Orchestrating Impact

The Concert, by Theodoor RomboutsGetting Under the Shell:

“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron

If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.

The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.

Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now addingSuit of Armor flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.

So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.

But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.

Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:

“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)

So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.

Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”

Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.

Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.

I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:

“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
…” ~Paul Simon

Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.

But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!

What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?

Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo

Backstory—Fiction’s Foundation

The Present, by Thomas Cole (1838)Ignorasphere: Know where it is? Trust me, if you’re trying to give life to a story, it’s not a good place to dwell. Your story won’t be able to breathe well there.

Very early in the process of outlining the story for my historical fantasy trilogy, I ran into a problem. I tried to ignore it, but turns out I couldn’t. I set out to write a story about a young man struggling to cope with his destiny, and a young warrior-woman assigned to be his guardian. But I kept tripping over the fact that his destiny, and the reasons for her assignation, were rooted in what had already happened. They were a product of their world, and its past. I kept telling myself it was simple stuff, which had to do with his father. I wanted to simply move ahead with the story, so I wrote side-notes like: “His father was a rogue chieftain—a raider who conquered a nearby port city.” And to fit the story as I progressed, I would add things like: “His father married his mother purely for political gain.” And, “His father’s followers are still living in the conquered city, and my protagonist has had no contact with them.” And so on. All in an effort to move on.

But notes like these only led to more questions, such as: Why was he a ‘rogue’ chieftain? Why was he raiding? Who originally lived in the port city? What would impede contact between the chieftain’s followers and the son? And on and on. The story just would not properly unfold without knowing more. It couldn’t breathe in the ignorasphere.

Turns out I couldn’t ignore the past.

Fomenting Forefathers: My muse demanded answers. So I started working backward. I named the father (as I explain here, I always start with the names). And I dug into researching my world, and began the process of world-building (which I’ve written about here). Fortunately, I’d already decided that I wanted to base my story in the world of the Germanic Tribe of the Goths during the fall of the Roman Empire. Since the Goths had two ruling clans, and basically split into two subgroups (the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths) during this era, I decided my MC’s father could’ve been the catalyst figure for the coming of this fracture. The son then quickly became ‘he who was born of both ruling clans.’ Of course prophesies are often wrapped around such figures, right? Wheels were spinning now. It was destiny! (Sorry, got carried away there, but such thoughts are good fodder for characters who believe in fate, right?)

Excavate and Lay the Footings First: Forgive the metaphor, but I’m a builder as well as a writer. And I knew I wanted to build something substantial with my story ideas. Every builder knows that to build something solid and lasting, you start with sound footings laid on good groundwork. The process of prepping the groundwork and laying the footings for my trilogy took about a year. I started with research and note-taking, and then named the people and places and drew my maps. Only then could I start laying the foundation, block by block. The backstory foundation took about another year, outlining and writing snippets of prose, often finding problems and going back to insert new elements or correct existing ones. And even though I knew these early blocks would be below the surface, they still had to be level and true. Only after I had a solid foundation could I begin to build my story.

World Without Beginning: You might be wondering how far back one must delve. I suppose it depends on the story. It might only require knowing a protagonist’s childhood. For my purposes, I went back and hashed out my protagonists’ parents’ generation, and their doings and deeds. Much later, after I finished a draft of my trilogy, and while I was going through a first round of submissions, I decided to start another project. I was really interested in further exploring the backstory, particularly the story of the father of the trilogy’s protagonist. How did he become a rouge raider? Sort of like how George Lucas Anakin Darth morphwent back to explore Darth Vader, but without any annoying Gungans or (hopefully) any wooden dialog.

Know what I found out? That’s right—I had to dig back even further. Turns out my protagonist’s grandfather had a sketchy past. There was a love-triangle, an accidental death, accusations of murder. Yep, the angst between my Goth’s two ruling clans has a long, tangled, and bloody history. Just goes to show, no story can exist in the ignorasphere. I’m glad I did it, as I feel it only added richness and depth to subsequent revision work on the trilogy.

What’s It Worth? Besides freeing your work from the ignorasphere, allowing it to breathe and grow, there are a lot of other advantages to a thorough exploration of backstory. For example:

*Enhanced Ambiance—For me, writing epic historical fantasy, I was interested in creating a legendary feel for the world of my story. Careful placement of historical tidbits throughout not only added shading, but color and mood to my story. For other genres and types of stories, backstory might add another ambiance, such as one of technological advancement for science fiction, or desolate isolation for a dystopian.

*Instinctual Context—If you know your world and its past inside and out, you more instinctively sense how your characters will react to situations. This is something WU contributor Lisa Cron refers to as avoiding character amnesia in a great post here. Having an understanding of each character’s beliefs and cultural mores gives you a firmer grasp on their internal and external motivations. Knowing the context of the conflicts, from all angles, gives your scenes a natural tendency toward authenticity.

*Elevated Stakes—A comprehensive exploration of backstory often reveals an enhancement of the stakes. Your protagonists have immediate conflicts, but these may impinge upon the larger picture in ways that raise the stakes. For example, my two Gothic clans are in conflict, which affects my protagonist in an immediate way. But by knowing the backstory I realized the bigger picture, that the Goths faced annihilation at the hands of a looming Roman military behemoth. If my protagonist fails to solve this inter-clan conflict, his people may face enslavement or extinction.

*Bigness—The concept is from a Donald Maass WU post, here. And I believe knowing the backstory gives you a leg up on achieving it. In the post, Don says, “In big fiction the main protagonist generally has several big things going on (plot layers, in my terminology), and a couple of minor problems too. One or more of the major POV characters also is on a personal journey. Think of this as an emotional sub-plot, such as a wound that needs healing. This inner need can generate as much plot as external problems.” Several of my secondary characters’ personal journeys came to light through backstory exploration. I also gleaned much of the nature of my protagonist’s inner journey, as well as the motivations and goals of my antagonists, through that exploration. If I achieved any level of bigness at all, it came largely through grasp of backstory.

IcebergIceberg Warning: A writing friend told me about Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory–the analogy of backstory being like an iceberg, with only the tip visible from the surface. In other words, you can’t show it all to the reader. I like that, but perhaps my iceberg would be magically levitating as the reader progresses, with more and more readily apparent as they go. Much of what you discover and know may never break the surface, but it will have given your story buoyancy nonetheless.

I believe backstory will give your story context, complexity, and authenticity, making it a richer and more deeply involving experience for your readers. But care must be taken. Reveal backstory only as it becomes necessary. Lay the proper foundation, but always keep your story front and center. Stay out of the ignorasphere. Use backstory to shade and add nuance to your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Whether you’re building an epic trilogy like me, or a contemporary standalone, through the thorough grasp and judicious use of backstory, we can build a substantial story and strive for Bigness.

How do you chart backstory? Have you ever experienced epiphanies or story enhancements through exploring backstory? Do tell. 

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_14533949_iceberg-floating-in-blue-ocean-global-warming-concept.html’>anterovium / 123RF Stock Photo</a>