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Re: Write – Backstory Exercise

We’ve been discussing backstory these last few weeks, and we’ll be wrapping it up today. I hope that I’ve shown you how important backstory is and how carefully you need to handle it.

We’ll finish today with an exercise that I did with two other writers. You may remember Francesca from the writing sample she so kindly offered up for public review a couple of months ago. She and Tony and I came up with a character and discussed ways that different backstories would change the direction of the plot.

Because of time constraints, the conversation has been edited for length.

 Me:  Okay, so here’s the plan. I’m going to give you some basic information about a character. Then we’re going to brainstorm possible backstory elements of his or her life.

The goal is to determine how those elements of backstory would affect the direction of the plot, or affect each other.

Our character’s name is Kendall. Male or female?

 Francesca:  Male.

 Tony:  I’d say male as well

Based solely on gut

 Me:  Sounds good. So Kendall is male. 20-something years old. Romantically unattached.

Did he go to college?

Tony:  Yeah, it’s likely

 Francesca:  Probably for a few years, at least.

He studied art.

 Me:  Did he graduate?

Tony:  Okay, yeah, he graduated, or is in the process of graduating

Francesca:  He went to college because that’s what all young adults do; you graduate high school and then you go to college. Then you get a job. It was what was expected of him… Maybe he didn’t enjoy it as much as he thought?

Tony:  If he’s a protagonist and it’s a tragedy, then he’s graduated already

Me:  Why would that make it a tragedy?

Tony: Because, typically, in a tragedy, the protagonist has it all. It’s a fall. An education can easily represent stability and success

Me:  Unless it’s an art degree

 Francesca:  Which is why he dropped out!

Tony:  lol

Or worse


 Me:  One of my favorite characters I ever wrote was a philosophy major who couldn’t do anything after college, so he became a PI

Okay, so, he was an art student, and he graduated. What kind of plot do we expect here?

 Francesca:  Okay. Kendall has an older sister named…Laura…who already went through the whole college biz. She was a business major, graduated with honors, married her college beau, is expecting a kid.

 Me:  Ahh, so he has a  lot to live up to

 Francesca:  Yes.

 Tony:  I’d be tempted to place him in a fantasy type setting, too

Something where there’s an element of science fiction, or magic, or something supernatural

I’d want to make take an ordinary guy and see what happens to him if he’s placed in an extraordinary situation

 Me:  Fun twist.

 Francesca:  Kendall and Laura have a decent relationship; he’s seven years her junior. He feels like his parents have always compared him to her (whether or not they actually DID isn’t relevant, but he FEELS as though they did)

He also feels like Laura was the favorite.

 Tony:  I like everything Francesca’s saying about Laura, too

But maybe this doesn’t strain his relationship with her

But with his parents

 Francesca:  Right, exactly.

 Tony:  Right. I wouldn’t see a great deal of conflict with Laura

UNLESS we made that a plot device

 Francesca:  Their parents are likely divorced, since it’s a modern setting.

 Tony:  Another circumstance to overcome

 Francesca:  Maybe there’s a step-mom

 Tony:  That’d go with the fantasy element


We just wrote Cinderella for a guy

 Francesca:  …Kenderella?

 Me:  Wrinkle on wrinkle. Okay, so we’ve got wicked stepmothers and perfect sisters. So what’s his story question? What’s the difficulty he has to overcome, and what does a happy ending look like for him?

 ***For those of you watching at home, Tony and Francesca have agreed to each write out the answer to the previous question at the same time, and then send the answers simultaneously to look at how their answers differ.

Francesca:  Kendall is 22, has dropped out of school, and is now faced with having to get a job he doesn’t necessarily want to repay student loans. He is happy for / proud of his sister, and his relationship with his parents is rocky. They are disappointed that he has dropped out, and his mother insists that art was probably not the best idea in the first place. His dad is on his side.

Kendall gets a job at the city library. One day, an old cartography book is given to the library and it’s Kendall’s job to sort it and place it or whatever. As he looks through the book, he realizes that the maps are incredibly old and, also, incredibly fictitious. But its quality surpasses that of just any “fantasy book” with a map thrown in for detail. Also, at the back of the book, he finds a key taped (glued? strung?) to the inside cover. There is a smaller map attached to this, a map of his town, leading to the door to which the key belongs. Kendall’s question is whether or not to find the door. The difficulty to overcome: continue in his mediocre life, or set off on an adventure? A happy ending looks like Kendall becoming more sure of himself and feeling as though he has purpose.

 Tony:  Okay. His story… Well, I’m going to place him in an extraordinary situation. Maybe he’s a witness to something, or he sees something that he’s not supposed to. Maybe he develops an ability. An art major drop-out who is wanting to live up to the pressures and expectations of life and his family. So a happy ending for him would look like achieving that balance, and a level of self-discovery that the expectations are actually his own chains. His happy ending is freedom, whether he achieves his goal or not. Maybe he has to save the world, or maybe even save his family. I think that would be cool, that there is an outside force that is putting pressure on his family and causing conflict either from within or without or both. Laura would be oblivious to it, or, if she was aware, would be helpless to do anything. He’d be called to step up, to make his stand, and, in so doing, save the world, save his family, but really he’s trying to save himself. A wicked stepmother would be a good catalyst for this conflict, I think, but it’d be a cool device that he actually ends up being crucial and key to helping Kendall achieve his goals.

 Francesca:  The door could be a parallel to Pandora’s box.

 Tony:  What do you mean?

 Francesca:  Say that we go with the rough plot I mapped out just now, and combine it with your idea. Let’s say he finds this key, and in his insolence and frustration decides that he wants to follow the map. Turns out that the door is a door that is holding back some type of darkness, evil, or other force which then causes trouble in the world. Kendall CAUSED the problem, and now he is faced with how he must fix it?

 Me:  Kendall has to shut the door and save the town from evils galore. That process includes reaching a place of freedom and confidence concerning his place in his family and in society.

How would it change the plot if we revealed in the first chapter of the book that Kendall was an eagle scout.

 Tony:  He would have skills and abilities that would make him unique. Maybe he’s really good at X badge/ability and that would play an important role in one of the trials he must overome

He has to be uniquely suited, even though he seems ordinary, for the task at hand

Also, he hated Boyscouts and didn’t want to do it

But it was just more pressure from his folks and his desire to perform

He’d at least be able to read the map


 Francesca:  It would be able to show off the resentment between him and his parents. Being in Eagle Scouts was an outlet for his parents to show their pride and love; “We love our son, we put him in Boy Scouts, he is very accomplished. We’re so proud.” But as an adult, your parents have to naturally back off. So being an eagle scout, for Kendall, is just a sign to HIM of his parents’ love that is no longer there, or at least not there in the same LEVEL, which he takes personally.

Does that make sense?

 Tony:  Yeah, I think.

 Francesca:  Also I think that it would be a natural lead into Kendall having a kind of entitlement issue.

Me:  Okay, let’s change it up. What if, instead of an eagle scout, Kendall spent a couple of his teenage years in juvie for pickpocketing and stealing.

Tony:  Well my initial instinct is, “That makes it more interesting”

Francesca:  Then the resentment begins earlier. The disappointment of his parents shows up sooner, and it gets balled up inside of him. Did Kendall go through any kind of rehab?

Me:  Rehab? No, I’d say not. A couple of cursory counseling sessions. But mostly he turned eighteen with a GED in hand, and the system turned him loose with a sealed record

How do these two different backstories affect his story question? What kinds of obstacles would an entitled eagle scout have to overcome as opposed to a jaded kid criminal?

Tony:  I think they both feel entitled to some degree. Because in both cases, Kendall would see himself as the victim

In both it’s Kendall taking responsibility

 Francesca:  Eagle Scout Kendall – He needs to overcome this feeling of self-doubt and insecurities which are mostly brought about by his own feelings; he has the capacity to succeed and he KNOWS that and he feels that he CAN get to that success again, somehow.
Juvie Kendall – Outside influences have made him more jaded. Yes, he got to juvie because of what he did, but now he doesn’t have a background of success and accomplishment. He feels that he’s a loser, and will probably always be. He doesn’t really see the point in trying, because other people will just shoot him down or lock him up, maybe?

 Tony:  The Juvie Kendall is more interesting because now he doesn’t just have broken up parents, but also a system that has disciplined him and he feels oppressed and jaded

 Me:  One last question. If we go with Juvie Kendall, do we reveal at the beginning that he was a miscreant? Or do we reveal it toward the end, and hint at it along the way. How does that change the plot?

 Tony:  Later. I want you to hate him at first, and ask yourself, “Why the heck do I even care to read about this guy?”

He’s like Luke Skywalker and the beginning of A New Hope

 Francesca:  It alters the pace significantly either way.

As far as “big reveals” go, I think juvie is pretty minimal.

 Me:  So if it’s a later reveal, it needs to be bigger

 Tony:  Yes

 Me:  Like maybe he killed a guy

 Francesca:  Yeah.


If he was just a petty thief, then you can reveal that early on.

 Tony:  Agreed

Or he had a traumatic experience in Juvie

 Me:  Ah, like what?

 Francesca:  Say he was, oh, molested or even raped. THAT is big-reveal-worthy.

Also gross to think about.

And sad.

 Tony:  Yeah, but it would humanize an otherwise deplorable character

 Me:  Is that cliche? Are there other things that could have happened there?

 Francesca:  Witnessing somebody else murdered, perhaps.

Witnessing some kid commit suicide?

 Tony:  Beatings, somebody else killed

HIs best friend suicide, specificially

Or his love interest

Me:  Okay, well, I think I have more than enough material to give the readers. Thank you for all your help..

 Tony:  No problem. Hope they get something out of it. Have a good one, internets.

Backstory: A Case Study (Cline vs. King)

I’m a picky reader. I’m not shy about it. If I start a book and it doesn’t grab me quickly, I’ll put it down. I don’t know where I get it from ; my dad feels duty bound to finish any book he picks up. Not me. Books need to prove they deserve my time.

So I was on a train between Rome and Salerno last week (yeah, that’s bragging), and I started Ready Player One, a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline that’s apparently all the rage. And, if I hadn’t already promised someone that I would read it, I would probably have put it down.

It’s a short book, fewer than 350 little paperback pages. So it says a lot that the vast majority of the first 70 pages is backstory, with a couple of dialogues thrown in. Once I got past page 70, the action picked up and I actually started enjoying it. Before that? Drudgery.

Much of the problem is that it’s such a very simple plot for such a very complex milieu. Not much has to happen to carry the story forward, but if you’re going to understand any of the plot devices or riddles, you have to know all about the intricate culture and history of the world. This means that the author has to spoonfeed you every little piece of information for the action to make any sense.

To the author’s credit, very little of the information in those first 70 pages is Priority 3 information. You really do need to know most of it for what follows to make sense. But the end result is that the majority of  the beginning of Ready Player One is spent explaining the past, with very little time spent in the present. I wanted to put it down because I just didn’t care.

Which is disappointing, because the second half of the book is actually pretty good. If he’d hooked me from the beginning, I would have had no problem getting there.

I finished Ready Player One. I lay back on the hard, little hotel bed trying to figure out what the author could have done better. I couldn’t cut any of the backstory without weakening the book. I couldn’t add any action just for action’s sake. We just needed more–more character, more drama, more story.

Then, on the plane from Rome to DC, I started 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Oh, man, what a difference.

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s first novel. 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s umpteen millionth. It shows. I read the first five pages, leaned back my head, and sighed. This is what I was missing.

11/22/63‘s plot is every bit as complex as Ready Player One‘s in all the same ways, because the milieu of each book is inundated by the cultures of previous decades. And yes, the first 70 pages of 11/22/63 is largely backstory. But King does two things differently. First, most of that backstory takes place through dialogue, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is much more engaging than narrative. If Cline had found a way to deliver his backstory through dialogue instead of narrative, it would have kept my interest.

But what really got me was those first five pages. Before the backstory, he had a prologue with a scene from the protagonist’s life. It was simply a beautiful scene. It showed us the main character’s personality and exactly why we should love him. It led directly into the main plot. It even introduced a refrain that appears periodically throughout the rest of the book (“I’m not what you would call a crying man.”). It was essentially the perfect prologue.

Cline’s prologue was just more backstory, a scene that showed the personality of a character who was already dead when Cline started talking about him, and that character was just awkward. Then we started Chapter 1 with a main character who was basically flat throughout the first half. After all, it’s hard to develop a character when you’re spending most of your time describing things that happened before he was born.

That prologue symbolizes the difference between an okay book and a really good one. Character first, idea second.

I don’t know your book, but based on my work as an editor, there’s a pretty good chance there are ways you could be handling your backstory better. I provide you this tale of two novels as a demonstration of what to do and what not to do.

What should you not do? Inundate your reader with thick backstory without first giving us a reason to care about your real story.

What should you do? First let your readers really fall in love with your characters in the present, then worry about explaining the past. And when you do give us that backstory, don’t give it all as narrative. Use dialogue. Use internal monologue. Fill that backstory with character, so that we see it through the eyes of the people we’re getting to know.

Because your book is about them. Everything else is just a tool.

This article took two readthroughs.

Researching Your Setting

frenchheadshot2In two words: Do it.

Real World

If your fiction is set in the real world, you’ll want to include setting details that give your story color and depth–verisimilitude. The best way to create that is to research the location you choose. Where in Oklahoma City is that park in relation to the State Capitol? Just how cold does it feel atop Pike’s Peak in July? How long would it take to stroll across Golden Gate Bridge?

Nowadays, Google makes it ridiculously easy to do this type of research…but of course, the best way to do it is to go there. I set my novel Colors of Deception on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, Oklahoma. Conveniently enough, I live about twenty minutes from there, so I was able to spend several days a week there while writing my first draft. I wrote in a student lounge or outside on a bench, all the while soaking up the sights, scents, and sounds of my surroundings. Many of those details made it into the book. I wouldn’t have known to include them had I not experienced them firsthand.

Contrary to what you might think, you’re not doing this kind of research to placate those readers who are familiar with the location you’ve chosen. Many students and alums of Oklahoma Christian University have contacted me with feedback on the novel’s setting–and not all of that feedback has been positive. Some took exception to my changing the layout of a building to fit a certain scene. Others simply found it uncomfortable to read a story set in a place where they live or have lived. Of course, the fact that the storyline includes demons stalking students might contribute to the discomfort. ; )

No, when you research your setting, you’re not doing it for the readers who know the place inside and out. You’re doing your homework research for the readers who’ve never been there. They need to see what your characters see, smell what your characters smell, hear what your characters here, touch what your characters touch. When you research your location, you find out little details that take your setting from flat cardboard backdrop to 3-D IMAX. Setting research enables you to immerse your readers in what is, to them, another world.


Oh, did I not mention? Yes, writers of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m talking to you as well. You didn’t think setting research is the job of only chicklit, lit fic, or urban writers, did you? Nay, my hearties, though you set your stories is worlds unknown, still you must research your settings, lest your stories lack the lustre they might otherwise have possessed.

“But wait!” you say. “How can I research my setting when my setting doesn’t even exist?”

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Well. That’s why I’m here to help. See? This is me. Helping.

And the best way for me to do that is to share another personal example, which will also include another gratuitous link to one of my novels. Sorry ’bout that. ‘Tis just how it goes.

My epic fantasy novel Rethana’s Surrender is set entirely in another world, one where magical powers and dragons and elves exist. In building that world, I invented a crapton of stuff and made rules for how it all works. None of that required research; I made it all up. Boom.


My heroine, the redoubtable Rethana Chosardal, spends half her backstory growing up as a bellringer in a tiny southern town. She and her family live in the top of the belltower. I knew what that should look like, because I’d already visited the belltower that inspired Rethana’s story. But in order to add more tasty tidbits as I wrote, I needed more details.

Enter Wikipedia. Suddenly, I found myself reading about bell metal.

Seriously? Bell metal? I’m a fantasy writer who enjoys painting and hiking and weird word games…and now I’m reading about something as mundane as bell metal*? Really?


Researching your setting will take you all sorts of peculiar places and give you all sorts of new ideas for your story. So go on. Do your homework. Give your characters a real place to live and breathe in, with real sensory input. If you keep your fiction real, your readers will live and breathe there, too.

*It’s actually kinda interesting, as chance would have it.

Writing, (W)romance, and Wraiths

frenchheadshot2Greetings, O Fair and Lovely Ones!

A few weeks back, we talked how-tos, wherefores, and what-nots of writing romance and chick lit. This week, it’s all about taking those sighs and heaving bosoms and transplanting them into your paranormal or fantasy romance.

The Sighs and the Heaving Bosoms

I have a good reason for linking to that previous article on romance. The reason is that I recommend you go read it. Since that one was all about the romance, for me to repeat it here would be exactly that: repetition. And I don’t think any of us want that. So go ahead and click the link and read the post. I’ll be here when you get back. I promise.

See? I’m Still Here

Toldja. ; )

The Ghosts, the Gnomes, and the Goblins

In order to find helpful hints on paranormal/fantasy romance in particular, I consulted my trusty sidekick, Ye Olde Google. The following are my favorite points from the two most informative articles I found, as well as my remarks upon them.

From “Writing Paranormal Romance: 5 Tips to Remember”

1. Solid mythology

This is worldbuilding, y’all. And it’s essential. In fantasy and paranormal anything, your world has to be believable. Yes, you’re making it up, but you’ve also gotta make up rules for it and stick to them. If you want your vampires to sparkle, fine–but give your readers a good background reason for it. On the other hand, if you want your vampires driven and bloodthirsty and vulnerable to sunlight, maybe you should make demonic possession of an Egyptian queen and king part of your world’s backstory. Tell a background story that has its fingers in all your foreground’s pies, and you’ve got a mythology your readers will believe.

2. Strong female lead

She might be a damsel, and she might be in distress, but that doesn’t mean she needs the hero to come swooping in to rescue her every single time. She needs to be active. She needs to know what she wants, and she needs to be able to go out and get it. Let her. Don’t hold her back, waiting for a man to come save her. Yes, he should also be a strong character who plays a role in answering the story question. But his character shouldn’t be so strong that his overshadows hers. Consider being bold enough to let her rescue him once in awhile!

3. Sex appeal (The Return of the Heaving Bosoms)

These characters must have their flaws. They can’t be perfect inside and out, because your readers won’t be able to relate to them.

BUT. In addition to having flaws, they’ve gotta be smokin’ hot as well.

Ahh, conundrum. How I do love thee.

Actually, I’m not kidding. The sexiest people I know? They’re physically sexy because of the little flaws. The cute little crooked tooth. The slightly hooked nose. The quirky upper lip. Symmetry is nice, but it’s kind of boring. Especially when you’re a reader and you have to read the word “perfect” over and over again.

Aside from physical smokin’-hotness, there’s the smokin’-hotness of personality as well. Don’t let a single one of your characters be just another pretty face (unless the character’s particular role is to be just another pretty face, and then you’d better have a rock-solid reason for writing them this way). Add depth and nuance to these people. Give them backstories. Give them inner paradoxes. Make your hero irresistible to your heroine because he says exactly what she needs to hear at exactly the right time. Make your heroine the kind of woman who demands that your reader sit up and take notice.

It’s about more than voluptuous curves and cascading hair and sweeping lashes. These people must have presence. That’s sexy.

3. Violence in service of the Greater Good

If your hero must be violent, then he’s gotta be the “good-guy” kind of violent. Protecting the innocent. Standing firm against all comers. Pursuing the evil. In romance, you want to avoid the hero who’s so flawed that he’s basically a bad guy doing bad things to worse guys. In romance, your hero can be violent, but only because he has no other choice; the Good will suffer if he refuses.


From “Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Romances”

4. Think Aragorn, Arwen, and Éowyn

This article provides what sounds to me like the best definition of paranormal/fantasy romance:

think Lord of the Rings with the focus shifted away from the battles and toward Aragorn and Arwen (via Anne Marble).

I would add that if you drop a determined Éowyn into the mix for a love triangle, you’ve got a pretty good heart-throbbing set-up. How would LotR have turned out if Éowyn had refused to let Aragorn go?

5. Remember the romance.

This seems a rather duh statement, but for realz: When writing paranormal/fantasy romance, don’t get so involved with your ghosts, vampires, or elves that you let their otherworldliness overshadow the romance. The core of your tale is the relationship between two characters, or the triangle of relationships, if that’s what you’re writing. Who ends up together and why and how? That–and not the origin story of your vampires–is the heart of your tale.

6. Don’t forget the laughs.

Romance is funny. Sex is funny. Romance and sex between a human and a non-human (whether dead or undead or ghostly) has the potential to be downright hilarious. (Or gross. But that’s another blogpost.) Exploit the slapstick in your characters’ romances–which sounds a whole lot dirtier than it probably is.


7. Hot sex

Should you include hot sex in your paranormal/fantasy romance? Well, that’s really up to you. Be aware that sex is actually pretty difficult to write, at least if you want to write it interesting and believable (READ: not cheesy; also, see “potentially gross” above). You’ll want to be very clear in your own head who your audience is and what they’re expecting. If the sex you write is too hot, you might cross over from romance into erotica, and that might be a very different readership. So, as you consider “to sex or not to sex,” keep respect for your characters, your genre, and your audience.

But if you do decide to write the hot sex, have fun. ; )


With special assistance from the Wu Tang Clan, I’m going to try and address one of the weirdest, most all-over-the-place topics in the ongoing, evolving mess that is indie and self publishing.

What the HELL should these things cost?

As far as advice, you’ve come to the wrong place because I HAVE NO IDEA.

Money Down!Race To The Bottom?

Once upon a time, $.99 was a magical price for e-books, and people sold tons of them and made a lot of money, and thus was born the e-publishing revolution. But then Amazon figured out that their bottom line would be better if they could get people to charge more for their e-books (probably due to all the teeny tiny credit card transactions, each with its own special fees, but that’s just me guessing), so Amazon incentivized charging higher prices by paying better margins on them.

Now authors, nearly all of whom got into writing so they could avoid doing complicated math problems, found themselves doing complicated math problems to see if they could make more money by upping their price. Many of them upped the price without doing the math, many of them started the math and never finished it before upping the price, and many left the price alone for various and sundry reasons.

Suddenly you had multiple tiers of e-book pricing where once the $.99 stronghold had reigned. This naturally led to what marketing people call “perceived value.” Perceived Value is when consumers assume one product is better than another just because it costs more. This is the Jedi mind trick used by Apple, for instance, that allows them to charge otherwise intelligent people a higher price for owning a device with an apple logo on it just because it has an apple logo on it.

And just as suddenly, you had authors concerned about their image and how this tied into what they charged for their e-books. These authors started to use phrases like the aforementioned “perceived value” and “race to the bottom.”

How Unique Can Your Pricing Be When They All End In 99?Money up!

So now you have short stories settling in at around $.99, novellas sometimes costing $2.99, and full length novels slotting in somewhere between $2.99 and $4.99. Or more. Then you get into givewaways or loaning options, and you get to add a new bottom called “FREE” to race too.

Even more complicated, you have very smart people (many of whom blog about their experiments) changing the prices of different books in a series, giving one away this month and jacking up the price next month, and any other permutation you can imagine. Then they combine this with their sales figures and their ranking, and do some kind of voodoo economics behind the scenes and come to rock solid conclusions.

Rock solid conclusions that probably don’t match anybody else’s rock solid conclusions. Which leaves those of us who didn’t want to do the math in the first place swimming in even more confusing, information-rich waters.

Running MoneyThe Oldest Price in the Book

As I am one of the math-challenged, I have no idea what to charge for e-books. On the other hand, I know exactly what to charge for them. The same thing you charge for anything.

As much as you can get.

That’s right, get the money, dolla dolla bill y’all.

Now figuring out what that is…well, now I want your input. Friends, readers, authors, lend me your thoughts. What’s the right price for an e-book? Does it change  if  it’s self- or indie-pubbed versus traditionally published? When does it get too high? Does a too low price make them worth less in your head? Do the answers change for you if you take off your author hat and put on your consumer hat? Tell me what you think!

Backstory: A Case Study (Koontz)

Last week I introduced the Biographical Priority Index. It’s the handy-dandy system we can use to rate elements of a character’s backstory based on whether and when to introduce them. Priority 1 information is stuff we need to introduce as soon as practical (note that says practical, not possible; it’s awkward if you force information into scenes where it doesn’t belong). Priority 2 information is stuff we need to know, but not right away. That includes plot twists and the release of suspended information, as well as less important info – more on that in a moment. Priority 3 stuff gets included, but it’s only for flavor. Priority 4 stuff is left out.

When I think of a book that handles backstory well, I’m a little surprised to find that a minor novel by Dean Koontz is the first one that comes to mind. Koontz is a typewriting machine. He hammers away at 5,000 words a day and publishes at a prodigious rate. That means many of his stories tend to get formulaic, though he produces some gems every now and again (I’ve mentioned the Odd Thomas series before as an example). His book The Good Guy has stuck with me. It’s an enjoyable read, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by the different priorities of information.

Avast, there be spoilers ahead! I’m just dealing with the protagonist here; there isn’t near enough time to deal with the anima’s (love interest’s) backstory, or with the antagonist’s (that guy’s a real piece of work, too).

Koontz does some really great things with metaphors. He opens up The Good Guy with a real doozie:

Sometimes a mayfly skates across a pond, leaving a brief wake as thin as spider silk, and by staying low avoids those birds and bats that feed in flight.

At six feet three, weighing two hundred ten pounds, with big hands and bigger feet, Timothy Carrier could not maintain a profile as low as that of a skating mayfly, but he tried.

Am I right? We see that Timothy is a big guy in good shape. In character terms, we know instinctively that that probably means he’ll be called upon to accomplish physical feats of daring-do, so this is Priority 1 information to let us know what to expect from him. And notice that it’s not delivered like an ESPN stat. Koontz conveyed that info with class. It’s okay to spice up your descriptions every once in a while. We also see that he tries to maintain a low profile, which says a lot about his personality. Indeed, throughout most of the book, it’s obvious he’s done something or been somewhere, but he’s reluctant to say.

You may not know it yet, but that opening line also conveys a really great image of the theme of the book. Koontz paints us a picture of a tiny creature trying to hide from predators, then tells us that this is what Timothy wants but what he’s ultimately unable to have.

In fact, Timothy soon gets mistaken for a professional hitman and given a target to kill. He decides to try to help the target instead. He tells his friend Liam he’ll be gone without telling him why; then, in a great scene, he tells Liam’s wife, Michelle. Throughout the scene, we see that there’s definitely history here. Michelle has a glass eye and a prosthetic arm. What happened to her?

And then, toward the end of the scene, we get this exchange.

She seemed to hold tight to him, as if with ghost fingers, and she kissed the back of his hand.

“Thank you for Liam,” she said softly.

“God gave you Liam, not me.”

“Thank you for Liam,” she insisted.

There is Priority 1 information here. It’s that Tim at some level is responsible for Liam and Michelle being together. But that’s all the Priority 1 Koontz wants to give. It’s obvious that the rest is Priority 2. That’s what I meant earlier when I mentioned the release of suspended information. This scene suspends a big piece of backstory just out of sight. All that we’re given now is the present effect of that past event. That’s the best way to build up suspense regarding backstory. Show how that backstory affects your characters, but don’t show why until it’s necessary.

We really start to wonder about Tim’s past after he’s found the target (a pretty, available girl, of course) and is fleeing with her while the real hitman pursues them. After a brief car chase in which shots are exchanged, Tim gets out of the car and makes his stand in the middle of the street.

The glow of headlights bloomed, and a moment later the Chevy cut the corner.

Point-blank, at the risk of being run down, Tim squeezed off three shots, aiming not at the windshield, not at the driver’s-side window, but at the front tire as the car swept past him, fired two more rounds at the rear tire. He saw the front rubber deflate and peel, and maybe he got the back tire, too.

The pistol had a slick double-action trigger pull that felt like it broke at just about seven pounds.

The recoil-spring weight seemed to be about sixteen pounds, good enough for standard-pressure ammo.

The piece had felt remarkably comfortable in his grip.

He didn’t know what to think about that.

He told himself that not just any gun would have served him so agreeably, that the credit belonged entirely to this fine compact weapon, but he knew that he was lying to himself.

Okay, seriously, who is this guy? We know he has some kind of history he doesn’t like to talk about, and now all of a sudden he’s pretty darn handy with a handgun and he’s a total hoss in the face of an oncoming car. Again, Koontz leaves the backstory suspended. All we see is what effect the backstory has on the present, and that makes us wonder more and more about what it could be.

It’s the same effect as when you hold a dog biscuit just to the side of a dog’s head but tell him to wait. The dog continues to look at you, but you can see the muscles in his neck and jaw tense as he somehow manages to keep himself from snapping at your hand. That’s what you want to do to your readers.

Here’s the intriguing thing about The Good Guy. Normally the Great Reveal takes place right before the climax, so that the reader goes into the final moments of the story knowing who the character really is and what he’s taking into battle with him. It’s a solid enough plot device that it’s earned its place as a trope. But Koontz withholds the Priority 2 information until after the climax, after Tim takes out the real hitman. The thing is, in this case that’s okay. We know so much about Tim’s character (and the antagonist’s) that we have plenty of emotional need for the story to wrap up. Then it’s fine later, when the action has wound down, that we discover that Tim won the Medal of Honor in Iraq, that he saved dozens of fellow soldiers and civilians by demonstrating the ultimate courage under fire. Liam and Michelle were both soldiers under his command, explaining both her injuries and their romance. The effect is that we end the story nodding to ourselves, saying, “Yes, this makes sense.” It jives with what we already know.

I value The Good Guy because Koontz knows that he doesn’t have to throw the character’s history at you at the beginning. He waits to include it at the end. Tim’s Medal of Honor isn’t necessary for us to know who he is and what he’s about and to care about him. We care about him because we see him showing that same bravery in the present. Koontz is never shy about how Tim’s past affects him–we see it throughout the book–but that information absolutely takes priority over the backstory itself.

This article required three readthroughs.

What’s in a Focal Point?

When you see a book, a photo, or a webpage, your eyes seem to instantly see it all. In reality, there’s always something you look at first before moving onto the next object a millisecond later. Often our eyes start at the top left corner of the page because, through multiple millennia, we’ve trained most of the world by always reading pages from left to right.  That natural inclination doesn’t have to be the case. By carefully considering how you place the elements on the page, you can use the human eye against itself. You can make it look, if only for a split second, at what you want: the focal point of your cover.

What should be the focal point of your book cover? As much as you might like to make your title and your name AND your imagery as large as possible, making all three the same size has the opposite effect. Instead of drawing attention to everything, it will make everything blend in with everything else and you’ll end up with a stagnant cover where nothing stands out.

So it’s time to think. What is the most important part of your book cover?

Is it the title? Have you crafted a title so witty and engaging that people will be drawn to it by the words alone?
Is it your name? Will people be attracted to your book by author name alone? This only works if you truly believe with good reason that people:
a) are looking at your book because they’ve read your other work
b) even remember what your name is (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read and then discovered I had enjoyed other books by the same person)
Is it the imagery? Do you have an excellent, eye-catching illustration that will speak to a potential reader from across the room (or on a side bar of a website?)
Is it extraneous material like a review from a well-known author, a tagline or an award?

Once you’ve decided on the most important part of your book cover, then, in order to make it the star of your cover, you need to consider visual hierarchy. This was touched upon (but not actually mentioned) in this post. I had mentioned how that particular Game of Thrones cover didn’t work because all the elements were the same size–taking up a third of the book. Because of this, the design appeared a bit stagnant*.

So what is visual hierarchy? Simply, it is the order in which a person’s eye perceives the parts of a design, often in a split second. Determining the order which that eye wanders through the design is done by emphasizing the contrast between the objects on the page, through their placement, color, value and size. The object with the most contrast wins the contest and your eye’s momentary attention.


Doesn’t the large white flower really contrast against the background?

*Note: Just because a design has equal three parts doesn’t mean it won’t work. Visual hierarchy relies on other factors like contrast and color to effectively direct a viewer’s gaze.

What a Bunch of Characters!

frenchheadshot2Happy Monday, y’all! On today’s episode of Prewriting with Courtney, you get to see me balance a beach ball on my nose–

No, wait. That’s Tuesdays.

Today, we’re going to talk about the lovely people who populate your stories and how you need to figure them out before you dive into writing them. After all, you’re going to have a much easier time staying in character and moving these characters along to the climactic conclusion of their tale if you’ve spent time beforehand figuring out who they are, what they like, what they dislike, and–most importantly!– what they want.

To accomplish this, you’re going to need a Character List.

Character List


Start with your main character, aka protagonist, aka Our Hero/ine. In 300 words, describe your protagonist. Briefly describe her age, physical appearance (this will keep you from making her a redhead in Chapter 1 and a brunette in Chapter 11), vocation, nationality.* Describe her day-to-day life before the story starts. Not a lot of detail, just what she expects out of life (which the Big Event interrupts). Then define the Something that she desperately wants. This will be what she fights to get during the whole course of the story. (And you won’t let her get it until the end, you cruel thing, you).


Spend another 100-300 words describing your antagonist: age, physical appearance, vocation, nationality.* Define his relationship to your protagonist. Then name the Something he wants — which should be in direct opposition to what your protagonist wants. Your antagonist desperately wants to make sure the protagonist doesn’t achieve her goal. You need to define his motivation. (Separate from the Character List, you’ll need to name at least five obstacles your protagonist must overcome during the story–and these should be obstacles the antagonist places in her way.)

Supporting Characters

In 100 words each, describe your most important supporting characters: age, physical appearance, vocation, nationality.* Define their relationships to the protagonist and/or antagonist.

*Character Profiles

In addition to your character descriptions, you can also do in-depth character profiles. This is entirely optional! Not in the least because it’s a ton of work, and you won’t want to do this for every single character. If you do want to use this list, I’d recommend limiting yourself to the protagonist and antagonist. The in-depth profile can include the following:

Age appearance:
Ethnic Background:
Marital Status:
Phone Number:

Religion/Religious Background:
Political Affiliation:
Social Class:
Date Graduated:
Name Of School:
Residence (Type):
City/Country Background:
Describe Furnishings:
Physical Condition/Disabilities:
Most Significant Other(s):
Community Status:
Languages Spoken:
Sexual Orientation:
Sexual Habits:
Sexual Experience:
Type Of Friends Preferred:
Type Of Lovers Preferred:
What Hometown Was Like:
Biggest Accomplishment/Best Known For:
Favorite Book:
Favorite Magazine:
Favorite Newspaper:
Favorite Music:
Favorite Movie:
Favorite TV Show:
Favorite Actor/Actress:
Favorite Place:
Favorite Color:
Favorite Entertainment:
Favorite Food/Diet:
Favorite Drink:
Favorite Sport:
Personal Possessions/Toys:
Taste In Art, Literature, Decor:
Name Transmits First Impression To Reader:
Reason/Meaning Behind Name:

Complexion/Skin Tone:
Distinguishing Marks:
Hair Texture:
Predominant Feature/What Noticed First:
Physical Aids?:
How They Walk:
Eye Shape:
Sensitivity To Others Demonstrated Through The Eyes:

Parents’ Marital Status:
Home Life/Childhood Experience:
Family Relations:
Family History:

Education In Work:
Job-Related Skills:
Favorite Subjects (School):
Poorest Subjects:
Grades (School):
Quality Of Work Performed:
Hours Worked:
Vocation, Discover New Territories:

Enlisted Rank:
Highest Rank Achieved:
Service Dates:
Served Under What Ruler:

Ambitions, Aspirations, Desires:
Major Traits:
Minor Traits:
Outstanding Qualities:
Character Flaws/Weaknesses:
Character Strengths:
Habitual/Favorite Expressions:
Habitual Mannerisms:
Fears, Anxieties, Hangups:
Attitude Toward Life:
Attitude Toward Death:
Most Cherished Beliefs/Values:
Worst Habit:
Highest Hope:
Preoccupations, Worries:
Biggest Source Of Pride:
Biggest Source Of Shame Or Defeat:
How They Talk/Speech Patterns (Diction, Tone, Speed, Pitch):
Direct Statement Of Thoughts:
Body Language/Posture:
Perception Of Others:
Evaluations Of Others:
Reactions To Others:
Involvement With Objects:
Attitude Toward Opposite Sex:
How They Handle Crisis:
Memories, Dreams:
How They Protect Themselves:
Public Persona:
Daily Habits:
How They Dance:
Pet Peeves:
Ways Of Dealing With Children Or Those In Inferior Positions:
Eating Habits (When, What, How):
Motivational Patterns/What Gets Them Going:
Landscape Observations–We Are A Product Of Where We Live:
Point Of View (Neurosis, Self-Absorbed, What Noticed First In A Room,
Degree Of Intensity = Pace Of Life:
Attention To Detail/Degree Of Concentration:
Confidence Factor:
How They Treat People They Like:
How They Treat People They Dislike:
How They React When Angry/Upset:
Self-Value/How They See Themselves:
Personality Type:
How They’d Describe Themselves:
Do They See Themselves As Happy/Satisfied?:
Do They See Themselves As A Hero?:
Sense Of Humor:
Most Instructive/Meaningful Experience:
Attitude Toward Sex/Sexual Values:
Attitude Toward Religion:
Attitude Toward Politics:
Attitude Toward Authority:
Ethnic Considerations:
Attitude Toward Money:
Attitude Toward Work:
Attitude Toward Play:
Attitude Toward Their Looks:
Opinion As A Soldier/Fighter:
Feelings Toward Family:
Feelings Toward Friends:
Feelings Toward Enemies:
Philosophy Of Life (In A Phrase):

Disclosure: I’ve had that in-depth profiling list in my digital documents for years. I have no idea where it came from, but I know I didn’t compose it myself. If you recognize it and know where it originated, please let me know as I’d love to give credit! Thanks.

Love in an Elevator

We’ve had the pleasure of targeting (or, to be more realistic, eliminating) the largest swathe of readers with BISAC. We’ve also re-visited how cover and promotional copy will hook specific readers once your category has narrowed them significantly. Today, though, I want to talk about how to hook someone’s interest. And this person doesn’t necessarily have to be even a potential reader.

Press a Button

Elevator buttonsWhat we’re talking about is the so-called Elevator Pitch. This is the explanation of your book/screenplay/game/TV show/movie/webseries that you can drop on somebody between the lobby and the tenth floor. You have two or three sentences in ten or fifteen seconds to take this person from mild (dis)interest to slavering excitement. This, friends, is no mean feat.

The way I see it, there are two main ways.

  1. The Weaponizing of Weaponized Plot
  2. The Hollywood High Concept

So let’s chat about them, shall we?

The Weaponizing of Weaponized Plot

In discussing creating promotional copy, I talked about weaponizing the plot. You boil the plot of your novel down to the bare minimum of the most interesting and attention-grabbing facts and character bits, then throw them at your potential reader in the cleverest way possible. It’s like shooting readers with mind-bullets polished to gleaming.

But with the Elevator Pitch, you have to do that even more. For your promotional copy, you boiled it down to 100-300 most exciting words. For this you need to get it down to about twenty. Lemme give you some examples.

  • Downtrodden boy discovers he’s a wizard.
  • Wizard private detective solves occult crimes in Chicago.
  • Crazy old billionaire clones dinosaurs for theme park.
  • Giant robots from outer space disguised as vehicles fight a secret war on Earth.
  • Misanthropic but brilliant doctor cures weird and rare diseases while being a jerk to everyone.

So I might have misled you a bit when I said to boil the promotional copy down to the bare minimum. In comparison to this, back cover copy is War & Peace. This is the absolute bare minimum. If I took even one word out of some of those, the sentence wouldn’t even make sense.

But in each case, I’m hitting the most marketable bits of each story. Yeah, that’s right, marketable. The Elevator Pitch is handy for selling your story to a random conversant at a cocktail party, which can be pretty important since you never know how vocal a proponent anyone might be. But it’s also a useful tool for selling a television or movie producer once you’ve slipped past his security and, oh I don’t know, dove into an elevator with him for a short jaunt to upper floors.

It’s also really fun to just add “and hijinks ensue” at the end.

The Hollywood High Concept

The Dresden Files have been described as “Philip Marlowe meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Quantum Leap is “time travel meets Kung-Fu (the TV series).” Splash is “a fish out of water story with a mermaid.” The comic book Irredeemable is “Superman goes bad.” Iron Sky is “Nazis on the Moon.” Inception is a “heist movie in dreams.” Die Hard is such an amazing high concept in and of itself that it’s become shorthand in other high concepts. Snakes on a Plane is nothing but high concept.

The Hollywood High Concept is basically when you use other properties combined or mashed together to explain what your story is about. Superman is a paragon of good, he would never go bad…but what if he did?! Sure, we’ve all seen clever guys stealing things from jerks past unbeatable security procedures, but we’ve never seen it done in a man’s subconscious! You get the idea.

I used to hate this kind of thing. It seemed reductive to the point of making every story absurd or derivative. But my distaste was entirely due to me missing the point. It is absurdly reductive by design. The whole point of Hollywood High Concept is to explain the most basic of all gists from your story by using other stories.

The above description of the Dresden Files gives me heartburn. I like all three of those properties and it doesn’t do justice to any of them. At the same time, I get exactly what they mean even if none of the details match up. And I got it in seven words and five seconds. That’s a pretty powerful pitch, which is what the High Concept is always meant to be.

Elevate the Discourse

So what’s the point? Well, there are a few. In this world of webseries and Netflix or Amazon studios, you no longer have to be hobnobbing on the left coast in order to have a shot at getting your story translated to another medium. Even if you aren’t that interested in pursuing  that, having the Elevator Pitch in your back pocket couldn’t hurt in case you run into somebody who likes the sound of it and wants to write you a fat check to see it turned into a move or show.

If nothing else, it will allow you to talk about your work with a suave detachment. For instance, when people ask me about my book TEEN Agents in the Plundered Parent Protocol, it’s sometimes appropriate to give them the sorta-feminist dad rant that led me to write it. but far more often, I sound less like a lunatic if I just say “It’s Saved By the Bell meets James Bond.” And not sounding crazy is also a pretty powerful pitch.

Backstory: The Untold Story

One of my favorite things about being a writing coach is that I get to come up with my own terminology, and I can make it as serious or as frivolous as I like.

My unofficial list of rules of writing, which I’ll have to make official one of these days, is called “Thomas’s Rules of Writing.” I could just as easily call it “The Chicken List.” And, if it’s a quality list, generations from now someone could quote Chicken #5 in an English class and get extra credit for it.

All that is to say that, as we discuss character backstory today, I’ve come up with a handy guide for classifying various bits of character information. As much as I want to call it “The Deathray Plan,” or maybe something subtle like “Policy 13,” I’m going with “The Biological Priority Index.”

Simple. Straightforward. Effective.

Having constructed our characters through our prewriting packets and our improv exercises, we are left with a ton of information about our characters. How do we sort through it? More importantly, how do we decide what information is vital enough to include and what’s banal enough to excise?

If only there were some index by which we could measure the priority of biographical information.

Because, believe me, not all backstory is created equal. If I’m reading a book about a terrorist, I don’t want to know about his childhood bedwetting problem unless those wet sheets really mean something to the story. If not, leave it out. Fiction should be lean. Bloating is never pretty.

And even if information is important, there’s still the question of when to reveal it. In The Sixth Sense, we need to know right away that Bruce Willis is a child psychologist. But if we know from the beginning that he’s dead, the movie’s ruined. (That’s all a plot twist is, after all. It’s just appropriately timed backstory.)

So once you have your character’s backstory, you need to prioritize it. The BPI is a handy rubric for doing just that.

Priority 1 information is crucial to the story and should be revealed as soon as is practical.

Priority information is crucial but should be withheld for dramatic effect.

Priority 3 information is nonessential but may provide color and insight into a character, milieu, or situation.

Priority 4 information is nonessential and should not be included.

How your backstory details are classified depends on the themes of your story. If you have two possible plotlines for the same character, one might emphasize his bedwetting history while the other emphasizes his relationship with the deceased. It all depends on where you want to go with your characters.

In our story about our terrorist – call him Carl – let’s say our theme is the moral consistency of people from different cultures. Carl therefore functions as an antihero who does some bad things for some good reasons. By the end of the story, we want him to do some good things for some good reasons.

Let’s build a rudimentary plot arc. The story begins when Carl assassinates a member of parliament. His immediate goal is to escape to safety. He accomplishes this but, at Plot Point 1, discovers that his brother has been arrested for the crime.

Carl’s new goal is to free his brother while remaining free himself. His efforts take us to Plot Point 2, where he sees how his actions have hurt the victim’s brother. Now racked with remorse, Carl struggles with himself until the climax, where he turns himself in and makes restitution for his crimes. Justice, and the plot, are satisfied.

This arc and our theme determine what backstory we will provide for Carl. The fact that he has a brother is definitely Priority 1, since it’s a major plot point later on. His reasons for the assassination are also Priority 1 because of the theme; if this were just a simple action story with no moral quandary, his motives would be Priority 3 or even 4.

What about Priority 2? That the victim has a brother is a good example of something that should take the reader by surprise. After all, this is from Carl’s point of view, and Carl may not know or care until he connects that fact with his own situation. Likewise for any information clarifying Carl’s moral development, since that’s the theme. The existence of Carl’s brother may be Priority 1, but the fact that Carl is the real father of his brother’s children and still feels guilt for that betrayal is information that can be held until later. The delayed revelation gives the reader new insight into why Carl tries so hard to redeem his brother.

Is there room for the bedwetting? Maybe. If it’s associated with, oh, his memories of his abusive father, it could be Priority 3 info and find a place in the plot; it will never be Priority 2 or 1.

Carl’s high school girlfriends are Priority 4. Whether he has a Traditional or Roth IRA is Priority 4. His favorite movie, what he dreamed last week, even the color of his eyes: all are Priority 4. Sure, you can make a case for them to be Priority 3 and include them, but at some point it’s just too much. You have to draw the line somewhere. You have to cut backstory in service to the plot, even if those individual elements are interesting in themselves.

What I want you to avoid is information overload. I’ve edited books where there was so much backstory, especially in the first chapter, that it stalled the plot. What happened before is incidental ; it’s what’s happening now that matters. If you find that your backstory is more interesting than your plot, consider setting your story in the past. There’s no shame in that. I’ve done it.

I’ll finish by being frank. As a reader, I don’t want to know your protagonist’s whole backstory. You may be proud of it. I’m happy for you. But if Jeannie is a jogging instructor, she needs to jog at some point in your story. If she never wears deodorant, make her pay for it. If she loves meatloaf, poison it or lose it.

Story over all.

This article took five readthroughs.