Tag Archives: back-story

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion. Continue reading

In Service to the Story

This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.

Shadowy figure2For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.

She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.

So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.

 

Photo credit: mrhayata

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery. Continue reading

Bringing in the back-story

For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest.  We hold a large, quiet party.  Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.

Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene.  Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.

The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in.  Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area:  introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.

Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should.  But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.