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Weaving in Back Story | Staying Disciplined as a Writer

book editor Adina PortmanAdina Portman

How can I successfully weave a character’s back story through my novel? I don’t want to include too much of their history too soon and kill the story’s momentum.

A well-rounded character, just like any real person, will grow in complexity over time. Within the finite structure of a fictional story, it’s a writer’s job to guide the reader through this complexity, showing only the relevant details.

Most readers enjoy surprise, so you’re smart to avoid giving away too much too soon. On the other hand, when we hold back too much, a moment that’s meant to be a subtle surprise can instead seem to come from left field. So if your reader says the character feels disjointed, or like two separate people, you may need to add some connective tissue to the skeleton.

Create an outline of your story and plot out its pivotal surprises, then fill it in with the smaller details that lead up to each big reveal. What aspects of this character would suggest a conflict of emotion? Are you creating a compelling dissonance between the character’s thoughts and actions? Use the space in your scenes to plant these details and to suggest the motivations for your character’s future decisions.

There’s no denying the difficulty of providing enough information so the reader can enjoy a steady drip of “Mystery” in one arm and “Discovery” in the other. It may seem as though successful writers are magicians—con artists at a Ouija board, performing incantations to bring these characters to life—but just like any art, the skill comes with practice and more practice and more practice. The exciting thing about fiction is that we can create these details out of thin air, specifically to reach this balance for surprise. It is a delicate magic that requires endless experimentation. Returning and returning and returning to the page with new eyes.

What advice do you have for a writer who struggles to stay disciplined?

It’s somewhat humbling to answer this question, because right now I’m answering it past my deadline. I struggle with self-discipline on a regular basis, and I’m only starting to recognize what drags me away from it.

Everyone has their own reasons for not doing what they’re “supposed” to do. People even struggle to do the things that make them happy. Writing can be difficult work and we’re often scared we won’t live up to our expectations. We’re scared we won’t be able to write in a way we once felt proud of, that it won’t be brilliant and we’ll finally prove we were never any good. We’ll be found out as the imposters we’ve always been.

But when we just do the work—when we get into that groove of a regular writing habit—that fear of failure, like a terrible phobia, starts to dissipate. You got a fear of elevators? Get on that thing and press all the buttons. You afraid of fish? Head over to the pet store and force yourself to stand in the dark, moldy aquarium section in the back. It’s awful. But it will get less awful. And then it might get good for a while. And then you might want to buy a few creepy fish to stare at and experience the feeling of overcoming your fears over and over again. Can you tell I’m speaking from experience?

My lack of discipline also boils down to my desire to rebel. Who is the safest person to rebel against? Myself. Because I’d rather live with my own disappointment than disappoint someone else. I experience a small thrill as a deadline approaches and I have less and less time to do the work. I think the more often I recognize myself falling into this trap, the more I can just get OVER it. That small thrill isn’t worth jeopardizing the quality of my work.

Ask yourself who and what you’re rebelling against. Find more worthwhile ways to rebel. Better yet, turn your writing habit into an act of rebellion so that when you get that itch to act against something, you do so in a way that empowers you and gives you a voice. You rebel in a way that is useful to you and hopefully to others. Rebellion doesn’t have to tear anyone down. Rebellion can be the act of unapologetic creative expression. And what an incredible fortune to enjoy as human beings. It is a rare freedom in the expanse of human history, this ability to read and write.

A wise friend once told me before running a race that the terror I was experiencing was the dread of the effort. I knew difficult work was coming my way and I wanted to escape it. When I finally accepted the fact that it was going to be an arduous run, when my fear became clear to me, I stopped dreading it. I stopped shaking and I was able to run that race (side note: I came in dead last).

My practical advice? Join a writers group that requires a certain amount of creative output. Research writing contests and create a submission schedule for yourself. You might not meet all the deadlines, but it will set a fire under your seat nonetheless.

 

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