7 swift storytelling hacks for back story, description, dialogue, exposition, point of view and plot
I’ve just finished a developmental edit and, as always, I enjoyed how it refreshed my appreciation of storytelling essentials.
I thought I’d share them here in case they’re useful.
Don’t make back story about the past. Let back story tell us about the characters in the present. Their attitudes, aspirations, aversions, aptitudes… Also, remember back story is only half the equation. The other half is how it affected that individual.
Physical description does more than create a visual image of a character – this person is tall, this person has long hair. It also tells us about the experience of being in someone’s presence. For instance, a person might have an unsmiling aura that makes other people feel like they’ve said the wrong thing. Or a worried expression, as if they’re always expecting calamity.
Some writers always tell us about characters’ eyes, or the kind of shoes someone wears. That’s fine if they have one narrator or viewpoint character, but if they have several, it looks weird. Vary your descriptive tics!
Actions can help with description too. If characters are having a conversation and one of them pushes their hands through their hair, what is conveyed by that action? Is it a random fidget, a gesture of thinking? Is it a reaction so something the other person has said?
Which brings me to…
Dialogue is more than information. It is a way for characters to affect each other, and for the reader to witness it. Think beyond speech. Show how the characters maybe make each other uncomfortable, or amuse each other, or infuriate each other. Or how one is comfortable and one is not. So don’t miss out reactions in dialogue – they’re just as important as what characters are saying.
This usually works best if it has an emotional dimension – the character notices something because it illuminates something about their mood or feelings. So they might notice the décor because they are irritated by it, maybe because it reminds them of something they once hated; or they might feel cheered up by it.
There are two narrative steps to giving information (exposition). Step one is the information you want to give the reader. Step two is finding a way to give it that is as natural, interesting and intriguing as possible. Usually, you have to give it in a way that also serves another purpose – such as demonstrating something about the viewpoint character. It might show us they’re good at something, or afraid of something, or traumatised by something – or bad at something! Check you’ve done both steps – create the information (eg character background), then make it serve another narrative purpose as well.
Choosing point of view
When you have an event that could be described from a number of viewpoints, opt for the one that will experience most discomfort. This may not always be the person who is doing the most action – it might be someone who is observing, thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do about this?’
If you’re ever stuck for a plot idea, look for your characters’ interesting difficulties. Write your prose so that it highlights struggle, conflict, hard decisions. That way, you’ll keep the reader gripped.
And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.
It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.
For the first time ever.
A curious feeling.
Like unveiling a massive secret
I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.
When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.
I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.
But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.
Words in, words out
To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).
For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.
Under a crazy spell
In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them. The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.
But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.
It’s been like beginner dating
In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable. Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.
I can break my reading diet
A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.
Now, I can choose books for pure interest.
More to come
It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.
Making new humans
There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison, but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.
I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)
Heart in mouth
Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.
It’s not over yet.
But it feels like it is.
Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay
PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook
PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month
It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem. We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?
Here’s a handy test.
You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.
This is like story endings.
A good ending
First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.
When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.
It fails the arrest test.
Which is this:
It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events and character issues) that you later rely on …. at the end.
How do you spot this epic fail?
You may already be good at it.
We are in an era of long-running TV shows, which get cancelled or renewed at the last minute. Some writing teams can weather this with aplomb. Others collapse in a pickle of chaos. We’ve all seen a smart, richly written show that falls apart in a late episode and becomes unsatisfying, or ridiculous, or changes direction jarringly.
Behind this story implosion, there’s usually a script crisis. The showrunners might have planned a one-off series with an arc that finished nicely. Then late on, they’re told they’re being renewed and mustn’t wrap up after all. They can’t rewrite. The first episodes might even have been shown. So hasty rearrangements are needed at the end.
It happens the other way round too. The show is cancelled unexpectedly, so the writers must tidy up in a tearing hurry.
What the viewer sees is this.
- Heaps of new stuff is tipped in at the last minute.
- Things happen that haven’t been properly set up.
- Characters behave in ways that are hard to understand and don’t fit with what we know about them.
- There may be a lot more expositional scenes than before, which usually look contrived.
Don’t put anything in your ending that you haven’t seeded much earlier.
Back to evidence
Let’s stay with the arrest scenario and think about evidence.
Evidence is audience knowledge. And it must be revealed at the proper time.
Because a good, satisfying ending is built from knowledge and emotions the reader has gained throughout the entire book.
A health check for your ending
So here, in more detail, is the ‘under arrest’ test. Look for the following in your manuscript.
Any new characters or plotline that appear suddenly. After a certain point in the story, you shouldn’t introduce anything new. However, you can if you’ve paved the way for them (which means they’re not, actually, new). And you must be specific. If you add a long-lost cousin who becomes pivotal, we must know they might exist in the specific world of this story and that they might be drawn out of hiding. If you don’t make these preparations, it won’t look fair – even though most humans on the planet might have a long-lost cousin. (Though they might not all have had a long-lost Dalek.)
A new relationship or set of character feelings is revealed. He was adopted! She was always jealous of them! If you want to introduce a relationship surprise, make sure you’ve laid oblique and indirect clues. If a character does a thing that is surprising because they have a change of heart, does it make deep sense without lots of explanation? Or should you prepare more earlier?
Expositional scenes – how much are you having to explain? If you are giving long explanations, have you already got the reader insanely curious about these facts? Are they the subject of an ongoing mystery? If you’ve already primed the reader to want the answer, they’ll pay close attention to your explanation. If you haven’t, they’ll see it as an info-dump and you need to set it up much earlier so that they care about it all.
And if you need a long sequence of exposition, how do you handle it? Are you delivering it in the most interesting way? The most straightforward way is long speeches, which can look uneven – one person talks a lot, the other sits quietly, maybe drinking tea. Or you might convey it through thoughts and sudden realisations – which might also look dull and static. Instead, could you make these discoveries more dynamic? If a person is hearing the explanation, could it matter directly to them? Could some of the information be acquired by action rather than a long explanation?
Watch out for off-screen action you’ve introduced to fill logic holes. ‘I found this out because I phoned that guy you used to work with who I’ve never met before, I must admit, so a phone call is out of character for me…’ Yes, you should have written a scene shouldn’t you? Evidence, innit.
So… list everything the reader must understand to really ‘get’ your ending. A thread to be resolved, a thread to hang in a tantalising way, a note to sound your theme, a comedy twinkle or a note of sinister continuation. You could even write the ending you most want, then interrogate it with these questions to find out what to expand. Then you’ll have an ending that does your book justice.
Thanks for the justice pic Jessica45 on Pixabay
Endings are on my mind as I’m currently being fussy about the denouement of my current novel, Ever Rest. If you’d like to know more about that, here’s my newsletter.
Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast
One of those books is my third novel, Ever Rest, an undertaking that seems as gigantic as the mountain itself, and has to be fitted around other deadlines.
Hopping between projects is a way of life for most writers and is one of the subjects I discuss with Wayne Kelly on this new episode of his podcast. We also talk about ghostwriting (my course on that is here if you’re seriously curious), how we learn as writers, finding our niche, growing up in a landscape full of stories and the new Nail Your Novel Workbook. Do come over.
PS If you’re curious about why Ever Rest is taking so long, and how many other mountains I’m trying to tackle at the same time, there’s more in my newsletter
I’ve had this interesting question:
My novel has plenty of story and character development but certain parts depend on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss. Some readers have said they could do without those parts, but others have told me they love the ideas.
Are you an editor who worships storytelling above all else and can’t stand portions of a book that slow things down? Or one who likes thought-provoking portions of a book even if they detract from the action?
What a provocative, chewy – and useful – question.
Every editor has a different idea of storytelling, pace, tolerance for philosophical materials that aren’t plot etc. So does every writer; so does every reader. This is my personal take.
Having said that, I’ve edited a lot of novels that do this, where the action seems to stop so that the reader can be given a lecture, where the characters appear to be mouthpieces for a philosophical or moral argument. I don’t think it works. I find it pushes me out of the characters’ world and makes me disengage.
You ask an interesting question about storytelling. Storytelling is much more than plot actions. It’s also your voice, the things you direct the reader to be interested in. Usually this is by sleight of hand, and by involving the reader in the hearts of the characters.
You speak of slowing a novel down, as if slow is bad. But not all parts of a novel have to move fast. Sometimes a slow passage is very welcome. Sometimes an entire book should be mostly slow, because that suits the material – especially for very interior books where we savour the detail.
Pace is not necessarily about being fast, although a well-paced book will hold your attention so well that hours will pass without you realising.
Pace is about balancing faster and slower, about judging what will keep your reader’s attention. It’s about judging what’s right for the tone and mood of the book. it’s also about balancing light and shade – humour and optimism versus darkness and peril or tragedy.
Passages that ‘detract’…
You mention passages that ‘detract’… I don’t like anything that ‘detracts’. Who does?
Personally, I see it as a failure of artistry. If a passage looks like it shouldn’t be in the book, it shouldn’t be in the book. I feel it’s your job as spellweaver to make everything belong. But we all have different tolerances. You might enjoy books that stop the action for long passages of philosophising in which the characters seem to have abandoned their own agendas. I find it looks preachy.
How not to preach
My preference is to knead this material into the story, to dramatise it – so that it doesn’t hit the reader as a lecture. I prefer to make it part of the texture of the characters’ worlds. The philosophical ideas become the rules of the story world – creating their moral dilemmas, their difficult choices, their obligations, their personality clashes, their lasting enmities, the things they aim for or fight for or want to break away from.
Certainly a great story can provoke thoughts, but the most skilful stories achieve this by provoking emotion too – a sense of right, wrong, difficulty, impossibility. The reader learns the ideas effortlessly, plays with them in their mind afterwards, and greatly admires the writer who planted these thoughts.
But you may not like that. We’re all different.
PS There’s a lot more about this in my plot book
Thanks for the pic Smackfu on Flickr
Guys, what’s your take on this? My way or Simon’s way? And if you have a question you’d like to put to me, I’d love to tackle it.
Meanwhile, If you’re curious about my most recent writerly toils, here’s my latest newsletter
Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.
If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?
PS If you’re curious about the latest doings of my own creative pen, here’s my latest newsletter