Tension

No, nothing to do with my considerable time constraints today.

I’m talking about tension in a story. And how I got it wrong for a considerable portion of mine.

It started at the very beginning of my Doorways crits. My one CP extraordinaire, M Pax, kept asking me to let her see into one MC’s past. And I wouldn’t, because, well, she was just as coy with me. Why should I share info when my MC wanted to let it come out in her own good time?

Besides, I thought, the mystery about her past just adds to the tension.

True. But as this post points out, it adds to the wrong sort of tension. After I read this post, I got to thinking about Doorways. And realized what a huge mistake I’d made. I ended up spending the greater part of my day rooting out and fixing it. Luckily for me, a few subtle changes were enough, but it could have been a lot worse. Which is why I’m writing about it today as well.

Real tension in a story comes from the fact that characters have questions and goals. We readers experience tension because they don’t know if those questions will be answered or the goals attained. We hope they will be, but we know that possibly they won’t. So we read on, hoping (and if the writer is really good, praying) that things will end up the way we and the character want them to.

The reason why we care this much is that by the time the goals and questions become known, we feel like we know the character. We can’t care if we don’t see why the goals and question are important to the character. So you can’t make us care if you don’t give us the information we need to bond with the characters.

Yes… the mystery in the character’s past adds to tension, but unless it’s the foundation of the plot (e.g. if the character’s question is about his/her past), it will make the reader hurl the book to the nearest wall.

The blog post above gave a few examples of bad tension, so I’m just going to let you go there to read them. But to sum it up, I’m now thinking about tension like this: Tension should be forward looking. It should be about the story going forward to the end and about whether the end will be the one the reader wants.  

If your tension is back looking, i.e. coming from the fact that the reader isn’t being allowed to see into a main character’s past, odds are pretty great that you’ll be annoying the life out of your reader.

Trust me. When I put my reader cap on and read my MC’s intro, I wanted to strangle the writer.

So do you also write your tension to be back-looking? How do you make sure that the tension in your story doesn’t annoy the reader?

PS: Mary. So sorry about Callan. She’s a lot better now. ;-P

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Motivation

During my forced time off from my rewrite, something occurred to me about a moment in my WiP2 that’s going to be a bit problematic. It’s one of those watershed moments where a character makes a choice that will determine the course his life will take. So it makes for excellent story.

Only… the motivation was off. Or more accurately, the perception of the motivation was off.

To my mind, characterization is the reason why a character is who he is. Motivation is the reason why a character does what he does.

Actually, it’s more the reason behind the reason. For example, commitment phobia might be a reason why a guy won’t marry, but the reaction that caused the phobia as a result of something in the past is the motivation. In the case above, distrust as a result of his wife cheating on him with his best man would be his motivation.

Characters can have more than one motivation, but most importantly, each motivation will have a significant effect on how the character reacts to others or on how he lives and sees life. For example, Mr. Commitment-Phobe might start distrusting women in general, and then struggle with the idea of marriage as he falls in love. But then, since he was betrayed, he’ll also very likely struggle to trust his love-interest around his friends or vice versa. 

It’s vitally important that the motivation is carried through the character as far as it can conceivably go, because if it doesn’t go all the way, the motivation will be seen as weak and it will impact on the story. If I stumbled over the above example in the story, I would think that his phobia was on over-reaction if he didn’t show at least some indication of it when his love interest is talking with his best friend. If this didn’t happen, it cheapens the situation and takes the depth out of the story.

Another important factor to consider: perception vs reality. What I mean with this is the reader’s perception based on the character’s actions vs. the actual reason behind the action as known to the author. It’s not that common that a character’s motivation is kept from the reader until the end of the story, since the conflict that comes as a result of character motivations can make for some wonderful story, because the journey of discovery of the character’s motivation makes for good reading. But not if the reader leaps to the wrong conclusion as to what motivates a character.

If the reader decides that a reader won’t marry because he’s selfish in some way, there’s a problem. Because whether or not this conclusion was wrong, it will affect how the reader will perceive the story’s events, as well as whether he/she will be able to stick through the story all the way to the big reveal.

The reader can be kept on the right track, though, through leaving clues to the motivation or by showing that the opposite of the wrong conclusion is true. For example, if there’s a chance of a reader thinking that Mr. Commitment-Phobe is nothing but a selfish bastard, show him at his most generous. Maybe let him take a kid under his wing. Something like that. Something that shows that not only is the guy generous, he’s only worried about committing to a woman. 

What about you? How do you handle motivation – especially for difficult characters?   

History

Hi all! As you might notice, I’ve changed my comment form recently after it was suggested that the embedded form was the reason why some of my readers couldn’t comment.

But now it seems that the new form isn’t helping, because I’m just getting new people who are saying that they have a problem. So if you have a problem with the new form but not the old form, would you please let me know? And if you had a problem with the old form and not the new form, please let me know too. I’m trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. I’ll love you forever if you mail me. mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

OK… now admin is done and I get to the real meat of today’s post.

Today as I was preparing to drive around with my family (today is my day off), my muse dangled this little string in front of me. Curious being that I am, I took it and decided to see where it went. And… now I sort of have another major Doorways related project on the to-do list.

Projects, you might ask. Well, I still have to draw more detailed maps of my countries. I still want to draw the important places in my book. I especially still want to write out a significant portion of  two languages.

And now… I have to get the history down. Before book two. Doorways is mainly about events being triggered, but for that to be the case, something must have happened before.

I thought that the current situation was started in the previous generation, but now I’m starting to see that it wasn’t.

Except for that, there are some aspects of the culture that could really do with me knowing exactly what caused them.

Fun, but I can see how that will be time consuming.

But fun. I’m actually thinking about starting either in the current situation and working my way back. On the other hand, it might be a lot more natural to just start at a point in the past and working my way to the present.

Of course, the latter method can be a study on its own…

Anyone else discover the need to write out the history of the places and cultures in your books? How did you go about it?

A to Z Challenge: Back Story

Hi all! I have a competition going to draw a map on the 15th for a blog post. The map will be hand-drawn, but I will scan it and e-mail it to the winner. If you’re interested, please E-mail me at mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT) com with MAP as the RE.


Then I just want to say hi to all my new bloggy friends. Welcome to my mind. I hope you find something of value in the chaos. 😉


On with the post…






Back story can be both a blessing and a curse. But I believe it to be vital to any story.


I cannot even begin to conceive where my characters are coming from if I don’t know at least the essence of their past. When I draw up characters without scratching around in their past, they come out flat and unnatural.


This makes sense to me, because people without pasts can’t be real, can they? And that is what we need our characters to be above all. Real. Authentic.


The same goes for the world that the characters live in. If it doesn’t have a history that you are aware of, how are you going to give a sense of depth to the reader? It’s going to take a lot more information to make sure that the world doesn’t feel like a cardboard diorama. I think this is a bit easier for people who write genres set in our world, but even those genres feel the effect of history.


There must be some reason why investigative protocols are in place. Or why there is a secret room in the house. (Debs, that one’s been playing in my mind all day.) Or why the house the heroine lives in was built in the Tudor style.


Writers in genres like fantasy and sci fi have a bit more work involved here. Because we have to invent the history.


That’s another important reason why back story is needed. They determine the rules. Almost every single one of them. How are these two characters going to interact, given that they have a long and dark past in common? Depends on their personality, yes, but it also depends on every interaction they had before and the outcomes of said interactions. I will go into rules a bit deeper, later in the Challenge.


So yeah… there’s a lot to keep in mind when it comes to back story. But there’s one more thing I want to highlight.


Never. Wait I’ll say it again.


NEVER dump back story in chunks.


Readers want to go forward, not get stuck in the past. So unless the back story holds the key to understanding what is going on in the now of the story, don’t put it in. And if you do, just hint enough of it for the reader to catch the drift.


Nothing quite works as well to stop the momentum as a good lengthy chapter telling the reader what happened.


Note, telling. If you are telling your reader anything, you’re not doing your job. Show them by leaving clues to the past. Not the whole enchilada. 


You want to leave them feeling as if they know the character and where he/she is coming from. But they don’t care about the lengthy part in the middle about the time his/her dog died. So keep it relevant.


Back story is there for the writer to know what’s going on and to subtly clue the reader in about why things are as they are. Just because you know every single bit of history affecting the story, does not mean that all of it has to be laid out on the page.


If you know what’s going on, you can steer the reader where you want without them having the map.

And that should be the goal when you’re plugging back story in the plot.
So… how much time do you spend thinking about back story? Did you think about the history of the world you’re writing in? How do you use back story?