Monthly Archives: September 2011

Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next paragraph, I suspect confusion may set in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

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Filed under Backstory, Writing Rules

Sweating The Small Stuff – It’s All In The Details

Recently an author friend of mine passed along some of the editorial feedback about a manuscript which required rewrites. In a number of instances, the changes weren’t what a writer new to the publishing world would expect.

Yes, there were a few of the big issues — character motivation, for example — but a good number of the suggestions had to do with the small stuff, things like consistency in a character’s voice, additional details in describing the setting, and minor characters that needed to come alive.

Initially I thought it might be a helpful tip here to give a list of the details this one writing professional told this one writer to improve this one manuscript. But I think you can see the problem with that — what is true for one story and writer isn’t going to be true for all.

I might have great depth in my minor characters, for example, but overlook the missing details that create plot inconsistencies.

The key, then, isn’t to look at a list that some other author has received, but to create a list for ourselves. We need to pay attention to the small stuff in our own work in progress.

Thinking in details may be hard initially. For example, I as the author may know that a minor character will appear in the book this one time but not again, therefore I’m not particularly invested in fleshing him out. What that does, however, is make the character nothing but a prop, a two-dimensional piece of furniture that the author drops in at that one spot for convenience.

One of the most egregious examples of this “character as prop” effect was in a novel I read some time ago. The book was part historical love story and part mystery/adventure. At one point an older woman who was acting as chaperon was on board a small boat with the two main characters. But apparently after the chaperon said her lines, the author forgot about her because the two main characters went on to share a dark secret that no one else was to know. And no, they weren’t whispering, the minor character hadn’t fallen asleep or overboard and she wasn’t hard of hearing. The author simply did not account for her presence.

A small oversight like that can ruin the “fictive dream” for the reader. Instead of being lost in the tension and the surprise, the reader is thinking, Wait a minute, if this is such a great secret, why are they telling it in front of this minor character?

Details of a story setting are no less important. Readers need to be anchored in place and need to be able to picture where everyone is so the action they are reading makes sense. One story I read some time ago had the character under attack and running for his life. Imagine my surprise when he decided to hide in a barn I didn’t know existed until that moment.

Along with specifics in character and setting, an author needs to pay attention to the specifics of his prose. Word choice can alter mood, a more formal phrase can create inconsistency in tone, repetition and redundancy can slow the pace, too many fragments can make the prose stilted. A writer needs to look at such details.

By taking the time to look at the particulars on every level, a writer will discover two things: making up stories actually is work, and taking time to look at the small stuff pays off. You see, we call stories that keep readers ensnared by a special name: best-sellers. 😉

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Promises

Whether he realizes it or not, a writer makes his readers a promise, or actually a string of promises. In the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, scene, and chapter, the author is promising, promising, promising. Will the story be funny? Is the character irascible? Will the setting determine the outcome? Is the mood gloomy? Does the point of view character tell the truth? And on and on go the questions to which the author answers with promises.

Interestingly, these answers are only important in so far as the author keeps his promises. If he lets readers know on page one that this story has a jaunty, humorous flavor, that decision is no better or worse than if he lets the readers know the story will have a dark, brooding flavor. What the author must not do is promise one thing and deliver something else. In other words, he must not promise a jaunty, humorous story and switch to a dark, brooding tale half way through.

At first glance this idea of promise may seem suspect. After all, things change during the course of a story. Why can’t a character suffer loss and become sullen instead of happy-go-lucky? Actually, he can. Change works as long as that change is motivated.

If a bird can’t fly on page one, then he shouldn’t be able to fly on page 151 … unless something has happened which makes it believable that yes, the bird can now fly.

This “believability” is actually “story believability.” If the author has created a world in which animals can receive transplants, then a wing transplant would be a believable cause for the bird’s change in flying ability. If, on the other hand, the author creates a world in which animals trust people, it would be believable if an avian aficionado finds an injured bird and nurses it to wholeness.

Put another way, whatever motivates change in the story must be true to the rules of that particular story world. Essentially the author lays down those rules in the early pages of his novel. In essence, he is promising that the rest of the story is going to continue within these parameters, according to these particulars.

Some weeks ago in the discussion about backstory, we looked at the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here’s the first paragraph again:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The promise here is that the central character has this particular obsession with clothes. If halfway through the story, with no believable change to the story rules, the king no longer cared about clothes, the author would have broken his promise to readers.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if Aslan the great lion who reigned in Narnia stopped being a talking lion, C. S. Lewis would have violated his own story rules. He would have broken faith with his readers who came to understand that in Narnia, Talking Animals were not only possible but the norm. In a later book, in fact, Lewis creates a reason why fewer and fewer animals are of the talking variety. The change, then, becomes believable and consistent because it adheres to the change that occurred within the story rules.

Is your character logical and even-tempered? Then he must remain so unless something consistent with the way the story works, brings a personality altering change.

Earlier this week over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I invited visitors to look at the openings of six different novels. Why not take a few moments to drop by and see what promises you think the authors of those excerpts are making to their readers in those first lines.

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Filed under Concept And Development

The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 4

In the previous three parts to this short series, I’ve discussed the importance of making backstory a natural, organic part of the story; two techniques to use suggested by Hallie Ephron in her Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory”; and a more detailed explanation of how to convey backstory through dialogue.

That brings us to Ms. Ephron’s final two techniques: memories and a flashback scene.

A character’s memories can convey backstory without bringing the story action to a halt if those memories fit in with the present scene. The idea is to use something in the story present to trigger a memory.

A memory trigger can be a loud sound like a church bell

The trigger can be a sound — something jarring or disruptive like a car alarm going off. Or it can be a smell such as baking bread or a visual like an antique tea service, just like Grandma’s. The objects or events that can initiate a character’s memory are endless.

The important thing in making the memory seem natural is to avoid calling attention to it. Skilled novelists don’t announce a memory.

Here’s an example of a memory that doesn’t transition smoothly into or out of the memory.

    Ramon heard the loud gong of the church bell. He thought a minute. Yes, he’d heard something just like that bell years ago, when he was only a boy. He used to visit his Tío Miguel every Sunday, and the bell in the church down the block rang so loud, they sometimes had to stop talking until it ended. Ramon shook himself out of his reverie.

Here’s the same memory written with smoother transitions rather than announcements.

    The loud gong of the church bell sounded again, and Ramon stopped talking. Not to listen, but from habit. Years ago, when he visited Tío Miguel on Sundays, the church bell down the block rang so loud they couldn’t hear each other over the repeated bong-bong. They’d learned to go silent and wait, just as he did now.

The final method of providing readers with necessary backstory is by creating a flashback — a scene set in an earlier time. As with the memory technique, the transitions are critical. But flashbacks have several things that are different.

First, the verb tense changes, at least initially, so the reader understands where the scene fits. If the author is using present tense, then a flashback is in past tense. If the author is writing in past tense, then the flashback begins and ends in past perfect.

Because of the repeated “had” necessary to form the past perfect, using it throughout the flashback can become distracting and cumbersome. Consequently, after a few sentences the author can revert to past tense without confusing the reader, then switch back to past perfect in the last line of the flashback to signal that the reader is about to return to the present story time.

Here’s an example from HUNTED with the flashback in boldface type:


    Ant-prickles raced up and down Jim’s arms. Not long ago he’d thought about staying behind to search the tunnels on his own, but now the idea of leaving the Abador-faithful seemed as foolhardy as the stunt he had pulled as a six-year-old kid during a family camping trip in the Colorado Rockies. Kyle and Eddie took off one morning on a big-boy hike, and Mom said Jim had to stay in camp. When she wasn’t looking, though, he snuck off after his brothers, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t catch up. He’d been too proud to call after them, too guilty to yell for help from his parents. He wandered around lost in the woods until dark when at last his dad had found him.
    Jim brushed a hand up and down his arm. Childish. He’d survived that day on his own and outgrown his fear of being alone in a strange place. If something happened to separate him from the others here in Efrathah, he could make.

In longer flashbacks, the scene may be written with dialogue just like any other scene. In the example above, then, instead of saying “Mom said Jim had to stay … ” the text would read: Mom said, “Jimmy, you stay here in camp with your father and me.”

This is the second factor that distinguishes a flashback from a memory, however short — it is a scene, not straight narrative.

Handling backstory correctly can make or break a story. Perhaps the best way to learn to weave it into the fabric of a novel is to examine how other writers integrate it. See what works and what doesn’t, then use the good as a model for your own writing.

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