Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Adding Depth to Your Writing: Past, Present, and Future

I'm always looking for ways to go deeper into my writing.  Over the weekend I began finalizing my first book trailers--the subject of a whole 'nother post coming soon--and as I searched through my images I realized that to display the full "flavor" of a story, I needed to know the past, present, and future of my characters in an entirely new way.

Usually when I talk about past/present/future with my writing students and clients I'm talking about tense, e.g., try not to switch from past to present tense in the same paragraph, or, maybe 800 pages of present-tense-only is a little tedious.  But this time I wanted to use the concept to explore where my characters came from, where they are in the story, and where I want them (and the reader) to be at the end of the book.  Thinking along these lines has added a fresh new approach to my usual "character biography." For instance,
  • Fully examining your characters' pasts can give you the core or real story you are trying to tell. The place they’ve come from is a huge influence on all of their future actions, motivations, and goals. Know that place inside out.
  • Knowing where your characters have come from can help with your pitch and marketing materials: “A girl from the wrong side of the tracks…” “Born into the royal family…” Ask yourself what you really know about “the wrong side of the tracks” or what goes on behind closed palace doors. Find out and use those details to enliven and enrich your presentation.
  • When you can write about your character's past with a strong degree of empathy, you immediately create a bond with your readers, some of whom can identify with a similar past or birthplace.
  • “You can take the girl off of the farm…” We always take a little bit of where we’re from wherever we go. Tiny, telling details your characters carry with them can add volumes to your tale in minimal words. For instance, a habit of liking a certain kind of candy only available in a certain town, or flowers that only grow in the mountains of Tibet…  Speech patterns are especially telling.  Any colloquialisms, small phrases, or accents that can’t be abandoned can and should appear , especially at the most inappropriate times.
  • The past, for good or bad, can be something we all cling to.  Despite the need to change, having your characters attached to the past for comfort or out of bad habit will increase their difficult journey toward growth, and will add to your conflict.
  • There’s nothing like secrets to enliven a plot. Having your characters do their darndest to keep those secrets from the past hidden in the present can add a lot of literary oomph.
  • The present can be (and perhaps should be) a complete contrast to the past. If your character has come from warm and cozy, make sure his or her present life is hard and mean. A character from poverty suddenly thrust into fame and fortune can long for the days of scrubbing pots below stairs. An unfamiliar present can be a great source of misery.
  • Future goals are the impetus of your story; characters should keep their eyes on the prize at all times. The future should be a delicious dangling carrot or strawberry bon-bon always just there, in sight, tormenting and goading your characters into action.
  • The future can also be a bad place readers don’t want your character to go, e.g., into the arms of Mr. Wrong; that trip to Antarctica everyone knows they shouldn’t take; stepping into a dark basement without a flashlight or baseball bat. Increase readers' fears for your characters whenever possible.
  • As much as readers love to agonize and worry for your characters, readers also live for the hope that everything in your story is going to end happily ever after. Keep that hope alive as long as you can. And if you must re-stage Hamlet in outer space, at least make a body-strewn ending literary, satisfying, and “just right."
  • Sometimes the best endings fill readers’ heads with all kinds of possible alternatives. In my book club I know we love to speculate: Did Claire and Max get married? Do you think Rosie got the job she wanted? Does the world really end in 20102? Readers like to extend the story in their minds; it's part of what makes a plot “unforgettable.”
  • At the same time, don’t forget you can spin out your story into a near-never-ending future with a sequel or perhaps a complete series.
Tip of the day: Go through a manuscript you are still writing or one you have already finished. How can you pump up “past, present, and future” to reinvigorate your pages or to enliven your query, synopsis, and pitch?

1 comment:

Rachel Fenton said...

This is great advice, Valerie. Your students/clients are lucky to have you.