Welcome to the ABCs of Fiction Writing!
We’re moving right along to the letter B. And B is for Backstory, Bodies, and Books.
Backstory is what happens to your character or characters before the story starts. It’s basically everything from conception up to the point when they enter the stage of your book.
I think a good and very famous example of backstory is right there in the Star Wars franchise. You have the original three movies, where you’re introduced to a truly evil, iconic bad guy (Darth Vader.) Then, a generation later, you get the backstory in another trilogy. Watchers get to watch Darth Vader grow up, fall in love, lose his mind. All of that, everything that happened in movies 1-3 is backstory for movies 4-6.
You obviously don’t have to (nor should you) put all of your backstory into your book. But you should know. If your hero is afraid to fall in love, you should know why, even if it doesn’t make it into the story. If your hero’s best friend follows her around like a puppy dog, you need to know why. If your villain can’t stand to see women hurt, you need to know why.
Pick a character. Now pick a quirk. It can be anything that makes your character unusual. Have they eaten Corn Flakes every morning for breakfast? Do they have insomnia? Have they lived alone since they were seventeen?
Now write the backstory for that quirk. It can (and really should) just be a few paragraphs. A page, tops. A couple of sentences is fine.
One of the things that is the easiest to get caught up with in writing is describing your characters. Especially point-of-view characters. A mistake I see pretty often is dropping an info dump when a new character is introduced. Like this:
Hannah had long blonde hair. She was short and squat and all that hair made her look like a Sasquatch, though. She’d refused to cut her hair, though, because her mother had told her that short hair would make her face look fatter–and it stuck. Her best feature was her eyes. They were blue-green, an oceanic color that would have been attractive if anyone ever saw past her hair.
So, see what we have there? A big block of exposition. A whole lot of telling. And if you’ve been deep in Hannah’s POV, this pulled you right out. Because it’s very unlikely that Hannah herself is sitting there having this thought in the moment of the story.
I mean. Who thinks of their own eyes as oceanic?
There are a couple of things you can do to make this better.
- Only give character description when absolutely necessary. Don’t go crazy. Let the reader use their imagination.
- Give description as part of scene, instead of exposition when you can.
Here’s how that might work in this case.
“Let me cut your hair.”
Hannah stopped dead, a hair brush halfway through her waist-length hair. “What?”
“I’m serious. You could probably sell it. Some chick with platinum extensions would pay a fortune.”
“I’m not letting you cut my hair.”
Shannon shook her head. “Why not? You’d look fantastic.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Yes, you would.”
Hannah went back to brushing. The sun streaming in her bedroom window caught the white blonde strands. “Short hair makes your face look fatter.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“My mom says so.”
“You’re mom’s crazy. You’re too short for all that hair. It makes you look like a Sasquatch.”
Hannah put her brush down. “Jesus, Shannon.”
“I’m sorry. You know I’m kidding. But serious, let me cut your hair. It would make your eyes look fantastic.” Shannon came up behind her, bent down and wrapped her arms around Hannah’s shoulders, looked at her through the mirror in front of them. “I wish I had eyes like yours. They’re the color of the ocean when we went to Jamaica last year.”
I just spit that out, but you get what I’m talking about, right? Now, not only do we know that Hannah has long hair that’s too much for her frame and ocean blue eyes, but we learn more about her. She’s got a blunt friend who means well (maybe?) and that her vanity is warring with her mother’s advice.
Pick a character and write a scene where you reveal something about their appearance without exposition.
Stephen King said: If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.
Here’s how I interpret that: If you have certain amount of time set aside for writing everyday, you need to chunk some of it to reading. It’s part of your work. It’s part of your business.
You cannot be the best writer you can be if you’re not reading. Period.
You just can’t.
I’m going to talk about reading more generally when we get to R, but I want to talk to you today about books–specifically building a writing craft library.
I’m going to share what’s in my personal craft library with you, but it’s personal. You might have other favorites and that’s okay.
My advice is to try to read at least one craft book a month. Do the exercises. Apply what you’re learning to your work. Don’t just skim, is what I’m saying. My list will get you through the first year.
Here’s my library:
Pick a writing craft book. Get your hands on it (paper or digital, but hopefully in some form that you can keep for your personal library.) Read it. Do the exercises. Really ingest it and apply what you’re learning in your own work.
Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!
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Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook. It can help to get feedback from other writers.
Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.
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