Category Archives: story

Nothing but the tooth

So I had a plan for the week that’s just ended. It was to go to New Zealand on Tuesday morning, spend the next three days conducting day-job-related meetings, spend the evenings working on Raven’s Blood in my hotel room and then to fly back on Saturday afternoon.

Instead, this happened:

Yes, my skull turned blue and transparent and a red light flashed in my jaw.

No, wait, I mean I got a toothache. A REALLY FUCKING BAD TOOTHACHE, YOU GUYS. So bad that I couldn’t sleep or focus on writing; so bad I had to cut the trip short and come back on Thursday night. Fortunately my doctor was able to fit me in on Friday morning and I got a root canal. Which are not very much fun, but better than losing your mind due to constant pain.

Ah well. Life goes on.

But this is a writing blog, not LiveJournal, so how can this experience be used in a story? Well, the obvious answer is a story about toothache, but BORING AND ALSO OUCH. I’m more interested in the derailing aspect – the idea of a story cruising along as intended until some outside influence comes into the narrative.

I mean, sure, you could just write it that way – a sudden interruption and then you return to the plot – but that’s not the way to go. As a reader and editor, I don’t like extraneous material in a story; if an event or character or situation doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the story, it doesn’t belong there. Real life has stuff that just happens, but the whole point of fiction is that it’s not real life, even when it pretends to be.

So what are some ways to make something like this work to improve the story?

Let’s say that you’re writing an urban fantasy story in which Con Johnstantine, Greek occult investigator, is looking into a case of crotch goblins manifesting in people’s pants.

…hmm. Possibly the painkillers are still fucking with me. But let’s roll with it.

Okay, so there are crotch goblins and Con is on the case, but in chapter 6 he gets a massive goddamn toothache and needs a root canal. Here are five ways to work that kind of left-field event into the story and make it feel not only relevant but meaningful to the overall narrative.

Delaying tactic

Con is on the case and close to a break-through, but then the toothache knocks him for a loop for three days/pages. When he recovers, it’s too late, and Shit Has Got Real – the crotch goblins are rampaging across the entire city! External distractions and problems can be good obstacles to put in a protagonist’s path to slow them down and raise the tension. They’re especially useful because they don’t damage the character’s perceived competence – Con didn’t let things escalate because he’s a bad occult detective, he just got sidelined by something that could happen to anyone.

Subplot

Con goes to see the dentist, putting the case safely on hold for a while. He strikes up a friendship with a dental technician, and perhaps will learn to love again, but then she gets possessed by the crotch goblins and the tragedy renews his determination to rid the world’s underpants of evil. To be honest, I don’t love subplots – unless you’re working in a strongly compartmentalised milieu like TV or comics, I generally find them distracting. Stay focused on the core story, rather than noodling around the edges! But an exemption can be made for subplots that illustrate points of character or personality, or let them develop in ways that the main plot probably wouldn’t allow.

Key subplot

Better yet, have the subplot lead into plot points that directly impact the core storyline. Even dulled by anaesthetic, Con realises that novocaine would be a useful weapon against the crotch goblins. He grabs a case of it from the dentist’s after chatting up the dental technician and uses it to take out most of the goblins before fighting their king, David Bowie. This is more satisfying because the diversion means something concrete; on the other hand, you shouldn’t make the subplot an absolutely vital part of the story’s outcome. A secondary plot should help overcome a secondary obstacle, not the primary obstacle.

Parallel plot

Con thought crotch goblins and toothache were problems enough – until he realised that the dental technician was in fact the Tooth Fairy, hidden in witness protection and being hunted by the Toothpaste Mafia! Now he has to protect his new love and the city while manoeuvring his two enemies into wiping each other out in a riot of mouthwash and underwear. This is the classic A-plot/B-plot structure used in many a book (including The Obituarist) and it’s a great way of adding depth to a story without muddying the waters of a single narrative. Swap from one to the other, using the moves to control pace and tension, and then bring them together at the end.

Swerve

Hah! You thought this book was about crotch goblins! But no, it’s all about Con and the Tooth Fairy fighting King Colgate and his army of floss demons, ready to crack open the dentures of all reality! The goblins were just a fake-out, and Con can clean them up with a holy water douche in the denouement or epilogue or something. This kind of bait-and-switch can piss off readers who get invested in the fake-out early, but if you’re careful with it you can use it as a form of world-building; it gives the strong impression that there are many equally valid concerns in the world that the protagonist must deal with, rather than just one cah-RAZY problem.

So whether your story’s about crotch goblins or academic intrigues or just too many hot dudes wanting the protagonist’s number, there are ways to throw a wrench into the works and still make it feel organic and meaningful, rather than tacked on.

Just be sure not to hit me in the face when you throw that wrench. My gums are still pretty tender.

In other news, I turned 42 yesterday. Whoo! It was a somewhat muted celebration, as I’m still not in great shape from the root canal, but I’m having a proper party next weekend.

If you feel like giving me a present, consider the gift that keeps on giving – a positive review of one of my ebooks over on Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords or anywhere else that people might see it. Come on, folks, this dental work isn’t going to pay for itself!

…man, what if dental work could pay for itself somehow? There’s a story in that. A squicky one.

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.

The rape less travelled

So everyone’s talking a lot about rape lately.

That’s kind of a weird thing to kick off with, isn’t it? But it’s true, at least in gaming circles. Much as speculative fiction grappled with depictions of race and culture a few years ago in the RaceFail 09 debacle, gaming (video, RPG, whatever) seems to be hitting a period where parts of the fanbase are (quite justifiably) finding fault in their preferred media.

In this case, it’s female gamers (and their male allies, of course) speaking out about depictions of women in games. Which they’ve done for a long time, because a lot of games depict women in really fucked-up ways, from lesbian sex ninjas to big-titted prizes for male characters to win. Other games depict women in much better ways, and indeed in really interesting and effective ways, but it’s the shitty depictions that get the attention – and rightly so.

And all of that has pretty much been horses for courses for ages, enough so that game companies seem to think we’ll be bored with standard, easy misogyny and are instead playing the rape card to get our hearts started.

The tipping point for the explosion of discussion on this seems to be the new Tomb Raider game, of all things, a prequel in which we learn how Lara Croft learned how to do flawless backflips while wearing Daisy Dukes. But because the notion of a capable female protagonist is just crazy talk, this prequel casts Lara as a vulnerable Other that gamers will want to shepherd and protect rather than embody or empathise with. Lara is just a weak girl, and players must look after her as she’s beaten, brutalised, starved, kidnapped and threatened with rape. Screw up and she dies; make a mistake and she is raped and killed. And then you reload and she’s fine and you can try again.

Man, that game sounds fan-fucking-tastic, don’t it? Because the best way to pave the way for an escapist adventure where you shoot dinosaurs and explore a wardrobe of belly shirts is to drop us off at Rape Camp for a spell first.

One of these things is not like the other

Reaction to this has been largely negative – imagine that – and the game’s producers have started backpedalling so hard they’re running the Tour de France in reverse, but the important thing is that it’s really kickstarted a discussion about rape culture in gaming. And kickstarted a whole pile of rape threats to any woman talking about rape culture in gaming, of course, because the human race is awful.

(If you’d like to read more on these topics, I recommend this excellent article by Daniel Golding, which talks both about the problems with gaming culture and how we can perhaps work to understand it as a product of the general culture. Seriously, check it out.)

And while this is all happening in the world of videogaming, it’s also cropping up in the smaller, less visible but equally problematic world of roleplaying, which also has a long and storied history of treating women as Scary Vagina Mutants and rape as just one of those things us fellas can joke about with impunity. The uptick in women saying ‘hey, this is shit’ and games pushing the rape button for attention is smaller there, but it still exists, and the waves being caused by the videogame discussion are lapping against the dicey shores and kicking over rocks.

Under one of those rocks lives James Desborough, creator of ‘hilarious’ ‘games’ such as Hentacle and The Slayer”s Guide to Female Gamers, which are every bit as charming as they sound. His attempt to cash in on the outrage women feel about being objectified and othered was to write an essay called ‘In Defence of Rape’, in which he says that ‘rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element’. I won’t put in a link to that, because – and I want to say this in as professional and dignified a manner as I can – Desborough is a piece of ambulatory dogshit shaped like a man. He’s a noxious, pathetic failure of a person who’s built a ‘career’ out of publishing games that objectify and demean women, that glorify and trivialise sexual assault, and that present the most egregious kinds of misogyny under the argument that ‘it’s just a joke, don’t take it seriously’. If you want to see an indepth takedown of his pathetic ‘argument’, there’s a terrific essay over at MightyGodKing that does just that.

Rather than an image of any of this awfulness, please enjoy this photo of the Dalai Lama hugging a penguin

(Also, I’m sure that during his regular egosurfing Desborough will find this blog and leave a bullshit comment, and I’ll delete it and block him, just as I’ve deleted and blocked his bullshit comments on other social media platforms in the past, and he’ll cry martyrdom and censorship to his rape-is-awesome fanbase and they’ll talk about how terrible I am while rubbing their dicks. This is a dance that has happened before. It is a dance that will happen again. Like the Macarena, but one dancer is a piece of dogshit.)

There’s a lot of back and forth about Desborough, his works, roleplaying’s attitude to rape and all of that happening on various gaming forums right now, as well as petitions, flamewars, accusations of censorship and the like on other platforms like Google + and Facebook. People are angry. That’s possibly a good thing, because anger can motivate people to get things done. Or it can motivate them to scream and snipe at each other on the internet for the foreseeable future. We’ll see which happens.

But in any event, there’s a quick (!) précis of what’s been going down in the world of gaming and discussions of rape.

Fun times.

But although I occasionally discuss gaming because I love games so goddamn much, this is primarily meant to be a blog about writing. So what about rape in fiction? Should writers censor themselves and shy away from the topic? Should it be taboo? Or should they view it as a ‘fucking awesome plot element’?

Many writers have used rape well as a meaningful and important event in their novels and works, from William Shakespeare to Alice Sebold. And many more writers have used rape for cheap stakes-raising and shock value, or as a clumsy and trite tool to motivate female characters who can only be defined by their femininity and by ‘overcoming’ it through trauma. And, obvious bigot and censorship lover than I am, I think a writer who views fictional rape as ‘fucking awesome’ is unlikely to write the next Lovely Bones or Titus Andronicus.

What to write instead? Well, here’s a great quote from author John Perich (whose book Too Close to Miss is on my Kindle and waiting to be read):

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.

If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much.

(As Perich says, this is an exaggeration, but it’s an effective and useful one.)

All of this is particular interest to me because I’m writing two books right now that star female protagonists, and young female protagonists at that. I want to cast those young women as interesting and flawed characters who overcome trials and their own weaknesses to find victory, albeit in very different kinds of stories, and in a way that engages, rather than alienates or upsets, both male and female readers.

Here are things that happen to Gwen in Arcadia:

  • Struggling to tell fantasy from reality
  • Becoming homeless
  • Making really bad decisions that hurt herself and others
  • Unrequited love
  • Reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time
  • Being chased through Melbourne’s alleyways by a private detective
  • Failing to protect that which she loves most
  • Doing everything she can to make it right again

Here are things that happen to Kember in Raven’s Blood:

  • Getting arrested for sedition
  • Trying to repair her relationship with her father
  • Uncovering the truth about a vanished masked avenger
  • Fighting golem-men, giant snakes and other monsters
  • Nearly drowning
  • Running across rooftops
  • Dealing with tragedy and loss
  • Taking up the mantle of a fallen hero

Here are the things that won’t happen to either character:

  • Getting raped
  • Being threatened with rape

These are stories that involve physical and emotional danger and turmoil, and I want to make that danger and turmoil exciting and gripping. But taking rape out of my repertoire doesn’t do much to stop me telling the stories I want to tell and to (hopefully) make those stories exciting and emotionally engaging. Hell, it doesn’t do a goddamn thing to my work.

In the end, writers have the right to use rape as a device in their stories. And if they exercise that right, they then have the responsibility to exercise it well, with sensitivity and care and for powerful emotional effect, rather than using it for cheap, visceral pops. When they succeed, it should be acknowledged; when they fail, it should be discussed; when they don’t even try to do it right, they should be criticised and possibly even condemned. (Certainly if they’re arsenuggets like James Desborough.)

For my part, though, I think I’ll just avoid it, because I don’t see a need for it in the stories I’m currently writing and those I’m planning to write.

(I may have a future idea that requires addressing rape, sure; I get lots of ideas, and maybe Future Me will come up with a story that demands a careful and responsible depiction of sexual violence and its consequences. Past Me did that once, after all; the short story ‘Godheads’ (in the anthology of the same name) includes sexual violence, although it’s in the past and mentioned only obliquely without being described. But I don’t see it happening for a good long time, and if it does I’ll try my hardest to explore it sensitively – and if I find I can’t, I’ll change my idea into something that works better.)

To summarise:

Can rape be used as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Absolutely.

Could I use rape as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Possibly.

Am I going to use rape in my books? No, because I don’t fucking want to. And I think that’s a reasonable desire for myself or for any other writer.

(Yes, this is the point of the whole post. Because why use 40 words when I can use nearly 2000?)

None of that makes me Internet Writing Jesus or the most sensitive and loveable of all dudes, of course. Saying ‘hey, I don’t plan on writing about rape’ only clears the bar of Things Worth Saying because that bar is set so goddamn fucking low that even snails have to hump their amorphous butts over it. But yet some trails of slime still manage to go under the bar, and we find awful toerags like Desborough at the other end, extruding shit from their keyboards, so there is at least a little bit of value in saying that.

Which is kind of sad in and of itself, to be honest.

I can’t turn it off

So we went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows a couple of nights ago. It was decent, if not amazing; it was more a straightforward action-adventure movie than a mystery, and the script was crammed with obviously deliberate Holmes-on-Watson shipping subtext, but the pace was cracking and the characters interesting. I liked the first one more, but this was okay.

Afterwards, though, there was a post-movie -dinner conversation about the fate of one character who is killed off early in the film (no spoilers – well, unless you count ‘people die’ as a spoiler). Everyone found the death unsatisfying and a waste of an interesting character, and a number of my friends speculated that perhaps the character faked his/her death, and wasn’t really dead, and what had really happened was an elaborate ruse.

I came back with my standard response to this sort of thing: ‘Well, nothing ‘really’ happened. These are actors performing from a script, not real people, and nothing that’s not up on the screen is part of the narrative. Unless there’s a scene in which the death is shown to be a fake, there’s nothing else to say.’

And this makes me sound like a boor with a stick up my butt, I know. That may in fact be true. Lord knows I can be a humourless git at times. But what I’m trying to say that is when I read a book or see a movie or whatever, all I see is the text; all I see is what’s there in front of me. Because that’s the thing that actually exists, that can be analysed and understood and picked apart, that’s the thing that causes an intellectual/aesthetic/imaginative/indigestive reaction in me. It’s an artefact that can be understood and/or appreciated for its own beauty.

But for many readers, there is the urge to extrapolate, to imagine further; to see the book/story/movie as a window into another reality about which statements can be made. This is the fanfic urge, the worldbuilding urge; the urge to see implications, to imagine the unseen scenes between the ones on screen/the page, to see the text as a partial glimpse of something larger.

And it’s fundamentally an urge I don’t understand. And my inability to understand that desire and that state of mind – to see a text as reportage rather than artifice – is something I often wish I could overcome. I think I’m missing something, because to me the book is only ever words on a page. Hopefully smart, beautiful, well-chosen and properly-punctuated words, words that make my brain race as I stitch together imagery and meaning from them… but still, I can’t understand how you go outside the text, how you can ask whether what happened on the page/screen was what really happened.

Nothing really happened. Someone made it up. And I always feel that that’s a much more amazing and wondrous thing that the notion that the author/creator is someone just channelling a reality that exists somewhere else.

If you like to imagine books as windows into another reality, one that can be envisioned and then examined… honestly, I kind of envy you. That’s pretty cool. There are times when I’d like to turn off the constant analytic assessor in my head and believe, even if only for a second, even if only as a deliberate choice. But I can’t, and when conversations turn to that, I get a bit incomprehending and should probably learn to be quiet.

I have a similar mix of incomprehension about, for example JK Rowling’s claims that the character of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels is gay. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of them, but I did hear about this in the news on a slow day a few years ago.) As I understand it, when criticised for not including any gay characters, she said that Dumbledore was gay but that she chose not to include any signs or suggestions within the text that that was the case. But that’s fine, because the character has a reality, and this utterly-invisible reality is enough to deflect any criticism.

This is my Potter-truth

For me, that’s the same as saying that Dumbledore was actually an animated chocolate golem, or fought crime as Batman between novels. Sure, it never came up in print, but if he can be gay without, y’know, being gay, then my theory that Harry is actually a sackful of ferrets perfectly pretending to be a human being is just as valid, because that’s a reality that just doesn’t happened to be mentioned in the text. And yet, if I say that loudly at Potter conventions, suddenly I’m the guy escorted from the building by security and beaten up in an alley by Hermoine cosplayers. Again.

Mind you, saying that you can’t extrapolate from the text isn’t the same as saying there’s no such thing as subtext. Subtext is the foundation of meaning upon which a narrative rests; it’s not overt, but it’s still internal the text. Extrapolation, on the other hand, is external to the text; it’s the reader/viewer bringing their own desires to the material and reshaping the narrative to fit. Which is an interesting process, and it’s one I’d like to understand more, but it doesn’t seem to be doable. This is the way my head is, and I can’t turn it off; all I can do when I encounter a text is dissect it on its own terms. It can’t be real for me; it can only be a crafted object.

But on the flip side, there’s something great about taking books (and movies and plays and comics, yeah, but mostly books) on their own terms – as works of craft and art and imagination. For me, saying that all there is is what’s on the page isn’t a way of denigrating narrative, or saying that those who like to extrapolate are crazy/bad/wrong/Republican; it’s a way of celebrating the text and the act of creating it. Text is a joyous thing; text is what you get when a (hopefully) passionate, inspired writer sets out to create a thing of beauty. To celebrate it for what it is, rather than what it can be inferred to be, is no different than celebrating the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a work of great artistry, skill and technique, rather than as an accurate depiction of God and, um, whoever the other guy is. Is it Adam? That would make sense, I suppose. But I don’t need to know that in order to appreciate the power of the work, and I don’t think we need to act like a narrative is ‘real’ to still acknowledge its power and its worth.

Invention is more fun than extrapolation. If only so we can argue that it was the Potter-ferrets that faked their death to throw Sherlock off their trail.

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.

…yup.

You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.

Blah blah blah narrative blah

But it’s not all about kayaks and famous cats around here. Every now and then I remember to work on my writing, and then to write blog posts about writing. It’s like the circle of life.

Looking back over the posts I made about story and character, it struck me that I used the term ‘narrative’ a lot.

In fact, let’s not take my word for it – let’s evaluate the blog-to-date with everyone’s favourite tool for text analysis, Wordle!

I honestly thought FUCK would be much more prominent

Huh. The largest word is ‘like’. Either I’m a Valley Girl or I’m addicted to similes.

Anyway, among the various insights that can be gleaned from that image – including the fact that I mention Batman about as often as I mention the titles of my own ebooks – we can see that ‘narrative’ is one of the most frequent terms, certainly one of the top five. I talk about it a lot.

So what is it? Why use that word instead of something that’s basically synonymous, like ‘plot’ or ‘story’? Well, fairly obviously, because I don’t think those terms are synonymous; I think they’re very different things, or perhaps different levels of a complex and multi-layered thing, and I’d like to take a bit of time tonight to make it clearer about where I’m coming from.

The novelist/academic EM Forster broke down the difference between story and plot like this:

We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’

(Link and further analysis here.)

So a story is a linear set of events, and a plot is the means through which one event leads to the next. It’s not the only definition out there, and it’s not one everyone will agree with (I think it’s a bit simplistic myself), but let’s use it as the starting point for a discussion then.

So what’s narrative? Well, my personal definition – which is idiosyncratic and quite probably technically incorrect, but hey, it’s my blog – is that narrative is the communication of plot; it’s how you tell the story. Or, maybe more precisely, how the audience experiences the story – the interface they use to bring what was in the writer’s head into their heads.

If ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story, and ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot, then this is narrative:

  • Listen, and I will tell you a tale: Once upon a time there was a queen who loved her husband very much, so much that when he died her heart cracked wide in half, like a stone under a mason’s hammer

And so is this:

  • The autopsy revealed a congenital fault in Her Majesty’s lower left ventricle. This was apparently not detected during the routine check-ups she undertook before the King’s assassination. Suggestions that ‘her heart broke’ are obviously ridiculous.

And this:

  • Tomorrow I will die, and next winter I will return as a ghost, and my dear wife will bring all the castle crashing down with the broadsword of her grief, but today I know this not, and she is happy, and Hamlet who has yet to pour poison in my ear is happy, and my good brother is happy, and so am I, for one more day.

A list of events, whether linked by causality or not, isn’t something people read for fun or for knowledge. Narratives take that raw information and bind it up with voice, word choice, pacing, character, humour, pathos, swearwords and whatever else is required to make it something that captivates a reader and makes them care.

(This definition of narrative isn’t synonymous with ‘medium’, although there’s some overlap – the way in which you tell a story can incorporate the medium you use to tell it. But at the same time there’s huge narrative variation within a medium, so we may as well confine discussion to that bit of the diagram for the moment.)

It’s Polaroids all the way down

I can’t think of a better example of narrative versus plot versus story right now than the movie Memento. There’s a linear sequence of events there, as Leonard wanders around doing things almost at random as amnesiac whim takes him. That doesn’t make sense until you look at the plot layer, which explains the events and Leonard’s motivation and reasoning; you can see causality connect the dots back and forth through the sequence. But the narrative layer is where the brilliance of the film exists, the split between two time frames and time directions that throws the linear sequence out the window and makes the viewer do the work of puzzling it out despite the deliberate obfuscation being used. Take that layer out and Memento makes just as much sense – it’s just not anywhere near as interesting. Which is why I’ve always been staggered that the Memento DVD apparently offers viewers the option of reordering the scenes to watch the film in a linear sequence – if you want to watch a less-interesting Guy Pearce movie, eject the disc and watch The Time Machine. Although I guess that’s harder to market as a special feature.

That interface level of writing is what interests me most, both as a writer and a reader. Plot, story, character, place – yes, these are all important. But narrative is the tool (or the interlocking suite of tools) a writer uses to pick up those things and push them partway into the reader’s head – and, if used properly, the reader willingly pulls them in the rest of the way.

…yeah, okay, that’s a pretty weird image. Probably best if I don’t look for an image for that.

So that’s where I’m coming from, and that’s the angle I take pretty much every time I think/talk/write about writing. I hope it makes sense to you.

If it doesn’t, then maybe you have amnesia.

Never tell me the odds… er, backstory

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fictional characters are most interesting when they’re doing something.

And yet, there is a school of thought that says that a character needs backstory and background, and that a character who’s already done something is more interesting.

This school is wrong. This school is teaching that the Earth is flat, that 2 + 2 = ham and that Blade Trinity was a better film than Blade 2. (For god’s sake, people, Blade 2 had Ron Perlman and Blade Trinity had Triple-fucking-H. What are you huffing?) This school needs its teaching license revoked, and then the school buildings razed to the ground.

Entirely made of awesome
Entirely made of dicks

Ahem.

Anyway, having talked a bit about why backstory is bad for narrative, I’d like to move on to why it’s bad for characters in general. This comes, in part, from the Continuum panel on roleplaying and storytelling that I was on last month, where I ended talking a lot about how character influences play and shapes story, and about how the actions of characters in play is what drives a game. That left me thinking afterwards about character and how to portray it, and I’m going to write about that next weekend. This post is a bridge, taking us from the negativity of last week to the positivity of next week over the broad river of moderately-negative-but-not-that-much-honest. Well, okay, it’s pretty negative, but that’s just because I like writing the word ‘fuck’.

There are two reasons why backstory is poisonous for characters. First, it’s because backstory exists outside the narrative, as I ranted about last time. Events that happen before the current narrative can’t be experienced by the reader as part of that narrative – you either summarise them, which is boring (‘That was the week I saved the President and was awarded the Medal of Honour for a fourth time, Ginger!’), or you set up a second narrative stream to play them out, which pulls the reader from the narrative they actually want to explore (‘Before we defuse the bomb, let’s have a flashback to how I graduated from bomb defusing college!’). Both of these are tell-not-show errors, because you’re not demonstrating character within the narrative, you’re writing directly at the reader and dumping the information in their heads. And that’s boring.

The second reason, which is subtler, is that backstories don’t have conflict, and conflict – the need to meet and overcome obstacles to reach goals – is what drives stories. Backstories shunt conflict offstage so that those obstacles have already been overcome (or failed, I guess, though that’s vanishingly rare) before the narrative starts. And perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why gamers love backstory so much – it’s a way of setting up interesting conflicts for your character, with none of the uncertainty of whether they’ll actually have to work to overcome those problems. Same for writers, I think – working through a conflict can be hard and demands a strong development of character and story. It’s much easier to have them worked out ahead of time and present them to the reader, forgetting that what’s actually interesting about a conflict is the process of working through it, rather than the actual outcome. That’s why failure can make for a strong narrative, because exploring the process of that failure is way more readable than just learning about another success after the fact.

I’m not saying that every character should be a tyro, novice, farmboy or 1st-level adventurer (pick whichever description you like). Experienced characters are interesting because they carry with them the weight of authority and confidence, and can justify the skills and abilities they possess by dint of that experience. But they, like the farmboy, are starting this story at the beginning.

I'm cooler than the hero. That's my fucking backstory.

Look at one of genre’s most beloved characters, Han Solo – there’s an experienced character that shows off his skills and background from the moment he appears on screen, without the need to stop and tell us about how he learned them. When elements of his background come up, they’re story rather than backstory – he gets hunted by Jabba the Hutt and sold out by Lando Calrissian (shit, sorry, spoiler warning) within the narrative, rather than flashing back to the events or describing them in detail to other characters.  No, those conflicts got referenced briefly in story to create new conflicts that drove the current story – and then, I imagine, they got described in intricate and tedious detail in prequel novels that fans read out of duty. That’s what backstory leads to – prequel novels and fanfic. AND NO-ONE NEEDS THAT.

So how do you portray interesting, engaging, experienced characters without delving into (or ‘revealing’) backstory? Let’s talk about that next weekend.

If you agree, disagree, or want to tell me how awesome Han Solo and Hutt Girls Gone Wild was, get in there and leave a comment.

And if you want a double dose of me being opinionated out of all proportion to any intellectual authority I might possess, head on over to today’s LiveJournal post, where I talk at great and tedious length about Captain America comics, of all things.

Story now

Before I left Brisbane to move to Melbourne, I worked for about a year for a human resources subdivision of the state government. I worked with a bunch of people that were largely anonymous, a few that were fun to have a drink with, a racist slag and a gormless twat.

This post’s about the twat. And about writing. (Mostly writing.)

So the twat – I’d tell you his name, but I’ve forgotten it – wasn’t exactly unlikeable (unlike the racist slag), but he was a world-class shirker. We worked in two-week blocks; by the end of every second Wednesday, paperwork had to be processed and records updated so that people would get paid properly and on time. And every second Wednesday, there would be some reason why he couldn’t get things done, or couldn’t come in to work. He had the flu. His car broke down. He had to work on a special project. He peaked, frankly, the day where he faked hysterical blindness by 10am, saying that oh god he couldn’t SEE and had to go to the hospital. We went through his desk that afternoon and found months worth of unfinished jobs that the rest of the team had to rush through, and we heard through the grapevine that once out of the building, his vision was miraculously restored and he went to the pool instead.

You might think that he would have been fired after this event, but that’s not how the QLD public service worked at that time.

Anyway, despite all this, the twat was likeable enough, and one day we got to chatting about books and writing. He said he’d quite like to write a book someday, and that he’d read about what needed to be involved – premise, character, hooks, revelation of backstory etc. It was like hearing a parrot rattle off the Cliff Notes version of McKee’s Story, with no understanding that writing involved not just these mechanical elements, but also some skill, some imagination, and the dedication to sit down and actually write without calling in sick with a phantom pregnancy or something. I smiled, nodded, and eventually fucked the hell out of there and moved south.

However, one thing stuck with me from that interaction – the phrase ‘revelation of backstory’, and the notion that this was a necessary part of any work of fiction. Because it immediately pissed me off, and it still pisses me off. Which leads me into the actual point of today’s post.

Backstory sucks. There, I said it. And more than that, the presumption that backstory is somehow vital and necessary to a story, to the point where ‘revelation of backstory’ is something to be planned and meted out over the course of a novel, is something that makes me want to smash library windows. Genre is terribly prone to the narrative kudzu of backstory, usually in the variant form called ‘exposition’, but it can strike anywhere. And like a weed, it needs to be purged with fire.

Story is what’s happening now; what your characters are doing, what they want, where they’re going, how they’ll get there. Whether written in present or past tense, the story is the immediate moment of your narrative. It moves, it carries, it changes, and the reader goes with it. Backstory, on the other hand – the revelation of what the characters did before this point and what made them this way – is about what happened before and outside the story. It’s the past past tense, the stuff that’s gone before, and when you stick that into the story, you hit pause on your narrative and cut a hole in it that bleeds out energy and pace. Story goes forward; backstory stops, pulls you out, and robs you of interest in getting back into the flow again.

There are exceptions, of course, and stories that exist primarily as a way of exploring backstory, such as Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (perhaps his finest SF book). Those work because they embed the backstory within the narrative, rather than outside it. It’s also important to distinguish here between backstory and mystery. Backstories exist to illuminate or inform story; mysteries exist to be solved/explored as part of the story. Backstory is external to story; mystery is internal to story. Stories where the characters bring history to light, or investigate and solve mysteries that involve their history, are fine because that’s what the story is about.

Of course, it’s normal for a writer to feel that a character’s motivation and past are important, and that they need to be demonstrated. And these things are important, and should be demonstrated – in the story itself. A character’s actions and personality reflect and demonstrate who they are and where they come from far more than any infodump or flashback to three years earlier or their seminal childhood events. Backstory doesn’t do this; it doesn’t move things along, but provides justification and explanation of the narrative. And that sounds positive, but the narrative doesn’t need to be justified or explained, it needs to be experienced. It needs to move, not stop and ruminate on how it got here in the first place.

One of the decisions I made right at the start of Arcadia – my novel-in-progress, or more accurately in-stasis at the moment, but I plan to fix that – was to eschew backstory and its staggered revelation. The primary character’s upbringing and childhood are hugely important to her, and absolutely propel her into the start of the novel – but then that history ends, and the story is about what she does now and the mistakes she makes. Arcadia is about runaways, but Gwen is running towards something, not away from something, and her past is touched on only when the narrative actually brushes up against it, and even then only briefly. The other main character, Pious, is definitely running from something, but I made it something he couldn’t communicate effectively; all we get to see is Gwen’s assumptions about it, and how she uses those assumptions to make decisions in the immediate moment. Usually very bad decisions, because I’m kind of a prick to my characters.

In the end, every word you spend on developing a character’s or situation’s backstory is a word you’re not spending on the actual character or situation. Every word that doesn’t push the story along actually holds it back, and the supposed depth it offers is an optical illusion. When things happen, when people change, when the story rolls relentlessly down an unpredictable track – that’s when the reader learns why they care about where things are going, and stop thinking about the freeze-frame glimpses of what went before.

That’s the truth. Strike me hysterically blind if I’m wrong.