Holding back the backstory

To make your characters come to life, you need to understand their lives before your story begins. Part of fun in writing is getting to know your characters. One of the ways is to prepare character sketches of the main characters. This should be more than just a a visual description of the height, weight, build and hair and eye colour, but should cover psychological elements such as their desires and pattern of thinking, as well as their weaknesses and quirks. Some writers suggest going even further: building their family history, their schooling and career development. I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with going that far; I tend to keep my character sketches relatively brief. However, life events that have moulded the character into who they are today are clearly important. Another way to discover your characters that has been suggested is to conduct an interview with your character to see what they have to say about themselves and what they believe in. (All good writers are good at talking to themselves!) Alternatively, some writers may prefer a more organic way of getting to know their characters through the process of preparing the first draft. They may well not be fully formed at the commencement of the story, but they will by the end. Whatever, method you use your character has a backstory and it will affect how they behave.

However, while a character’s backstory is important to the writer, it is of less concern to the reader. That’s why it’s called backstory: it happened before the story begins. A new writer, having done all the hard work of researching a character’s backstory, should resist the temptation to simply dump the backstory on the reader at the first opportunity. Donald Maass in “Writing the breakout novel workbook” suggests finding any scene in the first fifty pages which brings players to the stage, sets up the situation, or is otherwise backstory and cut and paste the material into chapter fifteen. Then to review the material in chapter fifteen to see if it cannot be cut outright, or if not to find the best place after the mid point of the novel. Strong advice. But those first fifty pages are so important they shouldn’t be burdened with an information dump. Information about the character’s history that is vital to the plot can be drip fed into the story. Sometimes holding back information can even be helpful in raising interest in the reader’s mind why is behaving that way?

So, backstory is important; but not so important that it has to be revealed to the reader, at the earliest opportunity.

Cutting out the boring bits

One of the mistakes a newbie writer can make is to assume that a story is an unbroken series of actions all of which have to be conveyed to the reader.  Instead, the writer should try to think more like a screen writer, and regard the story as sequence of scenes and transitions, where only the important elements of the story need to be shown.  In a film, you see the detective rush off with his side kick, and next you would see them arrive at the scene of the crime scene. What happens in the middle: they drive from A to B, but the audience can figure that out for themselves without being told.  It’s unimportant.  It would be different if the car journey was an important scene in itself: for example, an argument breaks out between the detective and the sidekick in the car, or that they realise they are being tailed by a mysterious car.

Thinking about a story as a sequence of scenes means you have to think carefully about what the purpose of each scene should be. Does it move the plot forward?  Does it reveal new insights about the characters?  Does it create suspense or dramatic tension?  If it doesn’t do any of these, why is it there?

Scene beaks in novels are normally signalled by a double line spacing between each scene, or sometimes it is evidence by #  or  *** symbol .  The purpose is the same: to signal that a scene has ended and a new scene has begun.  The author’s choice of where to break a scene is also important.  For example, leaving a scene on a cliff-hanger is a great device for getting the reader to read on, particularly when the next scene shifts to a new plot-line, and the reader to read through it to find the answer in the scene following.

Another device the writer can use is a simple transitional phase;  for example, ‘Later that day…’ or “Some while later…” Transitions are important to keep the fluency of the story line and indicating the passage of time.

Those authors that like to plot may use a card system, or some other record, to outline the scene structure of a book. Those authors that don’t like outlines or plans, and prefer to write organically, still need to be aware of scene breaks and how to deal with them.

One last word of warning.  Recently, I was watching a television drama written by a famous film director where the heroine was caught trying to infiltrate a heavily fortified enemy camp. She was taken to the antagonist room in the heart of the fortified camp, and was about to be tortured by him, only for the hero appear in the antagonists room defeat him and rescue her. There was no explanation at all about how he got there.  He was just there at exactly the right time to save her, as though by magic. And in the next scene they had escaped the fortified campsite and were back home.  My son has a term for these plot holes; he calls it ‘space magic’.

The same fault arose in some of the early western movies, where all seemed lost for the wagon train encircled by indians, only for the cavalry to come over the horizon riding to their rescue. It was as though the cavalry had some kind of satellite navigation system as to where the wagon train would be. As a reader and lover of movies, when I come across these contrived solutions I feel cheated.

The technical term for plot devices that solve what seems an unsolvable problem by the contrived intervention of a new event or character is called ‘deus ex machina’. It means ‘god from the machine’ and refers to the use of machines (cranes) that were used  in Greek tragedies to bring actors playing gods onto the stage to solve a problem. Getting our heroes and heroines into difficult and impossible scenarios is great for increasing dramatic tension. But when you do, don’t cheat the reader; find a solution that is credible and doesn’t rely on ‘deus ex machina’ to get them out of it.

Cutting out the boring bits of story is important to keep the reader’s attention and is particularly important when the story needs to pick up pace.  But only cut what the reader expects to happen. Don’t leave a plot hole and stretch the credulity of the reader in the process.