story writing

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.

character story writing

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


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 writing

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.