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.

Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway)

Just like the Russians, according to the late Fred Thompson in the film version of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, I also need a plan. Maybe not to use the toilet, but I definitely need a detailed outline before I start the daunting task of writing a novel.

Planning vs. Pantsing

I didn’t start out that way, in writing, I mean (I don’t think I’ve ever “planned” how to answer the call of nature). When I came up with the idea for Open Source, I was living at the office in Naples, Italy, where I worked. My family had moved to California ahead of me, and there was really no other place for me to stay. So what did I do when the rest of the folks went home for the day (except the 24/7 operations center watch)? I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

I was on fire for almost three weeks! I knocked out about 50 pages of a first draft (around 12,500 words) writing every evening and on weekends. But after that opening salvo, the guns went silent. I realized that I didn’t know where I was going with the story–or the characters–and I had visions of my previous failed efforts from my high school days.

In writing parlance, this method of sitting down, maybe with a cup of coffee beside you, and letting the story flow from your brain to the page, is called “pantsing.” It comes from the method of writing by the seat of your pants.

Problem was, I hadn’t done enough thinking things through to even know where the story was headed, let alone where it would end. So I scrapped the first 50 and started over. This time, I fell back on the method I was more comfortable with after years of schooling and publishing three feature articles in a couple of publications. Outlining. Three months worth, in the case of Open Source.

The opposite of pantsing is outlining, or “planning.” There are tons of articles and posts you can find online that argue the merits and/or pitfalls of using each method to craft a story, so I will not enter that fray here. I can tell you, though, planning worked in my case, and I’ve done it ever since.

Here’s an example of the planning/outlining I’ve been doing for my next WIP (work-in-progress…another writing term I’ve had to learn since I decided to take this gig seriously):

planning

(You’ll notice some books in this picture, too. Besides the dictionary, I’ve used those other books for character and plot research. The maps I drew are necessary for keeping the geography and scene location of my fictional town both consistent and plausible. Oh, and the notebooks? I not only take notes and outline on paper, but I also write the novel longhand and type it into the computer when I’m done. This makes my writing office portable, so I can work from the bleachers at my kids’ soccer practices, in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, or anywhere else I happen to have some dead time.)

So I’m a planner, not a pantser.

For the most part. I plan 95% of the book before tackling an entire manuscript. From broad outlines on a calendar to character bios to scene-by-scene storyboards (without the pictures), I can move things around or change/add parts as needed, without having to dig through an entire completed manuscript looking for holes that need to be filled, and the like.

But I also do some seat-of-the-pants writing at the very beginning. I learned that writing a little bit of the opening scenes/chapters (maybe not 50 pages, though) help to inform my efforts in writing the outline. I get a sense of how I want the story’s mood portrayed, and what the main character’s personality reads like on the page, and then I can get to work on outlining.

Overall, I generally spend about six months researching and outlining before I even start any serious writing. After the heavy lifting is done, however, it doesn’t take long before a completed first-draft manuscript is born.

So that’s how I do it. Bottom line, though, is do whatever works for you. I learned by trial and error, chances are most other writers did, as well. I mean, except Stephen King. That guy’s just a freak of nature…who writes…and scares kids…and makes a lot of money…and plays guitar.

StephenKing-guitar

(http://www.stephenkingrevisited.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/StephenKing.jpg)