Backstory: The Most Important Sub-Plot You’ll Never Write

I suffer from one of the more visible ailments of the Florida tourist. While this particular malady can afflict anyone, regardless of age, race, or sex, a recent non-scientific study at [insert name of beach here] determined those most susceptible were white males over the age of 40.

While I am a match for three of the four descriptors of this largest group, I am no longer a tourist, having established Florida residency over a year ago.

The tragic, socially-alienating condition I am referring to is more colloquially known as “farmer’s tan.”

I am not a farmer, either, which makes my predicament that much more disturbing as both an embarrassment to my teenage daughter at the neighborhood pool and as a source of unwarranted conversation at the Flying J truck stop about how the drought is really screwing with the yield of crops I don’t grow.

So last week I made my first attempt to remedy the situation by doing yard work…without my shirt on.

Now I am dealing with the corollary condition to the farmer’s tan called “peeling”–the direct result of the sun baking my Nordic-white skin too long. And as anyone who’s experienced the same problem knows, with the peeling comes the itching.

Luckily I have a ready arsenal to deal with the irritation.

Backstory

A sunburned back can really affect the way you approach everyday situations. Showers are shorter and the pressure of washcloth (or that mesh “poof” thing) on skin is gentler. There’s no leaning back on the couch for a few days either…hmmm. So maybe sunburn can actually help your posture. Or not.

That’s my back story.

“Excuse me. What does that have to do with writing?”

I’ll tell you. Like a sunburn on your back helps shape the choices you make–do you really want to bear-hug your buddy knowing the pain that’s coming?–your fictional character’s backstory helps shape the choices he/she makes in your novel.

See what I did there?–[smile]

“You’re lame.”

All right. That was a lame transition, but if the opening lines of this post amused you in any way, then I hope you will forgive me…because the next part really is important to discuss if you’re a writer or reader of books, and/or a watcher of movies, for that matter.

At least it’s important enough to my own project that I spent a whole week on it just to discover that most of what I’d written so far (outline and manuscript) has to reworked.

In my first three novels, Open Source, The Complicity Doctrine, and Truth in Hiding, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, shares a lot of my own backstory. You might say that Casey IS me, and to a large extent that’s true.

Remember, those novels were first attempts at learning the craft of writing–primarily through trial-and-error–and they served as proof (to me, especially) that I could see an entire book project through from start to finish.

By making Casey Shenk a fictional version of Matt Frick, I didn’t have to think too much about the main protagonist’s background, personality, or decision-making process, because they were essentially the same as mine.

Frank Torwood, the main character in my current project, is a different story, however. Frank is not me.

Before I started outlining, I determined Frank’s birthdate, birthplace, where he went to school, his occupation, how he chose that career, and some of the things he’d done or seen that put him in the predicament he finds himself in at the story’s open. I had his backstory…or so I thought.

As I discussed in Start from the Middle: How One Simple Idea Just Changed Everything, I took another look at the plotting I’d done through the lens of a “mirror moment.” This point in the story is where the main character takes a look at his life and decides if he’ll continue down that road or change as the situation dictates around the midpoint of the story. The decision he makes affects how he will respond to conflicts and tension in the remaining pages.

I did that. And all was well. Until I realized I only knew half of what I needed to know. I knew what Frank would choose to become and how this would drive the last act of the three-act play forward to the end, but I didn’t know the first part of the “mirror moment.” If Frank was going to look back at his life and who he was before that all-important decision, I needed to know what he saw in that mirror. And everything I knew about Frank to that point was as deep as a Wikipedia bio entry.

What was Frank’s childhood like? Was it cushy and filled with love, or was it traumatic and filled with strife? What were his parents’ childhoods like? Did their own difficult upbringings affect the way they treated Frank or the home life they were able to provide or not provide for him? Did Frank have any siblings?

I needed to answer those questions–at a minimum–before I truly began to understand Frank as a person.

We all know or know of people who have overcome diversity and hardship to become successful in life. We may even know folks who grew up with a silver spoon only to hit rock bottom when they got older. One thing each of them have in common is that their background invariably shaped the decisions they made which led to their rise or fall.

And those situations aren’t just about monetary stability or social status. More often than not, it could be as simple as, “that person’s (an asshole, racist, saint, killer…whatever) because of (how their mommy/daddy raised them, the gang violence in their neighborhood, the time they spent going to church, their drug addiction, etc.).”

And that’s just part of the backstory.

There was likely a “mirror moment” at some point early on in these people’s lives that led to their rise or fall decision. Maybe they killed someone and went to prison. Perhaps they drank too much one night, hit a pedestrian–crippling that poor soul for life–and fled the scene. They might have jumped into a fast-moving river during a flood-rain and saved the dog of a billionaire widower who rewarded them with five-million dollars.

Or maybe they got married.

Whatever happened, however a person was raised, all of this defines who your main character is at the start of the book. As an author, I not only have to show the reader a believable and interesting/entertaining character arc through the pages of the book, I have to know why a character takes a certain action or makes a specific choice to get the story moving in the first place.

That’s backstory. And it’s the most important sub-plot you’ve got to have for your story to work. Your character won’t feel alive without it.

You may reveal some of that backstory to the reader (through dialogue, flashback, etc.), but you’ll never put the whole thing in your book–or at least I wouldn’t.

It is called back story, after all. And who wants to show off all that red, painful, itchy, peeling mess, anyway?

“You’re still lame.”

I know.

Start from the Middle: How One Simple Idea Just Changed Everything

I didn’t write ONE sentence of my current book project this week. Not a single word.

But man did I make some progress!

I told y’all how I like to outline the entire story in multiple levels of detail before I really get to writing a manuscript [Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway)], so you probably don’t see anything wrong with that first-line declaration, given the fact that I’m still in the outlining phase. But that line is more attention grabbing than, “I didn’t add a single bullet point to the 30th scene of my outline this week.”

Go back to the second line of this post, though. How can I say that I made progress, on the outline or the manuscript, if I didn’t write a damn thing? Well, folks, that’s what I’m gonna tell you.

I read a short book this week by thriller writer James Scott Bell titled Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pansters and Everyone in Between. Mr. Bell offers a new way of looking at writing a novel that, as the title states, will work for anyone, no matter which method an author uses to pump out a 120,000 word manuscript, regardless of where they are in the writing process.

His idea is really focused on that single moment in the book (the middle), where the protagonist comes to grips with who he/she really is, and who they want to be going forward. Bell calls this the “Mirror Moment.”

Bell uses the example of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in the movie Lethal Weapon as an example of a character having a “mirror moment.” I love Lethal Weapon, so it was easy for me to follow his line of reasoning when he points out that smack dab in the middle of the movie (Bell literally went to the middle of the film and, lo and behold, there it was), Sergeant Riggs has a moment of reflection–his mirror moment.

Standing by his truck after having dinner with his partner’s family, Riggs tells Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) about a time when he shot a guy in Laos (during the Vietnam War) from a thousand yards away in high wind. “It’s the only thing I was ever good at,” Riggs says.

Riggs finally called himself out. He’s a killer.

But now he has a partner, he had dinner with the family, met the kids…he’s not a loner anymore. Riggs has to decide if he is going to remain a suicidal killer who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, or if he is going to change, because now his actions may affect not only his partner’s life, but his partner’s family’s lives as well.

Bell doesn’t pretend to know if the film writers were thinking of this portion of a scene near the middle of the movie as a pivotal moment in the character arc of Martin Riggs, setting the stage for the action to follow, but he does explain how that’s exactly what it was.

Write Your Novel From the Middle suggests that authors need to know that “mirror moment” for the main protagonist in order to keep the entire story on track. By knowing ahead of time when a character will make a crucial decision about where they want/need to be, the author can move the beginning of the story to that point.

The remainder of the story, and the protagonist’s actions after that moment, will then be justified because the reader will have experienced everything that lead the character to make the choice(s) he makes in that critical “mirror moment.” Because the author wrote it that way.

So how did this help me?

I was making great progress on my story outline. I knew the beginning. I knew the ending. I even knew most of the scenes I wanted to put in the middle.

Then I read James Scott Bell’s book.

I took a step back and looked at my outlines (<–note the plural there). Here’s what I saw:

Rubiks_Cube_oneside

I saw a story that looked good from one angle, but in reality, it was a disaster. Like the picture suggests, I only had one side of the three-dimensional puzzle figured out, and the rest of the story was an incoherent mess.

So how do I solve this?

(I don’t mean the Rubik’s cube. I gave up trying to solve that damn thing a long time ago. As “Dirty Harry” Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”)

To sort the loosely-connected jumble of scenes I had written so far, and to put all the pieces together in a way that made sense, I started over. From the middle.

When I looked at my story’s main character through the lens of a “mirror moment,” everything changed. I saw that I needed more conflict, both internal and external, that would:

1) drive him to get involved with the story’s events in the first place,

2) flesh him out as a truly three-dimensional person whose struggles readers could relate to (and want to keep turning pages), and

3) allow for a more realistic or plausible story arc where everything happened for a reason.

I realized after examining the story outline this way, that my main character had it too easy. The background I created for him, and his resulting personality, were really thin. I didn’t think so when I developed it at the start of the project, but now, with a fresh look ala a “mirror moment,” I saw there was really nothing that would push him to the point of no return where he had to make life or death decisions–physical and psychological–that would affect not only him but everyone around him.

Bell calls those decisions, or the circumstances that inform those decisions, “death stakes.”

With a proper knowledge of what those death stakes are for the character, the author can decide how that character will respond to trials and conflict in the remainder of the story. For Martin Riggs, he chose to put his suicidal, “don’t care if I live or die,” killer persona back where it belonged–the past. Instead, he decided there was much left to live (and fight) for–his partner, his partner’s family, putting the bad guys away (without just wantonly killing everyone he comes into contact with), etc.

For the main character in my work-in-progress, I didn’t have any death stakes. Well, I sort of did, but they weren’t near as defined as they are now. I also looked at those stakes with an eye toward believability. Would the reader believe the main character was really dealing with stakes so high he had no choice but to respond the way he does? Or were the choices I put in front of him merely boilerplate drivel that weren’t choices at all, but merely props to move the story in the direction I wanted it to go?

Now, after re-examining my outline, I’ve given the protagonist more flaws (with compelling explanations for those flaws), created more conflict in the story, and raised the death stakes, not only for him, but for everyone he grows to care about in the story.

In short, I have a more complete story now. It’s not done, but I’m almost there.

Rubiks_Cube_solved

Perhaps Mr. Bell will write a book on solving a Rubik’s Cube that is as simple, compelling, and spot-on as Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. Then I might be able to solve that stupid cube once and for all…or not. I know my limitations.