Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Your Questions Answered - Part Two!

Ok Janet...here goes! First your question, then my response.

Donna, when you slip snippets of character backstory into chapter to give your writing a contemporary feel is it best to a)show it in dialogue eg: Character A says to h: 'I really worry about you. Eveyone one needs to relax every now and then...etc'Or b)have the author add it in a very short piece of telling: Since splitting up with X, h's life had been one long round of work. She'd kept telling herself it wouldn't be forever but somehow...etcOrc) have the character think it eg: yes, her life was completely dictated by her work. So what? Being a brain surgeon was a dream come true..etc

Well, Janet, you’re going to hate me for this, but I’m going to say all three.

After all, if you use only one method, things are going to be kind of boring, aren’t they? LOL

Part of this answer also depends on your voice. My local rwa chapter is having a talk on voice next week, so I think I’ll blog about it after that. Because voice is hard. But I’ll tell you a secret I realized while drafting Home Fires. My paragraphs have a rhythm. A way that I structure them, blending dialogue with emotional and physical beats and narrative. They have, I hope, a balance. That’s not to say in some bits there’s less of some and more of another…for example, you are naturally going to have areas that are snappier, heavier on dialogue and others that are thicker with narrative…that ebb and flow of pacing (ah yes, another topic!).
Vicki Hinze has a great article on backstory. In it she explains that you should blend the background with the action, and to choose details that bring a desired response to your reader, in other words, something that helps the reader relate to your character and understand their motivations. So that we know that even if they are doing the wrong thing, they are doing it for reasons that makes sense to them.
I’ve rustled up an example for you. In looking at it, I realize I use the dialogue to set the tone between Grace and Mike… from the WAY that she speaks to him, we realize they have a history. The emotional beats are her thoughts, and this makes up most of it. Her thoughts are tied to narrative…because we are firmly in her POV at the beginning.

These are the first few pages of Marriage at Circle M….and I’ve bolded the spots where I added in backstory. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I should bold or not…and I think that’s a good thing because the backstory should blend in as seamlessly as possible.

When Mike Gardner came walking up the path in just that way, Grace knew she was in trouble.

And when he stopped at the foot of her stepladder, hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets and squinted up at her, she gripped her paintbrush tighter so as not to drop it. Mike was all long, lazy strides and sexy smiles, and despite her best intentions, she’d never been able to remain immune to his charm. Not since she’d hit puberty, anyway.

“Mornin’, Grace,” the words didn’t exactly drawl, but were drawn out just enough to give that impression.

Grace straightened her shoulders and did her best to look nonchalant as she swiped another stripe of white paint over the window trim. “Hello, Mike.”

Great. Now why in the world did those two words come out all breathless, anyway?

She had to remember that it wasn’t all that long go that she’d made a fool of herself where Mike was concerned. It had been years since there had been anything between them. But she’d had a little too much punch, there’d been a little too much giggling and she’d blurted out one very ill-thought out sentence. She still felt the heat of her embarrassment and every time they met now, she did everything she could to assure him – to assure herself, even, that Mike Gardner was completely resistible. Lord knew he didn’t need her fawning over him the way the rest of the female population seemed to. Without thinking, she tucked an errant strand of blonde hair back behind her ear, leaving it streaked with paint.

“You’re up with the birds,” he commented, a lazy smile creeping up his cheek as she chanced a look down at him.

And you knew I would be, or you wouldn’t be here so early.” She pointedly checked her watch. “It’s seven-forty-six.”

“It is?” His chin flattened ever so slightly. “I’m sorry, I thought it was later.”

“You’ve likely been up and done chores already.”


Darn him. She couldn’t just stand up on the stepladder like an idiot, carrying on a conversation that was barely holding its own. Besides, she was all too aware that his height, paired with her distance up the ladder put his line of vision right at her backside. She sighed, put her brush across the top of the paint-smeared can and took a step down – and her dew-slick sneaker slipped on the metal step.

His hands were there to catch her.

“Whoa, there.”

She shrugged off his touch. It felt far too strong and too good. “I’m not one of your horses, Mike.”

He laughed. “No ma’am. You sure aren’t.”

It wasn’t fair. She’d had a thing for Mike since she was fourteen, but he’d always treated her like a kid sister. An annoying one. For a brief time, when she’d been in high school, they’d been more. But that seemed a lifetime ago. For him to flirt now…weeks after she’d made a complete idiot of herself, it was too much. That one little slip of the lip was the only time she’d ever come close to telling him how she felt, and at the time he’d only laughed at her.

She was older…and far wiser now at twenty-seven.
There was no room in her life for schoolgirl crushes. She planted her hands on her hips and stared him down. “Look, you obviously didn’t come around for idle chit-chat, so tell me what’s on your mind so I can get back to work.”

Mike had to turn away to hide his smile. She was good and irritated, he could tell. And besides that, she looked wonderful this morning, almost too good. Her blonde hair was tucked into some sort of strange clip, and little pieces tangled around her ears. Her eyes flashed at him now, icy blue with annoyance. Looking up that stepladder at her slim, tanned legs had almost made him forget why he was here. And steadying her with his arms as she’d slipped had wiped his brain clean of any other thoughts whatsoever. He liked the feel of his hands on her skin.

He stepped back, ignoring her jab, instead turning to survey the small yellow bungalow she called home…(I cut some description because it got line edited in the final version)

“You’re painting.”

She kept her eyes front as if refusing to look at him. “Your powers of deduction astound me. What tipped you off?”

He ignored that bit of sarcasm too. She had to be tired, after all. The drips down the side of her paint can were fresh; she’d obviously been at it a while before he showed up. And he knew for a fact that she’d been up late last night, because her lights had been on when he’d been on his way back from town at nearly one o’clock. He wished…he wished she didn’t have to work so hard for everything. But he was the last person who could make things better for her. At least for right now he was.

“How do you find time to do everything, Grace? Every time I see you you’re busy at something.”

By getting up at five a.m., she thought. Instead she shoved her hands in the pockets of her shorts. “It keeps me out of trouble.”

“Then I sure hate to ask what I’m about to.”

Mike was serious, she realized, pushing away the urge to use sarcasm as a shield against him. Normally he said nothing at all or what he did say was disarming and funny. But Grace had known him long enough to know when he was troubled. And the tone of his voice right now told her something was definitely going on. When he merely stared at her house longer, she wrinkled her brow and went to him, gently placing a paint-splattered hand on his forearm.

What’s wrong?”

I hope that helps, Janet. The odd sentence here and there can keep your pacing going, give the correct information, and avoid information dumps. FWIW, I got rid of a few dumps in this story upon revision…not pages and pages, but trickling it in as beats and thoughts works much better than a long paragraph of straight narrative. It comes down to showing it rather than telling us what we need to know.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for that,Donna. You explained it perfectly. (Cutting and pasting