Yesterday’s post on the narrative difference between conflict and adversity ended with some specific advice: Avoid adversity by putting malicious cause behind your protagonist’s setbacks. The best way to do that is to make your antagonist responsible, but sometimes it can be a challenge to follow through on that.
The trick is to manage your antagonist’s off-screen antics so they’re consistent and believable. If you do that well enough, even if it never moves beyond a thought experiment, the events of your story will take on a whole new cohesiveness.
Before we get into our proper lesson, I’d like to introduce another little bit of jargon I’ve run into recently: “Lonely Fun.” Joshua Unruh introduced me to the phrase when he named me the king of it.
This isn’t particularly a storytelling term (and, again, not a dirty euphemism). It comes from Joshua’s other major background: gaming. In the role-playing game crowd, “lonely fun” refers to all the work a player does within a game system but not directly related to an actual (multiplayer) game session.
For a player, that might mean rolling up a bunch of characters he’ll never actually use in a campaign. For a game master, it might mean designing remote and far-flung cultures, histories, and artifacts that the players are unlikely to ever actually come across, just for completeness.
If you’re a writer at all, that should sound awfully familiar. I’ve generally referred to it as backstory, but I honestly spend a ton of time thinking about and working through details for my story worlds that never make it into the narrative at all. Most of the time I know they won’t, but my curiosity drags me down those paths anyway.
Incidentally, the title I got from Joshua was well-deserved. We were talking through some of the 4,000-year history of my fantasy world and it is surprisingly rich and deep for a world that only has two complete novels written (set within a couple hundred years of each other) and barely a handful plotted. That’s a little bit excessive.
But not all backstory is “lonely fun.” During the first couple semesters of my Master of Professional Writing studies, my professor Deborah Chester has introduced me to another term, and this one is industry jargon: “Hidden Story.”
“Hidden story” refers to all the things that happen during your story that are not shown directly to the reader. This includes things your protagonist does between scenes, and what the secondary and supporting characters are doing.
It might include the cops investigating an incident that your (civilian) sleuth is independently investigating. It usually will include everything your antagonist is doing to set up the obstacles your protagonist ends up encountering.
Obviously there’s a whole world of things going on that don’t have any relevance to your story. That’s the lonely fun. But there are big parts of the hidden story that happens off-camera but has direct ramifications for your plot. That’s hidden story.
Hidden Story Summary (Creative Writing Exercise)
And hidden story is how you manage your protagonist’s adversity. Hidden story is where (and when) your antagonist finds the time to set up obstacles. Hidden story is where (and when) your sidekick manages to get kidnapped. Hidden story is where (and when) the villain breaks into the lab and steals the piece of equipment necessary for his grand plan.
You don’t tell the hidden story, but the hidden story is running quietly in the background, propping up your whole plot. It easy to ignore hidden story and let it write itself, but that gets you stuck with implausible (or just inconsistent) obstacles and aggravating adversity instead of compelling conflict.
So here’s your exercise for this week: Consider your current work-in-progress, and evaluate its hidden story. What are you taking for granted? Who’s pulling the strings? What’s happening in between your protagonist’s bouts of pure heroism?
Work it through and make sure it’s logical enough. Make sure your villain can realistically tie the girl to the railroad tracks, get all the way to Nevada to steal a nuclear warhead, and get back to town in time to suspend some other girl from the clocktower within the time period you’ve indicated on-camera.
Make sure you know exactly what happened as part of the antagonist’s scheme, and when it happened, and where everyone else was. That’s as critical for a rom-com as it is for a James Bond novel.
You’re already in the habit of writing scene lists and synopses. Take an hour this afternoon, and spend 300 words writing a synopsis for the story you’re not telling. I guarantee it’ll make your novel better.