Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Rewrites and backstory February 5, 2011

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:45 pm
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I’m just about ready to start on my rewrites of Cady and Lock’s story. This is the story aimed that SuperRomance that I had a rejection for in December. Megan wrote-

“the plot relies too heavily on external forces and secondary characters to bring Cady and Lock together.
Everything that happens comes about because of actions taken by other people, not from any decision made by the hero and heroine. For this story to be successful, we’d need to see the characters be more proactive in their lives and their relationship instead of simply reacting to the other people around them.”

So I looked at ways to make the characters more goal driven, more proactive, and give them far higher stakes. I’ve spent the past week planning the story, trying to get good strong conflicts and character arcs.

The good news is, I think I have a handle on it. I feel like I really know the characters now. I hope I’ve made their conflict strong and believable. Apart from the inciting incident not externally driven at all. Cady and Lock are the ones making things happen. The structure seems solid. I have a plan that it virtually a synopsis, focused on their emotional growth and change and how this affects the relationship, not just a list of what happens.

The bad news is, there’s very little in the original first draft I can use. It was all discovery draft.

 *sigh* This is going to be a long process.

It feels as if I’m really starting from scratch again, except I’m not. I know the characters well, I know their backstories, I know why and how they hook into each other’s deepest internal issues. I know the things that get in the way of them having a relationship. I just hope I can write it!

Thinking of backstory, I read this excellent article today, especially relevent for me as my first draft is just loaded with backstory in internal monologue. One of the hazards of knowing my characters well, and them having a history together, which I know has to get the chop. I hope I’ll be brave enough to use his method to eradicate any remaining infodump when I edit up the next draft!

Presuppositions

One of the biggest problems I see in fiction manuscripts is a big glop of backstory in the first two or three chapters of the novel.

Every novelist who has ever committed this sin justifies himself by claiming that the backstory is necessary because otherwise the reader won’t know what’s going on.

This isn’t true. Readers don’t read your novel for your marvelous backstory. They read it to get immersed in your main story. Once you get them hooked on the story, they’ll begin to get interested in the backstory and u can start feeding it to them in small doses.

You may be thinking, “That’s great advice for everybody else, but I’m different. My story is different. My readers HAVE to know my backstory.”

The answer is yes, but.

Yes, you’re different. Yes, your story is different.

But your reader really doesn’t care that 35 years ago your main character Luke got beat up every day in kindergarten.

Your reader cares that RIGHT NOW Luke is peering through the sights of a sniper rifle. Which happens to be trained on the head of the state governor. Who happens to be 40 years old. Who happens to be a bully. Who happens to have gone to kindergarten with Luke.

NOW your reader cares just a wee bit about what happened way back when. But your reader still cares a whole lot more about Luke’s trigger finger than about his horrible childhood.

It’s true that your reader is going to need to know a little about your backstory. How do you provide that without losing momentum in your frontstory?

One way to do that is by inserting “presuppositions” into your sentences.

And just what exactly is a “presupposition?”

Loosely speaking, a presupposition is a statement that is implied by a sentence. If the cop asks, “Have you quit beating your wife?” there’s a presupposition that in the past you beat your wife.

A classic example of how presuppositions work in language is the following sentence, which Bertrand Russell analyzed many years ago:

“The present King of France is bald.”

Is the above sentence true or false?

Since France is a republic, there is no present King of France, so the sentence can hardly be true.

But is it false? If it were false, would it be true that the present King of France has a full head of hair?

Obviously not. Russell pointed out that this sentence carries along with it some unspoken presuppositions:
* France has at least one king
* France has no more than one king

When you say that the King of France is bald, you are also implicitly asserting these presuppositions, and the combination of the three statements is false because they aren’t all true.

Some people would say that it’s simply meaningless to say “The present King of France is bald.”

But if you were watching a movie set in 1753 France, and if one of the actors said, “The King of France is bald,” everybody would know exactly what he meant.

Context matters. Presuppositions imply context. And another word for “context” is “backstory.”

Now here’s the point for fiction writers. Many of the sentences you write in your novel carry along with them certain presuppositions. When your reader reads your work, she unconsciously analyzes those presuppositions and makes conclusions about your Storyworld and the backstories of your characters.

When Han Solo brags about his ship in the original STAR WARS movie, for example, he says, “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

Here are some presuppositions which are implicit in this line:
* The Millennium Falcon is famous
* The Kessel Run is long or treacherous or both
* A parsec is a unit of time
* Twelve parsecs is an excellent time for the Kessel Run

Notice that these presuppositions may be false (parsecs are units of distance) but they still tell us something about Han Solo and the world he lives in. Solo is not only egotistical, but he’s also sloppy in his use of language.

Writers constantly try to explain too much. This is true for the greenest novices and the most advanced experts, and it provides unending employment for editors, who earn their keep by scrawling “Resist the Urge to Explain” in the margins.

How do you fix things when you’re explaining too much?

The first step is to cut out the backstory. (Don’t throw it away. Save it to another document so you’ll have a record of it. Then delete it from your main story. Yes, all of it.)

The second step is to look for those places in your story that are now confusing to your reader because she lacks some essential context — some piece of backstory. Insert ONLY the fragment of backstory that your reader needs in order to make sense of the story.

One way to do that is to imply a chunk of backstory by rewriting a frontstory sentence so that it now contains a few well-chosen presuppositions.

Your reader is smart. When she reads a sentence that carries presuppositions, she immediately assumes these presuppositions are true and are part of your backstory. If she knows or learns that these presuppositions aren’t actually true, then she concludes that your character is unreliable.

We’ve already seen how George Lucas used a few presuppositions to characterize Han Solo. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how other writers have done it.

Here’s the beginning paragraph of a scene in ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card, in which we meet Ender Wiggin:

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of that horrid monitor. Well I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”
This only makes sense if the following presuppositions are true:
* Ender is a fairly young boy
* He’s had a monitor installed for quite a long time
* The monitor is unpleasant to wear
* Ender has had some painful medical procedures before
* Monitors are managed by a bureaucracy

We can also deduce from all of these that the story is set in the future.

Card could have told us all those things and a whole lot more about the history of monitors and why they’re necessary and thereby slowed down the story. Instead, he let us figure out only what we need to know right now. With presuppositions.
Here’s an example from the opening two paragraphs of THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.
The first paragraph carries with it this presupposition:
* More than one camel has died already

The second paragraph has these presuppositions:
* The owner of the camel is a lone man
* He is no longer in Gialo
* He is familiar with camels

We can also deduce that the owner of the camel is making a long and dangerous journey across the desert. This isn’t a presupposition, but it follows pretty readily from the presuppositions and from the first sentence.

Presuppositions are useful because they let you say more with fewer words. That is a worthy goal for any novelist.
 
If you’d like to see some more examples of how presuppositions work, check out the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositions

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 24,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Another blog I’ve been reading  a lot this week is one Janet commented about- Plot to Punctuation. I liked this series on Revising Character in particular, and his stuff on character arc is very good.

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3 Responses to “Rewrites and backstory”

  1. Caroline Storer Says:

    Fascinating stuff! Writing is never easy is it? Caroline x

  2. Minka's Tail Says:

    I read a book the other day where this was the back story: a poor woman was orphaned, raised by a rich family, had a crush on the son, the daughter didn’t get along with the mother, she ran away and became a secret jewelry designer, had an affair but he married someone else and really just wanted a rare diamond that she had, had another affair to get revenge on the mother, who had made the poor girl her unpaid servant.

    There really was no front story for the first 200 pages! All the characters did (besides the requisite sex scene) was sunbathe, go to a few parties and have conversations with each other about the back story, where they explained to each other why they allowed themselves to become unpaid servants or ran away or whatever. But the author has written several best-selling books, so I guess she doesn’t need to follow those rules, LOL!

  3. I know there are many published books that don’t follow these rules, but they would be better books if the author was brave enough to cut some of the unessential things. Good for you for not settling for a story interrupted by infodump.

    Thanks for the links, too.!


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