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.

Back story…

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.

Describing characters…

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

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.

Scene-setting description

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.

Exposition

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?’

Interesting difficulties!

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.

There’s loads more about all these points in my books on characters and plot. Or you can book me as your editor!

And on the subject of writing, here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month.

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  1. #1 by tracikenworth on August 18, 2019 - 9:58 pm

  2. #4 by floatinggold on August 19, 2019 - 1:47 am

    Great reminders!

  3. #6 by acflory on August 19, 2019 - 11:22 am

    Great post, Roz. I sometimes find that a scene about one of the characters works better when it’s told from the perspective of someone else. The idea being that you get to see the character’s behaviour from the outside. What they think they’re doing and what they’re actually doing can be quite different.

    I learned the truth of these delusions some years back when I went through a stressful period in my life. I thought I was handling it all remarkably well. Years later the Offspring said something that made me realise that I hadn’t been handling things well at all. 🙂

  4. #9 by Maria Donovan on August 20, 2019 - 8:28 am

    I love these nudges into thinking a little differently about the writing process. It’s great to be sharing your knowledge in this way, Roz. In my turn have shared on Twitter!

  5. #11 by jennifermzeiger on August 26, 2019 - 7:03 pm

    It’s always helpful to read your blogs. Thanks for sharing, Roz.

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