Thanks to Andrea Lundgren posting over at A Writer’s Path for addressing an issue of craft I see us all struggling with all the time! I like a variation on number 4: dropping in short fragments of backstory in the course of ongoing narration. For example, when a new character engages with the protagonist, he or she can fill in a line or two to bring readers up to speed on the past relationship: “The last time Mark met Jane, the experience had been traumatic for both. He’d been in the middle of X, she’d been involved in Y, etc.”
Similarly, when a character enters a setting, a few lines of backstory can set up the role of that setting in the character’s life: “The first time she visited New York, she had been young and naive. . . . ”
It doesn’t take an entire flashback to establish histories like these. Simple inclusions in description and dialogue can tell us much about characters’ pasts.
The big caveat, for me, is that our readers don’t need to know EVERYTHING we know about our characters. Just as with all descriptions and exposition, I have to work to find the information that is really relevant to the story, perhaps to what’s happening in a particular moment.
Thanks, Andrea, for touching on a part of craft we all wrestle with in our writing!
A Writer's Path
By Andrea Lundgren
Every story has exposition–details of the character and world that you, as the author, need to pass on to the reader. You’ve spent hours fleshing out the world of your story and learning about your characters, and now you have to find some way of getting this information (or at least the essential part) from your head to the readers’. (This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where you need to tell how the world of the story differs from our world.)
So what’s an author to do?
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Absolutely one of the best dicussions of story structure I’ve read. Resonates on so many levels for me! I just wrote to a writing group colleague that a story that’s working tells me what it’s about, and I think that sentiment jibes with this discussion. Let me know what you think!
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
— C. J. Cherryh
The goal of the rewrite is simple, but not easy. You want your story to live. To accomplish this, it’s helpful to have a basic confidence in the arc of your heroine’s journey before getting more specific with character, dialogue, and the refinement of prose. You’re seeking to create a story that amuses and entertains, but also captures some complexity and truth about the human experience.
This is a daunting task because—be honest—there’s a bit of inflexibility in your relationship with your first draft. On the one hand, you fear that if it’s not told as precisely as you imagined it, it won’t work. On the other hand, it feels somewhat unsatisfying as written.
So the biggest challenge in the rewriting is being able to make a thousand little painful paper-cut changes while avoiding…
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Connie does a terrific job of explaining POV here. True, very, very skilled writers can “head-hop”—Larry McMurtry does it all through the Lonesome Dove books—but for most of us, suddenly slipping from one POV to another without the kind of warning Connie suggests is jarring. I’ll add that one of the easiest mistakes to make is for a POV character, whether third- or first-person, to “see” him- or herself. For example, if we want to stay true to the character’s point of view, we can’t say about a POV character, “I gave an enticing smile.” The character can give a smile that “I hoped was enticing,” or “I meant to be enticing,” but only a viewer (another character) can tell if the smile actually was “enticing.” These slips can be subtle but disorienting.
Read Connie’s piece for a good review of this important issue!
Life in the Realm of Fantasy
A young author recently asked me, “What is head-hopping and why has my writing group accused me of doing it?” Head–hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene, and happens most frequently when using a Third-Person Omniscient narrative, in which the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.
It’s difficult to know whose opinions are most important when all your characters are speaking in your head as you are writing. They clamor and speak over the top of each other, making a din like my family at any holiday dinner. But you must force them to take turns speaking, and make a real break between the scenes where the speaker changes, or each rapid shift of perspective will throw the reader out of the story. But what is Point of View other than the thoughts of one or two characters?
Point of view is a common…
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