getting your backstory straight

Backstory is history that helps your reader to better understand the motivations and inner lives of your characters, it can help them to care about and identify with your characters. Unlike a history lesson, backstory should be brief, giving enough information to enlighten, without disrupting the forward motion of the story.

When deciding where to include backstory, be mindful of placement – make it relevant to the context, and keep the length of exposition proportionate to the pace.  If backstory is inserted between lines of dialogue it should be no longer than a line or two, it can be longer if it occurs during a lull in the action.

Help your reader to easily distinguish between present action and backstory by using clear transitions when introducing the backstory and when bringing the reader back to the action. One way to do this is to use an object, such as a vase or a photograph, as the ‘trigger’ or conduit into backstory, and as a point of reference when you return to ‘the present’. This will help your reader to stay oriented.




subtxt: omg srsly wym

Subtext – the key to powerful dialogue

When people talk, they don’t always say what they mean, they don’t say everything they know, and they don’t know everything they feel.  That’s why god created subtext.

Often we empathize with a character more when she fights what she feels than when she expresses it. Strive to keep your characters from being too articulate and self aware.

Writing exercise: Take a scene that you have already written and ask: is the dialogue too on the nose, too direct?  If it is, revise it so that your characters communicate one thing by saying something else.

For each character it helps to ask:  What is their motivation?  What are they feeling as they say these lines?  What are they trying to accomplish?

It can actually be more fun to witness characters talking to each other when they are indirect, misdirected, inarticulate, or unaware.

Try it.  When you are finished you can post it here if you like.

making a scene

How to make a scene.

Every story (and all its components) assumes a basic contract between the writer and the reader – readers want a world they can believe in, characters that matter, and stories that invite and compel them to care.  It is up to the writer to provide all that and more.

At the most basic level you must help your readers to know where they are, who is there, what they’re doing and when the action is taking place –all in a way that feels effortless and natural.

Your scene set-up may be accomplished in a sentence or two, a paragraph, or longer – but keep in mind that you must peak your readers interest right away and then keep them hooked. If your reader feels lost they’ll lose interest. If things move too slowly or if the set-up and what follows feels contrived, they’ll quit and switch to television.

Here are some basic guidelines for making a scene:

Start in the middle of things and pull your reader into the story, introduce your characters doing or saying something which will give your reader the feeling of being in the heart of the story.

Skip small talk and meaningless or overwrought details. Include what is essential to the story and illuminates character development. Present the action as if it is unfolding on stage.Make sure that the story keeps momentum, don’t let dialogue stray from what is important, don’t let descriptions interrupt forward motion, and remember conflict, conflict, conflict.


Tag Lines – look who’s talking

Effective dialogue gives the illusion of real speech. Dialogue is edited speech, organized and directed, while retaining the style of real-life speech.  It should be lean and brief.

When writing dialogue, it is important to be clear about who is talking, so we use tag lines such as the she said/he said device to distinguish between speakers.  It’s best to keep it simple – avoid overuse of ‘said’ substitutes (such as: whispered, screamed, cried, sang) as these tag lines, though sometimes appropriate, if used too often can be distracting. Avoid the use of adverbs, ‘ly’ words, following ‘said’ in tag lines – such as: she said brazenly. Instead of telling us, show us in her actions or the content of her speech, that she is being brazen.

There are effective ways of writing dialogue that incorporate narrative – communicating what your characters are doing while they talk – I call this choreography – and also communicating important information about your story – exposition. You can use choreography and exposition by alternating between lines of dialogue and narrative, but keep the narrative brief, don’t let it interfere with the flow of the dialogue, or slow the pace of the scene.

When incorporating exposition don’t give your reader any more information than necessary.  Often, saving up exposition and using it in crucial moments will make it more exciting, and even transform it into a turning point. Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can.

In order for a scene to work, there must be tension. Dialogue works best when demonstrating the friction between two points of view, or when demonstrating a failure to communicate – the speaker is not being articulate or forthcoming, the listener isn’t listening, or the characters are so focused on their own agenda that they actually seem to be having two separate conversations.

© Georgios Alexandris |

It helps to know where your characters are – perhaps a diner or a laundromat – and to have them involved in doing something while they are carrying on a conversation – this helps to animate them, and to make a scene feel real and tangible.

© Mccool |

Here are Joseph and Ted in a diner:

“It’s a good thing you jog everyday or you’d be dead.” Ted said as the waitress set a plate of bacon, eggs, hash browns, toast and butter in front of Joseph. Joseph, his hair still damp from a shower after a hard run, sat across from Ted in a booth at the Big City Diner.

“You sure you won’t have anything?” The waitress looked at Ted.

“Just coffee.” Ted held his mug up for a refill.

“Order something.” Joseph said.

“No. I gotta’ start running.” Ted watched Joseph take a bite of eggs. “What time d’you get up?”


“No.  Too early.” Ted swiped a piece of toast from Joseph’s plate.

Joseph gave Ted a dark look.

“So, now Nina’s after the house and my business.” Ted said. “She won’t be satisfied till I’m dead and she can pick my carcass.”

“It couldn’t have been easy living with you. She earned whatever she’s asking for.”

“You’re supposed to be on my side.” Ted chewed and swallowed, pointing the remainder of his toast at Joseph. “So, talk to her at the reunion.  She’ll be there – she can’t resist anything that involves money and power.  But watch out – she’s aggressive after three drinks.”

“I’m not going.” Joseph aimed his fork at Ted’s hand before he could touch the bacon.

“Don’t tell her that thing about compensation, that’s a can of worms.” Ted popped the last bite of toast into his mouth.  “Just tell her to be reasonable – she doesn’t have to destroy me.”

“I’m not getting involved in your divorce.”  Joseph said.

“What do you mean you’re not going to the reunion?”

“So don’t ask me again.”

“You need to get out more.”

“I’m not taking sides.”

“That’s exactly why she’ll listen to you.”

“Leave her alone.” Joseph shook his head. “You owe her that – you’re the one who cheated on her.”

The waitress put the check in the middle of the table and Ted pushed it toward Joseph.

“There’ll be plenty of women at the reunion.” Ted sat back. “Though if you ask me, educated women are over-rated – too high maintenance.”

“So you’ve said.”

“I think I’ll start going to church.”

“You’re despicable.”

“At least I’m putting myself out there.”

“Gotta go or I’ll be late for work.” Joseph pushed his plate toward Ted and got up. “Next time get your own.”

“I’m through trying to set you up with women.” Ted called to Joseph’s back, “Your standards are too high.”


Now it’s your turn. Create a scene in a diner or a laundromat, between two people who are failing to communicate, and are unconsciously demonstrating through their actions who they are.

When you are finished, if you like you can post it here.

Mona Lisa and Maserati

What is beauty and what makes a man?

Evoking memorable characters and a convincing story world requires that you be specific and innovative.  Vivid characters who surprise us are the ones we are most likely to become emotionally involved with, and a world constructed with closely observed sensory details can become a reality for your readers that no matter how far-fetched, is believable.

If we want our readers to care, then we must care about what words we use. Some words – fun, beautiful, scary, amazing, special – are so overused they have lost their ability to convey anything meaningful – in fact they are bland.

“A beautiful woman walked into the waiting room, spoke with the receptionist and took a seat.”  gives us no meaningful information about the woman.

As a writer, you must define beauty in your story using the five senses, sight, sound, touch, taste smell: let’s take the ‘beautiful’ woman above and put her in a scene:

A woman in a white shearling coat entered the waiting room, her boot heels hammered the linoleum, her silk scarf painted the air with amber spice, causing men and women to turn. She rushed to the window labeled ‘Patient Registration’ and after a brief exchange she turned and looked around, her dark eyes and mocha skin the more striking for their contrast to the white faces looking back at her.   Rather than sit between two children with runny noses, she took an empty seat beside an elderly man in a pressed suit. Watching the registration window she commenced to wait. Something about her upstaged everything, the bloody noses, broken bones, the heart attacks, but not in the way she had dreamed of.

Exploit every opportunity to tell us something about your characters and their world – how they move, what they wear, what they say, how they say it, and how others respond to them.  Pack every sentence with information that invites your reader to experience the world you have created for them, to convince them of your characters, their lives, their woes.

The word ‘beauty’ is no longer adequate – it does not engage your reader in the ‘thought process’ discussed in Creative Editing – effective writing engages readers in an active thought process, a feeling process, a sensory process.

If someone buys flowers, are they tulips? Sun flowers? Roses?  For the woman in the shearling coat, it matters what kind of flowers she is given – would she inspire a gift of daisies? Not likely – lilies, maybe, but probably orchids.  Why?  Because this character is exotic and perhaps fragile. Be convincing by being specific.

As a writer, choose to believe that what a man drives reveals who he is: “George hesitated before driving his car up to the valet parking sign” doesn’t tell us much about George – who he is, where he is, or why he’s hesitating.

© Steve Mann |

George hesitated before steering his Maserati GranTurismo convertible toward the valet parking sign at LaForchette’s elegant entrance. He imagined all eyes on his 4.7-liter V8 polished machine as he accelerated up the drive.


George hesitated before steering his prehistoric AMC Rambler wagon toward the valet parking sign at LaForchette’s elegant entrance. He felt all eyes on his vintage, 3 speed manual transmission nightmare as he lurched up the drive.

These are two different men – they hesitate at the entrance for different reasons.  Likely that George #1 doesn’t want anyone touching his car, the embodiment of his worth. George #2 knows that anyone witnessing his entrance is going to judge his car to be the embodiment of his worth.  Or, in a completely different world, George #1 and #2 could be the same man at different points of a rags to riches or riches to rags story.

Does a character who wears scarlet to a funeral have something to say? How about the man who wears work boots to a black tie event? Or the mother of the bride who wears black? What does it say about your character if she wears 3 inch heels on moving day?  You are the one dressing your characters – what they wear is significant.  Don’t waste any opportunity to make a statement.

Now write your own version of beauty, conjure someone you see as beautiful and convince us that it is true by giving us details – define beauty using your sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, hearing. Give your characters a constellation of qualities that could drive someone mad, make them fall in love and do crazy things.

© Berlinfoto |

Or – write a ‘car’ story that demonstrates that a man is what he drives, or define who your character is by showing us what discordant item they wear to an event or gathering.

When you have finished feel free to post your story here.

Stage 2: edit your way to a smokin’ story

Creative Editing

Forget for the moment about rules governing spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, that’s editing too, but that kind of editing can interfere with the creative process, and as I’ve said before, some of our most admired authors have written brilliantly by breaking those rules.

So, to oversimplify, creative editing is a way of making sure that in telling your story, you have used no unnecessary words or phrases, and you can be universally understood.


Certainly this No Smoking sign conveys a clear message and is very economical with words. But, economy of words and universal understanding are not enough to make a story.

As writers we strive to deliver a message by turning it into an engaging story.

If we take the time to write a story it is because we want to communicate something to our readers, and we want to make our message as meaningful to them as it is to us. In the best case scenario, what we write will be uniquely ours, yet universally intelligible. The more powerful and universal our message the better – and we must rely on our ability to use words in innovative, unexpected ways to make our message unique, fresh, unexpected and engaging.

Creative editing can help to shape our message into story form, and it is every bit as creative and rewarding as generating material. Creative editing is the process by which we turn our messages into effective, engaging stories.

This message used 8 words more than the message above. Does it communicate the same basic idea? Yes. Is it more compelling than the above message? It depends upon what you want to communicate – certainly this message tells a kind of story by inviting the reader into a thought process, however brief, that engages them and makes the most of a no-smoking message.

Some tips for editing that will help you make the most of your message, get the most out of the words you use and engage your reader in some form of satisfying thought process:

After you have generated your material (see Stage One: write, write, write) ask yourself: is every word and phrase absolutely essential to the story?

Eliminate passive voice – underline all of the ‘was, were, had beens’ and ask yourself how you can translate them into action. Pay attention as you do this and you will find that your story develops a ‘pace’, feels more immediate, and becomes more engaging.

Eliminate adverbs – underline all of the ‘ly’ words – how many can you eliminate? Watch what happens when you force yourself to find other ways of expressing thoughts and feelings that don’t ‘tell’ your reader how to think or feel, because basically, that’s what adverbs do. When you eliminate adverbs you make room for your reader to enter your story and engage in their own thought processes and thus they are more likely to ‘feel’ the story than to simply read it.

Give yourself a word limit – watch what happens to the story when you are forced to make every word count. You may decide in the end to put some words and phrases back, but the process of elimination and then selective inclusion will help you to become more appreciative of the words and phrases that you choose.

Take a look at the following 99 word opening to a ‘Smokin’ Story’. I’ve underlined passive voice and adverbs:

Gloria was extremely tired and she walked lethargically from her car to the Quick Stop Convenience Market. The Market was brightly lit even at 2AM and Gloria was surprised at how many cars were parked in the lot, and how many people were in the store. She imagined for a moment that they had all watched the Oprah show about quitting smoking and, like her, were slavishly here to buy a pack of cigarettes after going enthusiastically cold turkey for three days. What else would bring so many people out at this ungodly hour? She was craving a smoke.

Now here is the 70 word edited version:

Craving a smoke, Gloria trudged from her car to the Quick Stop Convenience Market. The Market, lit like Christmas at 2AM, its parking lot full, and a line forming at the register, made her feel less forsaken. Had they all watched the Oprah show about smoking and, like her, after three days of cold turkey, buckled under the pressure? What else would bring so many people out at this hour?

Now, write your own Smokin’ Story opening.

First generate your material with a ‘free write’ and then go back and do some creative editing. Compare the two versions and ask yourself what you have lost or gained in the creative editing process? Maybe you like the newer version, but feel that there was something in the original that you don’t want to lose. Save every draft by copying and pasting so that you don’t lose anything as you edit.

If you like, post your story opening here.