story writing

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.

character games story superheroes writing

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.


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.

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.