Friday, September 30, 2011

Backstory: When and How to Use It Effectively

Click for more on backstory
While revising my novel to get rid of the unnecessary, I came up against that bane and blessing of the writer's existence—backstory. The problem in this instance wasn't so much literal backstory, meaning past events, but backstory in the sense of material that qualified more as supporting the story, rather than the story itself.

So, what is backstory? Merriam's describes it as "a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot." Simply put, it's any aspect of the work that's not part of what's happening now. Even with a working definition, it can be hard to tell where backstory leaves off and story begins.

What was sneaky about my material was that it wasn't quite throat-clearing. The prose was clear, the story flowed, characters were developed, but there was no traction until chapter five, when something brings two main characters together after years apart. In this case, five chapters were way too much to read before reaching an inciting incident. That incident may not need to happen on page one, but the elements should be in place so that by chapter two, the reader is off and running.

To understand how to use backstory effectively, consider three caveats:
Don't put it at the beginning.
Don't use the wrong medium for the message.
Don't overdo it.

For more on how to treat backstory, visit my online workshop: The Art of Editing in Writing for October.


Friday, September 16, 2011

What Writers Are Missing: The Playwriting Process

Writers are definitely missing something. No, this isn't an editor ranting about the deficiencies of writers. This is a writer admitting to more than a little envy for what playwrights have that writers don't dialogue with their characters.

Some of you will instantly respond, "But I do talk to my characters, and they talk to me." I used to think such talk was crazy doodle until those conversations started for me, too. But what I mean here is different. I recently met with playwright Joanne Hudson to go over a piece of flash fiction I wrote called "Days of Obligation" that she's adapting into a play. As part of the process, she asked questions about what I hadn't included in the piece, which is mostly dialogue what writers call backstory and what actors call motivation. She also said I'd meet with the actors because they'd have questions, too. Playwrights, she said, use this process to hone their work, sometimes even after a play has begun its run. I paused midsentence. "Wow," I said, "We writers are missing a whole side of the creative process."

What Joanne described seems different to me than my sitting down to create characters that originate within my head and are typically developed and nurtured there. The playwright sits down with actual people, a far more interactive and challenging process than one constrained the limits of the individual.

So I got to thinking, wouldn't it be fun to take a scene you're working on and get a couple of people, maybe people who aren't writers, to act it out and to let them, in preparation for acting the scene, sit down with you and ask questions. I'd love to hear how it turns out. I've got a rehearsal with my actors in a couple of days. I'll let you know how things turn out here.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Developing an Idea Through Story: The Importance of Theme

The once cutting-edge nineteenth-century novel Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, uses a technique that French literary historian and editor Paul Bénicou described as one the Romantic writers preferred above all others: "the development of an idea by means of a story."

Today, this approach couldn't be less popular. The mere thought of an idea fueling a story, especially through an intrusive narrator, as in Les Mis, flies in the face of an organic approach a story that is plot-driven or character-driven, but certainly not idea-driven. Though who could blame anyone for avoiding this concept like contagion: witness the current legislature.

Yet, a story without some underlying meaning, without symbols, without an idea or a concept that drives it—a theme—is like a beautifully wrapped gift box with an elegant bow that for all its attraction is nonetheless empty. The recipient may not be certain there's something inside, but expects it and feels cheated, betrayed, and rightly so, since the giver knew what the other did not, yet let him go on believing.

Novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt, author of the craft book on writing called Unless It Moves the Human Heart, also believes in the importance of theme. Rosenblatt wrote the book as a composite of his classroom teaching experiences at Stony Brook University, yet what makes Human Heart worthwhile is not the variety of classroom experiences Rosenblatt describes, but the pearl he sends his students via email once the course is over. "For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world." Not an original thought, since the premise of the book is encapsulated in a quote from the poet A.D. Hope, "Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart," but well-said.

The underlying purpose of theme in general, and a theme that moves the human heart in particular, even in its ugliness, is that a work of greater depth, greater truth, has greater beauty and, thus, has the possibility of becoming art. Author and art historian H.R. Rookmaaker in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture said, "Beauty and truth are closely related. It is precisely in the truth of the portrayal of the demonic as demonic in, for instance, Grunewald's picture of the Temptation of St. Anthony … that we appreciate beauty." In the hands of masters, says Rookmaaker, "even ugly subjects became beautiful because of their love for it." Thus, "Love and beauty are closely related, just as love and freedom belong together—a forced love is not love, as many works of literature and poetry (if not life itself) have shown."

What theme are you developing in your current work?    

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Winter Moon and Rocky Ford Cantaloupe: Setting as Character in the Work of William Goyen

The fairy fields of William Goyen
On a recent visit to a cubbyhole of a bookstore, a bring and buy kind of place where books of every vintage are crammed into every space like odd bits in a junk drawer, I found a gem: Selected Writings of William Goyen.

Never heard of William Goyen? I hadn't either. That's the fun of old bookstores and finds like this. if you're looking to learn how to write setting, here's a writer who truly made it a character, as he did in his first novel, The House of Breath, published in 1950 and an elegy to growing up in Texas that begins thus:

"O Charity! Every frozen morning for awhile in early winter you had a thin little winter moon slung like a slice of silver Rocky Ford cantaloupe over the sawmill; and then I would go out to the well in the yard and snap off the silver thorns of ice from the pump muzzle and jack up the morning water and stand and look over across the fairy fields at you where you lay like a storybook town …"

There is everything right about this sliver of Goyen's work. Charity, akin to Goyen's hometown of Trinity, is personified in writing that's alive, vivid, evocative and detailed you can feel Charity like a presence in the room, as Goyen must have felt it. How many details in this portrait of a place can you find?