rather than support it. This does not mean that backstory is a waste of time. Here are three ways you can use backstory effectively:
Use it to raise questions. One of the problems I cited in my last article was that, when presented in the wrong way or at the wrong time, backstory can answer too many questions about your characters. It can destroy the mystery. A much better strategy is to use backstory to raise questions, rather than answer them. For example, in my last article I suggested that a fun backstory element might be that a character makes her own cheese at home. You could use that to raise questions in the reader’s mind—that is, to create compelling mystery about the character—by showing that she does this, but neglecting to explain why. After all, why would someone make their own cheese? It’s difficult, time-consuming, takes a lot of work and some special equipment, et cetera. Why not just buy a slab of cheddar at the grocery store? Mysteries keep readers moving forward, so if you can create some with careful use of your backstory, you win.
Use it to create conflicts. So now that we’ve got the reader wondering why our heroine makes her own cheese, let’s heighten the drama a bit by creating a conflict around this bit of backstory-driven behavior. Perhaps the heroine is a pediatrician. On her day off, she’s whipping up a fresh batch of curds, something that must be done with a fair amount of care and attention to detail: timing, temperature control, and so forth matter to how the cheese turns out. Right in the middle of all this, her cell phone rings. It’s a resident at her hospital, begging her to come in for a consult over something that is 95% likely to be nothing. Does the she tell the resident to make the diagnosis so she can get back to her cheese, or does she sigh and hop in the car knowing that when she gets home her curds will be ruined?
Look for ways to put your character’s backstory elements in conflict with your story’s outer plot elements. But note, this only works when it creates difficult choices for the character. In my last article, I suggested that the cheese making hobby is, in fact, very emotionally important to our hypothetical pediatrician. The situation is only dramatic because it forces her to choose between something that is personally important to her and something that is professionally important but that she knows is almost certainly a total waste of time. So look for those conflicts, but remember that the conflicts have to have credible emotional stakes attached to them, or they’ll fall flat.
Support it early. I particularly want to stress this one, because getting it wrong can ruin a whole book. Let us imagine that we would like an important plot point to hinge on our pediatrician’s familiarity with cheese making. Perhaps she uses her knowledge of cheese cultures (the particular bacteria and fungi involved) to make a difficult diagnosis, saving the life of an important politician’s child. That’s great. We’ve tied the backstory to the plot, and in doing so, give ourselves opportunities to connect the character’s inner journey with her outer journey.
This only works if we have spent the requisite effort ahead of time to demonstrate and support her cheese making skills. Imagine if we have not. Imagine that we have said not one word about cheese making prior to the diagnosis scene. It just wouldn’t work to have her swab a sample on a microscope slide, and immediately exclaim “My God! This child is infected with Penicillium Roqueforti, the mold that gives the rich taste of Roquefort cheese!” Not only is that horrible, infodump dialogue, but it’s a deus ex machina solution: we’ve given the reader no reason to believe that the good doctor should know this, and any trust the reader has in you to tell them a good story is wiped out.
However, if we have spent scenes and time earlier in the book establishing the cheese making hobby, connecting it emotionally to the character and putting it in dramatic conflict with the plot, then the reader is primed to say “oh, yeah, she’d totally know what that mold is.” Problem solved. Backstory is a great way to establish important skills or pieces of information that characters will need in order to overcome the plot’s obstacles, but only if you do a good job of showing them to the reader before they are necessary to the plot.
September 25, 2009 21:31 UTC
Hook 'em with character
“You’ve got to open with a strong hook.”
Ask anyone in the publishing industry—agents, publishing house editors, sales reps—and they’ll all tell you that opening a story with a strong hook is a great way to make your manuscript stand out from the rest.
But what does that actually mean? It’s pretty vague advice. If you press them on it, they’ll give you something like “Well, the story has to open strong. It has to pull the reader right in, grab them by the shirt collar, and make them want to read the next page.”
That doesn’t help much, does it?
Then there’s the other school of thought, summarized very well by Elizabeth Lyon in her book Manuscript Makeover:
I know a few people, very few, who can spout plot summaries of novels on request. What most people remember, I contend, are their favorite characters.
She’s right. The thing is, these philosophies mesh very well together, because a strong hook also shows your characters.
Today I’m going to tell you exactly what a strong hook is, and give you practical, hands-on tips for how to open with one, and how to how to make your hook show your characters.
A strong hook is nothing more than something that grabs the reader’s attention. That usually means crafting a surprising situation that is thick with conflict. Why? Because conflict drives the reader’s curiosity: what’s the conflict about? What’s at stake? Who’s going to prevail?
Raising questions in the reader’s mind compels them to keep reading. And in your opening scene, more than anywhere else in the book, you want the reader to keep reading.
Yet, all too often I see manuscripts that open with some of the most boring situations imaginable. People waking up in the morning, walking down the street, going about ordinary, day-to-day activities. Don’t do that. Somewhere in your plot, is some interesting, pivotal event that gets the main storyline going. Right? Say yes. There had better be, and it had better come soon.
Find a way to put this event front-and-center on page one. In paragraph one. Ideally, put it in the very first sentence. Open with a scene of conflict. Work to immediately raise those questions in the reader’s mind. Don’t think it’s better if the conflict sneaks up on the reader. It isn’t. Jump right in.
That’s one component of a great hook: opening big, picking the right scene from your overall story to open with. Do that and you’ll raise the right questions in the reader’s mind. But the hook won’t have any bait if you fail to make the reader care about the answers.
In my experience, this happens when the big opening scene fails to establish the main character’s personality. You can’t fix this by throwing in a sentence or two of description. You can’t fix it by telling the reader that your character is a smart-ass, or is utterly fearless, or is a rotten drunk.
To establish your main character’s personality well, you have to show it, not tell it. And that, in turn, means creating opportunities for your character to display his or her attributes in action.
There’s lots of ways of working a character’s attributes into a scene, but in an opening scene one of the best ways is to make sure that your main character drives the scene, rather than letting the scene drive your character.
I can’t tell you how many opening scenes of manuscripts I’ve read that have a lot of conflict in them, but in which the main character doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. Openings where the main character is buffeted about by events, making no effort to participate in them, letting the chips fall where they may.
That is not a recipe for making readers care about your main character. Who wants to root for a character that doesn’t do anything? One way or another, you have to make your main character drive that scene.
This doesn’t mean that your main character can’t be in a world of trouble. It’s probably better if he or she is. This doesn’t mean he or she has to prevail in the scene’s conflict. In fact, he or she should probably not prevail.
What it does mean is that you need to show the character trying to affect the outcome of the scene. You need to show them making decisions, taking actions, reacting to events, engaging in dialogue.
Every one of those elements is an opportunity to show character.
Actions speak louder than words, right? There’s no better way to learn what someone’s really made of than to watch how they act in an atypical situation. You won’t learn anything about someone from watching them walk down the street, get up in the morning, or any of those other un-conflicted, daily life situations.
But watch them act in the middle of a crisis, and you’ll come to know what kind of person they are really fast. Authors have the extra luxury of not only showing how a character acts, but also of showing how they think. Use it. Give the reader that extra insight into your character’s mind.
Here it is, boiled down: A great hook shows character through conflict.
Tattoo that on your forehead if you need to, but learn it. Take a look at the opening scene of whatever book you’re working on right now, and ask yourself, is this a great hook? Is there enough conflict here, and have I used it to show my main character’s personality? Is my main character driving the scene?
This is how you not only pull the reader into the story by raising questions, but also make them care about the answers.
July 20, 2009 18:04 UTC
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