Writing Tips: Revealing the Secrets of the Past

This is part four of a series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
  2. Raise questions that the reader wants answered
  3. Provide a goal for the protagonist
  4. Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
  5. Set the physical scene with only essential details
  6. Begin building a bridge to the back story
  7. Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
  8. Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure

To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See first post), and we are now on #6.

6. Begin building a bridge to the back story: Every story has a back story, that is, the events that occurred before the opening line. When your story begins, the preceding events are a mystery to the reader, some of which the reader needs to know in order to fully understand the main story.

Many writers choose to begin the story at an intriguing point as a way to hook readers, then they proceed to fill in the back story by dumping a load of information all at once. This method halts the main story and frustrates readers. They wonder, “What happened to the intriguing part? I want to read what happens next.”

Such shenanigans by authors is like breaking a promise. We baited the readers with intrigue, then slung the story back to another time and/or place. If the back story is so important that we have to provide the details all at once, then we should have started the story at another point.

A better option is to begin the story in the protagonist’s ordinary world right before a crisis event (to be explained in a later post), and provide clues to the back story while continuing the main story. These clues are dropped one by one (my students and I call it dropping popcorn), and readers collect the clues and put them together to recreate the back story, like bricks that build a bridge to the history setting and personal backgrounds.

In the Reapers example, the early clues are subtle. “Someone in my territory” indicates that the protagonist has a territory to oversee. The city must be divided into sections. Why? Later clues will provide the answer.

“I could take the time to collect her” indicates that Reapers have a feeling of responsibility to collect ghosts. This is likely part of their duty.

As the story progresses, we provide more and more clues until readers are able to put them all together. This is hard work, much harder than simply dumping all of the information at once, but it is better storytelling.

One of the difficulties we encounter is how to provide clues in a subtle fashion without creating contrivances, that is, clues that seem forced for the sole purpose of providing readers with information.

Some writers create a conversation between characters, and the dialogue provides the back-story information. This is called dialogue dumping, and it can halt a story just as surely as can narrative dumping. It can also look much worse, because such dialogue usually comes across as forced and unnatural.

For example:

“Your battle armor looks splendid, my king,” Sir John said. “It reminds me of the previous war in which you won a great victory over the Wolfkin and established our expanded borders.”

The king nodded. “Indeed. Because of that conquest, I am now sovereign over the seven species of sentient creatures. We are now at peace with all but the Wolfkin, and now we go to ensure that the border stays where it is.”

This is an ugly example of contrived dialogue that attempts to inform the reader of back story elements. These two men would never have this discussion, because they both already know these facts.

This is an extreme example, but I hope you can see the principle. Try to avoid any dialogue that is information driven and would not be spoken under the circumstances.

Good back-story bridge building includes providing hints that come across as natural and non-intrusive. They feel like part of the story, and readers pick up on them almost without thinking, and the bricks come together without effort and without halting the main story.

Next week we will continue with the list of elements to provide in the opening – #7 Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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This is #4 in a series of posts about the protagonist’s ordinary world. Here are all of the posts in the series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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12 replies

  1. This is really pretty true. Sadly, I believe I have read some books that were as bad as the horrible examples for revealing character back story, which of course is probably why I never finished reading those books.

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  2. In a piece I am working on, I have my character have a triggered memory flash; and even tough it seems to work pretty well, the switch is a little choppy. How could I clean it up a little? Or would you avoid memory triggers all together?

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    • If a memory is triggered early on, it’s okay, but it’s best if it’s short. If you need a long memory, then wait as long as possible, then show it in real time as I did in the most recent installment of The Scent of Her Soul this past Tuesday. Just describing the memory feels like you’re halting the story, while showing it in real time feels like the story is progressing.

      The choppiness might occur because of poor transitioning. I would have to see it to be able to evaluate that aspect.

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  3. When you say ‘show it in real time’ are you referring to when the ‘guardian angel’ character dreamed about the past event? I assume that doing it in that fashion allows you to give a minor info dump, while letting the story keep the same pacing. Is that right?

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    • Rex, that is exactly what I mean. Yet, you should be confident that the reader has been sufficiently hooked before risking even this kind of info dump. That’s why I counsel avoiding it real early.

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  4. I’ve been trying to follow all of the wonderful advice you give on your blog and many others out there. How do you keep all of these vital elements straight while writing? Each paragraph seems a bit overwhelming.

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    • Wendy, it can be overwhelming, and there is much, much more to come. Writing well isn’t easy. It took me 20 years to learn all of the techniques I use now. Just take it all in as you are able and practice as much as you can.

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  5. Good post, Mr. Davis. ^ ^ Adding little hints to backstory is much funner than dumping to me.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

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