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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Books » Background Stories

   
Author Topic: Background Stories
Michelle M.
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Hey guys! I wanted to post something else to see what everyone thought. My friends and I play DnD, and I started wondering how all of our characters happened to meet. I have written a chapter on how each of our group got together, and I was going to continue on as the campaign continued. But, alas, getting 8+ people together at the same time is difficult. I want to continue the story anyway, but it's more of a side project right now.


My protector, my friend, my mentor; My brother was everything I knew to be true in the world. I trusted him with every ounce that I was. I told him my hopes, my dreams, my opinions. Secrets flowed between us like water. We understood each other’s subtext, a simple word could tell a story. Even the smallest of gestures became meaningful messages, messages interpretable only between us. We were unstoppable.

The truth is, I would be long dead had it not been for my brother. He had been both a mother and a father figure to me when we were abandoned as younglings in the city of Terrandale. We quickly learned how to survive in the dark alleys, at first by begging then by stealing.

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H Reinhold
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First of all, I think it's extremely difficult to write and get useful feedback on the opening of a book if you haven't yet drafted or at least outlined the whole project. Why? Because the opening of a book usually sets up promises and expectations to the reader about the story. How can you know the proper beginning if you don't yet know the end? How can you predict which characters and conflicts will be most important in the narrative to come? What kind of story or plot is it? Of course, discovery writers work out the plot as they go, but discovery writing doesn't mean you don't come back and edit what you've got to give the story integrity. How do you know you won't have to rewrite the opening later to properly set up what is to come? For this reason, I'm not sure feedback for these lines will be all that useful at the moment.

A few comments anyway: I find the opening paragraph far too in-your-face to be engaging. So much seems to be 'told' by the narrator, and yet at the end I still have not one concrete image for my imagination to play with. I seize on words and try to wring images out of them, but find I can't: 'my protector'--from what? 'my mentor' in what? What is 'the world' mentioned? What 'secrets' are there in the narrator's life? What is the siblings' 'subtext'? What kind of gesture-messages do they exchange, and why? And what are they fighting against, that together they are 'unstoppable'?

In my opinion, you could get across all the key information much more vividly and engagingly through a basic, concrete scene that shows, rather than tells, the siblings' relationship. Why not show me a scene where the two are actually exchanging hopes/dreams/gestures/secrets, or fighting some adversary together? How about a concrete moment which illustrates how the narrator considers the brother to be a protector, friend, and mentor? At the moment, the narrative comes across as taking place in a timeless blank space, where one unknown character gushes about another unknown character for unknown reasons. I'm sure abstract openings can be made to work, but they probably need a more unique hook than simply, 'I hero-worship my brother'.

The second paragraph also doesn't really work for me. If all of this happened in the past, why should I care now? I'd like to know what's happening in the present of the actual story. Perhaps you might want to try thinking about where your plot really begins, and then work in this backstory at the point where it becomes relevant.

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Michelle M.
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Thank you, H Reinhold. I do have a plot laid out for this book that goes beyond that of what my friends are doing for the DnD campaign. This is more of a prologue than the first chapter. Everything that you asked about is explained in the first few paragraphs of the prologue. The backstory is important because it describes her relationship with her brother and why what happens to her in the first chapter pretty much destroys her life as she knew it.
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H Reinhold
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The questions I asked are not questions for which I, reading your fragment, have a burning need to find answers. They are simply examples of questions I think might help you to work out other, possibly more engaging, ways to structure your opening. So the promise of explanations, answers to my questions, doesn't solve my problem as a reader. The problem I have is that I am not hooked by anything, because I find it currently too vague and imprecise. I don't have any idea who's speaking, and what is happening, and why, and when. I find it difficult to be sucked into a story where I'm immediately in the dark about everything, including the narrator. That's why I asked all those questions: could you perhaps find a way to put in some concrete details, somewhere (as flashes of memory, even?), so that it doesn't all seem to take place in a vacuum? So that I can find something to make me curious to read on?

The thing you need to establish in the reader first of all is the desire, even the need, to find out more, whether about the character, the setting, the conflict, whatever. Your very first paragraphs should hook the reader so much that it's impossible for them to stop reading until they get these answers. There are plenty of different ways to do this, but it has to be done. The reader has to care. It's no use promising to give all your explanations in subsequent paragraphs if people don't care enough about the questions to want to find the answers.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Michelle M., when you start a story, you need to include things that help the reader want to keep reading.

Orson Scott Card teaches that you have to provide the reader with what he calls "faith, hope, and clarity." And you do that by making sure you have answered (all through the story) the following questions:

"Oh, yeah?" (faith - is it believable?)

"So what?" (hope - why should I care?)

"Huh?" (clarity - does it make sense?)

You also need to give the reader something to hang onto from the very beginning. You need to provide something for them to imagine, to visualize.

I recommend that writers try to put in the very first sentence, if possible (and if not, at least in the first paragraph), the following things: an idea of the kind of place where things are happening, a character in that place whom the reader can relate to, and a hint of what kinds of things that character is dealing with or is trying to accomplish.

You have presented a character, but none of the other things, and you have not really answered any of OSC's questions mentioned above.

We hope the feedback you receive here will help you to write your backgrounds and stories for your characters in a way that will be enjoyed by many readers.

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Michelle M.
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Thank you all!

I just have a hard time seeing how I can answer so many questions in just a few lines. I thought I was supposed to keep a lot of these things hidden, to be revealed at a later place in the story. I thought prologues were supposed to give the reader pertinent background information as well as lead them onto what the story will be about, but I didn't think it was necessary to do all of that in the first few lines...

I'll post the first bit of the first chapter below and see if that looks any better to you guys.


“Brother!” I yelled excitedly, grabbing him by his brawny arm and tugging him along the dirt path towards the setting sun. “Come! If we hurry, we can get the package before sundown meet the fence and make it to Carthan before morning.”

“Calm down, sis. Our luck has been bordering on the brink of the Abyss for too long. This is new territory, and if we aren’t careful, we are liable to get hanged,” Taran replied, shaking off my grip and looking warily at the wall of rock on the edge of the road.
“Luck be hanged! We don’t need luck, never have, never will. Luck pays us to do its bidding,” I replied, opening my cloak to the wind.
“Your ego precedes you, Nissa,” he chided.

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extrinsic
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"Prologues" indeed provide background information in prefatory summary and explanation tell fashion necessary to appreciate the main action of the content. However, prologues are widely deprecated anymore across publication culture because they invariably develop little, if any, drama. They are lengthy "info-dumps." See the Glossary linked below.

The term "exposition" at one time solely meant setup at the outset of a writing's main theme. In clumsy hands, exposition more often is diegesis (summary) and exigesis (explanation), narrator direct report to readers that "tells" a dramatic event's highlights, a written word equivalent to an oral lecture oration. Prologues anymore mean the contemporary definition of exposition: lengthy, dreary summary and explanation tell.

"Show," on the other hand, is mimesis (reality imitation, a core Realism departure from Romanticism, less imitation content prior to Realism all the way back to the earliest dramatic narratives). Contemporary readers prefer an ample mimesis quantity and of a dramatic quality with little or no artless diegesis and exigesis tell.

However, a large fraction of starts nonetheless open with tell. The difference of note is those more artful appeal narratives set out a main theme and unsteady or disturb emotional equilibrium, for readers through artful, dramatic summary and explanation of a main dramatic want-problem complication for a focal agonist through which a main theme emerges. No more, no less.

In the alternative, in medias res starts begin mimesis in the middle of antagonal, causal, tensional events which complicate a focal agonist's existence and of a life-altering and affirming magnitude.

That in medias res method, too, and artless tell, runs afoul of numerous trite methods. Many are itemized and explained in "Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops" and "Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction".

At first blush, I see several widely deprecated clichés in the summary prologue first posted and the subsequent fragment version. And other deprecated methods common from across prose culture, any and all of which burden a narrative with reader disengagements.

"'Brother!'" Speech from a disembodied head. Dialogue best practice comes after some time, place, and situation context development. So that readers have a locus for mind's eye visualization of a setting from which speech's aural sensation derives.

"I yelled excitedly," A "Tom Swifty" adverb and "Said Bookism," see both the Lexicon and the Glossary. Other said bookisms, too, "Taran replied," "I replied," and "he chided."

"grabbing him by his brawny arm and tugging him along the dirt path towards the setting sun." Not Simultaneous, see the Glossary.

The action therein is potential prefatory setting setup before dialogue. Plus, three pesky -ing ring rhyme words. And, well, no emotional disequilibrium yet to speak of from the fragment. The emotional texture so far is told, too, is pat and vague, without any latitude for reader emotional engagement or imagination effort from inferable mimesis implications.

I've dug deep into what's so far given, had a fleeting moment of engagement about the mysterious package's contents, and fell out again and thereafter to no return. Are these couriers who deliver anonymous packages and they will run afoul with this one? Do they know what the package contains and it offers a destination struggle contest appeal? I don't know nor can I project from my mind's eye what the story is about.

I would not read on as an engaged reader.

[ February 22, 2017, 03:28 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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Let me begin with the fragment as submitted: A character I know nothing about (age, gender, name, species, job, likes, hates, loves, appearance, emotional baggage, location, etc.) delivers a gushing, mawkish, over-wrought, and unbelievable eulogy for another character I know nothing about (age, gender, name, species, job, likes, hates, loves, appearance, emotional baggage, location, etc.), except they are the brother of the 'speaking' character and they are dead.

Why should I care about any of it? Who are these people, where are they, and what do they want? I am not in the least bit interested or invested in anything the first character is saying, let alone feeling. I would not read on.

Now let me move on to some of your 'explanations'.

You say that this is a sort of prologue that sets up the character's back-story. As I understand it, a prologue is a piece of narrator exposition that details information necessary for the reader to understand some elements of the plot or milieu yet remains outside of the story's narrative arc.

To partially quote from Aristotle's Poetics, stanza 8, “. . . so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.” The main character's loss of their brother and the subsequent emotional pain and turmoil (a destroyed life) would seem to me to be integral to both the plot and the development of the main character. Best practice would seem to indicate the event should be a part of the narrative whole and not separated and told as back-story as you have done.

I don't read books because of the cleverness of the plot or the level of excitement and action the writer instils. I read a story (and go back to it time and time again) because of the depth of the characters and the uniqueness of the idea and situation the character finds themselves in.

Hope this helps in some small manner.

Phil.

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Grumpy old guy
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I know what it must feel like; there is a cabal of critics all hell bent on making your life difficult. Well, there is, sort of, but the goal is to make you a better writer and not to grind you into the dust.

After your original fragment submission you added what you called the start of Chapter One; that is the target of this post. Let me begin by saying that you may not be as far from understanding certain aspects of the writer's craft as you may think you are. The saving grace of the second fragment is that it artfully reveals character. Nissa comes across in her dialogue as brash, headstrong, impulsive, and far too overconfident. On the other hand, her brother comes across in his dialogue as more measured, thoughtful, circumspect, and careful. My question is this: Is this deliberate, or did it happen simply because you know the characters so well that it just sort of fell out as is?

I hope it was the first, but I fear it was the second.

Now, having handed you a bouquet, it's time for the brickbat. The entire conversation takes place between two characters we know nothing about and concern the acquisition of something we know nothing about. And, just to add insult to injury, the entire conversation is an, “As you know, Bob . . .” moment, where you use dialogue between characters to impart information to the reader the characters already know. Even worse, the forced intrigue about the item they are going to pick up makes this ploy all the more obvious.

Finally, no one talks like that, especially not in dialogue. Dialogue is an art wherein every word and pause has only one purpose: To move the story forward. There is no idle chit-chat in narrative prose. [Smile]

Phil.

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Michelle M.
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Hi Grumpy old guy,

Actually, I wrote the characters the way they are deliberately. Thank you for the encouragement. I know everyone is trying to help me. Each post reveals a little bit more of what I need to work on, but the application is harder to me than the understanding.

When you say no one talks like that, are you referring to the words they use? It is in another world than ours, more medieval-ish. The way these characters talk are in contrast to the way the other characters talk later on.

When you say idle chit-chat, it's actually not. The caution he is exhibiting is warranted, and she gets them into trouble. (Here I go explaining things that happen later, again...)

How would I be able to make this more appealing? How can I reveal the characters as someone the reader wants to get to know? How can I do this all in the first 13 lines? That's my struggle right now.

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