George posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hello Mr. Ingermanson. I really enjoyed reading your book “Writing Fiction for Dummies.” It has made me become a better writer and has been extremely helpful. I have just come up with my one sentence storyline and was wondering what you thought of it.
“A young architect is forced on the run after he’s accused of helping terrorists bomb a building he designed.”
Does it have a strong emotive punch or do you think it is missing something?
Also, I’m having an issue with bringing ideas into backstory. I keep trying to bring an idea I have for one novel (that explains the main character’s motivation in that novel) into the backstory of my main character in another, trying to make it fit (though I don’t believe it works too well). Is this a common problem? It seems to have brought about a bad case of writers block.
Randy sez: This is a good strong one-sentence summary. It’s neither too vague nor too specific. It tells us immediately who to root for (“a young architect”). It puts him in jeopardy (he’s on the run). And it creates mystery which immediately implies a storygoal (how can our hero clear his name?) So bravo on the one-sentence summary!
As for the problem with bringing in backstory, yes, this is a very common problem. Backstory is good, by the way. Backstory is, in fact, great. You can hardly know too much backstory about your characters. But you can all too easily tell too much backstory, especially at the beginning of your novel when you’re trying to get the frontstory rolling.
Now the main issue for you, George, right now is that all the backstory is getting you blocked because you know there’s a pesky rule out there that says backstory is bad. Here’s how to get unblocked right away, and this is the most common cure for writer’s block:
“Ignore the rules.”
That’s, right, just ignore the rule that says that backstory is bad. Write the backstory. Write it as fast as you can. That should get you unblocked. Then move on and finish the first draft of your novel.
Here’s the thing that’s essential whenever you’re dealing with writer’s block: Nobody is ever going to see your first draft except a very few people who already love you, warts, backstory, and all. Those are your critique buddies. Frankly, they already know your first draft sucks, so it’s OK if they see some backstory. It’ll give them something to feel good about when they point it out to you.
When you edit the novel, then’s when you can apply the rules. That’s when you’ll trim down the backstory to the bare minimum, or move it later in the story, or make it live in flashbacks (you’re allowed to do flashbacks if you do them well enough — don’t let anybody tell you flashbacks aren’t allowed).
My buddy John Olson and I made it through fifteen drafts of our novel OXYGEN without dying because of one mantra that I repeated over and over: “We’ll fix this in the next draft.”
That was a brazen lie. On each draft, we fixed only some of the problems, and I knew it. But I knew that neither John nor I would quit until the book was right. We didn’t. It was right. But only on the fifteenth draft. (Which we emailed in at 3 AM on the day the book was due to the publisher.)
The process wasn’t pretty, but we got it done. You can too. If you’re stuck or blocked or whatever, make a note for yourself to fix it on the next draft and then move on. Those are words to live by.
Randy sez: Oops, in reading your question one last time after I posted this blog, I realized that maybe I misread you to begin with. It sounds like your real problem is that you’re reusing a motivation from one novel in another novel. OK, that’s actually a separate issue. It can be good or it can be bad.
Here are two tricks you can apply to possibly solve this problem:
- Interview your character and really press him on what his motivations are. As I talked about in my book, ask him exactly what his Storygoal is. Then ask what abstract Ambition this Storygoal comes from. Then ask him about his Values — his “core truths” that he believes are self-evident, which need no explanation because they’re so obviously true. Then ask yourself what it is in his background, his culture, or his subconscious mind makes him believe these Values.
- If that doesn’t work, then try my earlier advice and just forge ahead and write the story. You don’t have to know your character’s motivations fully up front. You can always figure those out on the next draft. Which might really mean the fifteenth.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
I’m with Randy, I fix on the next draft (and the next draft and the… well, you know ;P). I found I lost momentum or worse, caught a case of writers block if I tried to start fixing everything including glaring plot problem during the first draft. Get that story written.
Then, open a new document, copy everything over and begin the changes in that document (save your old draft, you never know if you’ll want to go back to it).
Sheila Deeth says
I love the “We’ll fix it in the next draft approach.” It even makes me feel better about all the rejections – just think, if it had been accepted I might not be able to fix it now.
Kim Miller says
Something that occurs to me is to separate the motivation of the character from the events that shape his motivation. I don’t mean separate them in the story, but separate them in your own mind until you are satisfied you have the mind of the character in your head.
The same events happening to two different people will produce different motivations in each. So you need to be clear in your mind why his motivation develops as it does.
Randy seems to assume that the architect is innocent, but from your storyline he might also be guilty. Let’s assume you have two novels, the innocent story and the guilty story.
It could be the same backstory events that happen in each novel, yet the motivation differs because the architect himself is as significant as the events in developing that motivation.
His father was killed in a war when he was a child, so he sets himself on a path of vengeance or he becomes a conscientious objector. Take your pick.
Maybe one avenue for you to follow in this lies in one of the basic tenets of story telling. “Work out what your character wants, and then don’t let him have it.”
What does the impressionable ‘pre-architect’ want? Why does he react or respond to the events of his life as he does? Why is he so different from somebody else who experiences the same things but just gets on with life?
All this will not come to you early. But the writing will bring it to you.
A J Hawke says
Great comments on what to do with that necessary pesky backstory. I’m still learning and playing with the ways to bring in those tidbits of backstory that reveal the motivation and how-did-my-character-get-here events for my character.
I like the concept of fix-it in the next draft to avoid writer’s block, but then reality comes to town and it is the next draft.
As Randy points out, I shouldn’t let the rules paralyze me into nothingness of writing.
kinjal kishor says
Just ask your self this, in order –
who – did what – why he did – what happened – did what (why) – what happened – and so on and you will get scenes and backstory rolling vanquishing your block.
Nothing happens without reason, and to try to know the reason creates backstory. You can easily use ideas of backstory from one character of diiferent novel to other, but they should fit right with the why of current character.
For ex. – my hero cannot be controlled by mentats(what), because a madness ensues(why), when he remembers a childhood incident(why of why), entering a temple(why 3), while playing(why 4 and here my enquiry stops). See the chain of reasons for backstory and for one fact or what.
The six best friends of fiction writer are what, which, how, where, when, why.
Just keep asking yourself questions untill satisfaction or end of chain. Though a chain really never ends like why was my hero playing and not meditating, in a society of ascetics, that itself will demand a lot more of thought.
And plz also note to take care of other events that follow your current action. That chain also is infinite. After thinking a lot just think at which point you should start the story(where the hero is thrown in and things change) and where to end(the conflict resolved. Be it a character(Star Wars 4 5 6), event(Lord of Rings), setting(Guliver travels) or idea centric(Sherlock holmes) story.
Thanks for answering my question Mr. Ingermanson. And thanks to everyone for their helpful comments!
Are you allowed to re-query agents after you’ve rewritten your book?
I have to thank George for his question and Randy for his answer with regard to dealing with writer’s block. I’ve been struggling with that for a couple of weeks with the story I’m working on and was thinking about pitching the whole idea and working on something else until I read this post.
I never used to worry about the rules, but then I learned what they were and all of sudden, I began to ponder rules while writing. Not a good idea.
So I applied the ‘I’ll fix it in the next draft’ method and had a good day yesterday.