The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, February 25, 2008

Workshop notes: II - Nursing an ailing specimen

By Tamara Lee

This is the second of a series of posts reflecting upon a writing workshop I am taking with Nancy Lee. The first post in the series may be found here.


Of the many discussion during the workshop these past two weeks, two areas newer writers (and, we were reassured, many seasoned writers) tend to struggle with concern backs and fronts.

Cracking the spineless tale

We read several story-drafts from writers perhaps too hesitant about the reader’s ability to comprehend, or of the writer’s own ability to get to, the story’s intended point. The result: The muck that is otherwise known as backstory.

Our latest workshop meme had many of us reaching for our pens (pencils for the feint of heart), in our attempts to ‘locate the story,’ an oft-repeated buzz-phrase for us recently.

Taking a cue from Robert McKee’s Story (a book ostensibly about screenwriting that explores storytelling better than any other book I’ve read on the subject), Nancy whittled down the process for finding the story in the muck: After the first draft, locate the controlling idea of the story. Pose that as a question to answer as you read your draft. Reviewing each scene, figure out what the engine of the story is by asking yourself if the scene furthers the story.

Simply, to paraphrase Nancy, a backstory is not a spine. She warned us not to get sucked into relying on backstory to develop a character or the current story. Most often the story to be told is the one in the present, so focus on that story.

A story will sometimes call for recollections. So how does the writer handle this? Nancy suggests considering, when reviewing a flashback segment, whether the character would think the way the flashback is presented. ("Madame X, crossing the street, thinks about the ups and downs of her love life...") Presumably a woman recalling her sexual history would need longer than the time it takes for the flashing hand to turn red.

Flashbacks usually don’t truly reflect how we think or remember things, and are sometimes too heavy on the narratorial directive. ("Madame X began adolescence a shy girl who disliked boys in plaid shirts...") But memory as reflection—on the place, or the connection between the place and the current memory—is ‘grounded in the sensory detail of the present.’ ("John's red-and-black mackinaw reminded Madame X of that dastardly Jimmy B...") This approach allows for a more seamless entry into a character's past without jarring the reader out of the current story.

Baggage Rx

Locating story isn’t just about the writer’s relationship to the piece.

Another buzz-phrase we heard a lot this week was ‘frontloading a story.’ The specimen for this discussion was a tight and rather moving piece that ultimately split the class into two camps, each rooting for how the story should be told.

The piece was presented in what Nancy called a diagnosis story, which half the group enjoyed; others argued that it was not the best telling of the story. The more effective structure, Nancy proffered, would be as a struggle story. Diagnosis stories rely on confusion and mystery, culminating in a Big Reveal. But in struggle stories, the struggle is revealed up front, and the story then becomes about how the character handles the situation.

Stories relying on some big reveal or epiphany are potentially manipulative, withholding important information from the readers instead of giving them the elements they need to get into the story. Nancy argued there is no value in being obtuse, of making the reader search for clues through the rest of the story.

Perhaps there is still a place for diagnosis story, outside of the mystery genre, but I agree the device is best used sparingly, when the story demands such a potentially manipulative form. I’m trying to remember the name of a story from the Thom Jones collection Cold Snap that worked well. But in that story the protagonist is a doctor, who himself isn’t entirely sure of the details of his diagnosis.

There are always exceptions, examples of how a writer has managed to wrangle out of the so-called rules. Fragmented sentences, second-person point of view. The challenge is to determine whether we're experimenting for the health and wellness of the story.

5 Comments:

Blogger Anne said...

Do your fellow workshoppers (workshoppees?) know that that you've been recapping your discussions here? They might want to borrow your notes.

Mon Feb 25, 10:27:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thank, Anne. Maybe one or two people know about the posts. I'm trying not to refer openly to specific workshop projects, though, including my own. The notes are just a jumping-off point, really, since I'm sort of paraphrasing the instructor and embellishing (with the help of Madame X. I suppose I was in a bit of a tawdry mood last night as I wrote this).

Mon Feb 25, 02:55:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I read this and immediately started to think about my own fiction. I've gotten completely overwhelmed by backstory in the last few things I've written. So much so that I've been unable to finish them. I hadn't seen it so clearly until I read your post. It made me wish I was in your workshop. So I rushed out to the bookstore to see if I could find a self-help equivalent. There were about a hundred and by the time I glanced through them all I was mentally unstable. Yikes.

I hope you keep the posts coming.

Tue Feb 26, 02:25:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hi, Andrew. Thanks for the encouragement. It's good to be in such good albeit slightly overwhelmed company. I really recommend McKee's Story. It's expensive, and massive, but a great book for both screen- and fiction-writers.

Tue Feb 26, 09:02:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Great stuff, Tamara. I'm learning so much along with you. I wrote a story that was nearly all back story, but I think it worked because it was also a "struggle" story. See what a quick learner I am?

Wed Feb 27, 09:30:00 pm GMT-5  

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