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Things Not Said in a Story

Crumbly Writer

Given the questions raised in the "Style of Writing?" thread, and the comments about arguing over minutia, I figure it's time we raised our game by discussing the craft, rather than the nitty-gritty details, of writing.

I read a writing magazine not so long ago (I know, I can hardly stand them, as they generally have the most useless ideas imaginable), but I picked it up because it detailed 'how to breathe life into your fictional characters'.

The article was mostly a collection of 5-minute exercises, but one struck me as an excellent point. As many of us have observed before, what's not said in a story is often more important than what's explicitly said. That's fine advice, but how do we know what should not be said.

This article proposed the following idea. Stop and consider your primary character, and ask yourself, what would they absolutely NOT tell anyone. Whether it's their age, their background, their moral or business failures, THAT's what you base their character on. As they continue to dodge the issue, not answering the questions about it, it'll paint a complex image of their insecurities and contradictions, and provide additional drama as it provides a source of conflict between them and their allies.

Just image the Viet Nam vet who never speaks of his time in the war and what he witnessed, or the WWII era folks who won't discuss their finances or how little they had during the great depression. I actually did the same, unintentionally in my latest two stories, as the main character, Phil, couldn't tell his own family why he couldn't honestly tell his family certain details of his life--and that led directly into why he couldn't admit what he was doing throughout the stories.

Anyway, that was my latest writing insights. Hope it helps. Any thoughts, observations or protests? And what other plot/character advice can you offer which might guide your fellow authors, or at least provide additional tools in their writing arsenal?

Replies:   robberhands
robberhands
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

What a character doesn't tell about himself is one of the things which defines him or her. I don't think it's the one grand advice to handle your MC. It's only one aspect among millions and on its own it will never be enough to create a living, breathing being.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

It's only one aspect among millions and on its own it will never be enough to create a living, breathing being.

I never claimed it was, and I never said it was a 'be all and end all of writing'. All I said (implied) is that it's a handy tool that I hadn't really considered (though I had implemented in an off-hand kind of way).

So I'm guessing that no one else thinks the idea is worth their two cents?

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer


So I'm guessing that no one else thinks the idea is worth their two cents?


I will agree, the secrets a character keeps can say as much, if not more about them as the things they talk about.

I do think you would need to be careful to give the readers enough to know that secrets are being kept without giving the secrets away. I think that could be quite difficult to do well.

robberhands

@Crumbly Writer

I never claimed it was, and I never said it was a 'be all and end all of writing'.

And I never claimed you did, so climb off your tree. You suggested discussing something more than trivial minutiae. Taking every critical statement as a personal insult won't help that at all.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee jawking

@Dominions Son

I do think you would need to be careful to give the readers enough to know that secrets are being kept without giving the secrets away.


More than that, you need to make the reader want to know the secrets.

The downside is that you can only reveal the secrets once; actually revealing them kills that story hook stone dead.

AJ

Darian Wolfe
Updated:

@Dominions Son

I do think you would need to be careful to give the readers enough to know that secrets are being kept without giving the secrets away.


I see two levels of this. With one we see a character skulking around being sneaky. The other is the way we portray the character. The word choices and sentence structures that we chose to paint the characters actions.

Think about it, how often do we think about the secrets that drive us? Not often, but their presence in our consciousness colors our attitudes and actions. In the same way, our character's secrets should affect them as they go about their business.

Isn't it odd, Jonesy never sets her drink down?

Why does Bob always triple check an address when you give it to him?

Answers:

Jonesy was drugged and date raped.

Bob's best friend in high school was mugged and stabbed because he got an address wrong when he was supposed to pick him up one night.

by mentioning these little personality tics almost as throwaways in passing we build personality in the reader's subconscious without even really trying. At least that's what I work toward.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP

@Dominions Son

I do think you would need to be careful to give the readers enough to know that secrets are being kept without giving the secrets away.


I agree that is one way to handle it.

A second way would be to keep the secret from the other characters, and let the readers know what the secret is.

Letting the reader know the nature of the secret could be a way of defining your character. It could humanize them and make them more like a real person. The fact that they don't want to share the secret also shows something about their character. Sharing the secret with a close friend who will keep the secret might be part of the character development technique.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Ernest Bywater

I see no point in having the secret unless it's made known to the reader at some point for some reason. However, related to this is the process of having the character's backstory come out bit by bit as events and scenes unfold in the story.

Crumbly Writer

@robberhands

And I never claimed you did, so climb off your tree. You suggested discussing something more than trivial minutiae. Taking every critical statement as a personal insult won't help that at all.

Sigh. Your initial response sounded especially harsh, and given all that was said about how badly the arguments over real contents would generate, I guess I was prepped for the worst.

Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

More than that, you need to make the reader want to know the secrets.

The downside is that you can only reveal the secrets once; actually revealing them kills that story hook stone dead.

Speaking from experience (in doing it wrong), I typically discover something only after an editor or reader makes a comment after the story is live (being posted). At that point, I hurriedly add a few quick passages warning about an unmentioned conflict, and then include a 'big reveal' to finally address it (ex: "Catalyst", "The Great Death" and "Demonic Issues"). But at least, in that case, it works. The characters naturally dance around the issue without my even being aware of it, and when the big reveal occurs, that ongoing conflict is supposedly healed.

Though in "An Unknown Attraction", the issue was my discovery that many readers hated my female main character (just under the protagonist). Once the reveal happened later in the same book, she stated what her issues were (being overprotective of her brother, to the point of being aggressive about it), but her over-protectiveness never went away. If someone attacked him, she'd go after him with everything she had.

However, in each of those cases, I never planned the conflict, so I was busy fighting fires after the fact. The reason why I found this advice so poignant, is that it provides me a way to plan such conflicts in the future as asking my characters what their issues are upfront.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Crumbly Writer

@Darian Wolfe

I do think you would need to be careful to give the readers enough to know that secrets are being kept without giving the secrets away.

I see two levels of this. With one we see a character skulking around being sneaky. The other is the way we portray the character. The word choices and sentence structures that we chose to paint the characters actions.

I see it as a building conflict. Once you, the author, identify a character's trigger point, you have someone casually mention someone, and then record how they respond. That alerts readers that something is up, but since they don't know what, they'll usually simply bypass it.

As the other characters notice how odd the primary character is acting (and of course, you have to show those actions), they start prodding the MC about why he's acting so 'funny'. That's where the tensions between the primary and secondary characters begins.

As I've mentioned in the past, these internal conflicts between the 'good guys' help to keep the tensions flowing during the slower descriptive passages. If, while discussing strategy, different characters have different ideas, the discussion heats up and then, when the MC decides to go in one direction, the readers are prepped for when the other characters might not support that decision.

What I'm suggesting by asking this question from the get-go, is that you can plan for this conflict, instead of merely letting your characters sulk (a sure cause of writer's block midway through a story).

If you know it's an issue from the start, you can build the subtle signs of a ongoing conflict until they become apparent to both the characters and the reader.

As usual, the characters typically know the story better than you, the author does. So if you ask them to do something they're not comfortable with, they'll resist—whether you're aware of it or not. This technique is simply a way of identifying what that sticking point it before you find yourself hip deep in trouble with the plot.

Replies:   Darian Wolfe
Crumbly Writer

@REP

A second way would be to keep the secret from the other characters, and let the readers know what the secret is.

Letting the reader know the nature of the secret could be a way of defining your character. It could humanize them and make them more like a real person. The fact that they don't want to share the secret also shows something about their character. Sharing the secret with a close friend who will keep the secret might be part of the character development technique.

That's what I did with "Demonic Issues". Once someone questioned why the MC never told his daughter the truth, I went back and patched the opening passages in both books, giving the readers a quick insight into why the MC was that way, without providing a remedy—essentially setting up the conflict. Of course, this is all told through third person by the narrator.

In those cases, where I was patching plot holes on the backside, that acknowledgment causes the readers to give the author time to develop the issue, knowing that he's at least aware of the issue. But if you plan the ongoing conflict, you can orchestrate it much more carefully.

The reader reactions in those accidental cases show the technique works, but building it as a flash point for the characters mean it's less likely to be missed by the readers.

Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

I see no point in having the secret unless it's made known to the reader at some point for some reason. However, related to this is the process of having the character's backstory come out bit by bit as events and scenes unfold in the story.

In the Demons Within, the MC reflects early on that he has trouble opening up to people because he had issues with his parents drinking and needed to run interference with them, but couldn't tell anyone about it lest he be taken from the parents. Seems like a quick throwaway backstory detail.

But then, the reader sees him actively dancing around questions by his family, never quite answering pointed question, always hesitating and deferring. In that way, they know that something is up.

In "Speaking With Your Dragons", it was the dragons themselves who force the MC to address his issues with his family, not his family and not his friends, who never knew his backstory. And once forced into action, Phil admits his hangups about his family and honesty. That admission doesn't mean the conflict goes away, it just means that he acknowledges it, and is trying to be a better person going forward.

Often in these cases, it's better if the story ends without the underlying conflict ever being fully wrapped up. It's like Phil's parent's drinking, it continues to haunt his every reaction going forward, the same way a recovered alcoholic's aversion to alcohol highlights their every interaction going forward.

Thanks for this guys. This discussion, as short as it's been, has been very informative. I recognized the need to address the issue, but never having anticipated it before, I wasn't sure exactly how to address it. But the discussion forced me to study how it affects both my main characters and my secondary characters, so I could understand how it naturally unfolds within a story.

I'm now more convinced than ever that this is a powerful author tool, and now I'm more prepared to use it in the planning stages than I ever was before. Now I'm reconsidering her other 5-minute character exercises, used to identify and flesh out character peculiarities.

Darian Wolfe

@Crumbly Writer

I don't know enough about the thread topic to contribute meaningfully but I can say a little about this.

the characters typically know the story better than you, the author does.

The original inspiration for "The New Field" was a porn video I found interesting. After it had percolated for a few weeks, a story began to jell with a strong sexual component. When I wrote it a totally different story emerged. While there is plenty of eroticism there is no sex.

The characters refused to have sex onscreen. They said, "That's between us." Looking back, I believe the story is made stronger by their shyness. They knew best.

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


I see no point in having the secret unless it's made known to the reader at some point for some reason


In my novel "Steele Justice," the reader never finds out about Steele's secret, classified missions, only that he has learned to live with "what he did." At one point, a government man wanting to convince Steele that he has the clearance to know his military record, mentions a N. Korean nuclear scientist by name. But not what Steele's involvement was or what happened to the scientist.

So the reader doesn't know what the secrets are, only that Steele has them.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Switch Blayde

In my novel "Steele Justice," the reader never finds out about Steele's secret, classified missions, only that he has learned to live with "what he did."


But you do provide information that he had done some some, don't you?

In Ed's New Life some of his past life comes out during the course of the story, and the reader learns he used to be a freelance black ops guy, but very little is said about the actual ops. His backstory comes out to explain some of his skills and interactions, as well as some of his attitudes.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@Ernest Bywater

His backstory comes out to explain some of his skills and interactions, as well as some of his attitudes.


That was the main reason for having it.

awnlee jawking
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

If you design a character to have secrets, then you've made the transition from writing for yourself to writing for an audience.

Feedback from sites like SOL is invaluable. If you get some e-mails asking about a character's back-story, that's a good sign because it shows readers are invested in the character. If you get a lot of e-mails, that shows you've moved into literary fiction, where the melodrama is more important than the story arc :(

AJ

Ross at Play
Updated:

WOW!, CW, what an incredibly valuable insight you've spotted for us.

I started writing a post in reply describing some of my personal experiences with keeping secrets. They sure as hell have defined me at times in my life.

In particular, I focused on the way families with an alcoholic or someone who is violent develop taboos that can NEVER be broken.

That post turned into a true autobiographical story. The interim title is Family Secrets.

I banged out a first draft. It is the best and most emotionally draining thing I've ever written. I needed to go to bed and sent off that draft to some others to read without even reading it through.

Darian Wolfe was the first to reply. He nailed his analysis. He said it was like explosions of dynamite going off all around - but the message had gotten lost because it had no structure.

I'm doing a Hemingway. I've started another version and won't read the first until that is done. This one is turning out quite different.

Thanks heaps, CW.

You do know, don't you?, that I've always considered you the most valuable resource we have here when it comes to matters of the fine craft of storytelling. :-)

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
sejintenej

@awnlee jawking

More than that, you need to make the reader want to know the secrets.

EXACTLY! When I was reading up on the craft one important facet was to create "hooks" early on - hooks like on a fishing line that you simply cannot let go of until you know the answer.

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

You do know, don't you?, that I've always considered you the most valuable resource we have here when it comes to matters of the fine craft of storytelling. :-)

Which is why we should be discussing the writing and crafting of stories, rather than arguing over the nuances of minor grammar and Style nits. Then, I wouldn't be the lone wolf, howling at the moon.

Unfortunately, now I'll have to go back and reconsider each of her exercises. The other articles in magazine were, as I suspected, absolute crap! :(

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@sejintenej


EXACTLY! When I was reading up on the craft one important facet was to create "hooks" early on - hooks like on a fishing line that you simply cannot let go of until you know the answer.


More than that, rather than exposing the secrets early, and losing our line, you jerk the line, causing the reader to bite, wheeling them in a little at a time, keeping the line tense throughout the entire story. That way, you keep the main conflict tense, you keep the character interactions tense, and you keep the character's internal conflicts tense. Hell, that's why we need comic relief occasionally, to give the poor reader some relief every now and then (before dragging them even further in)! 'D

I love apt analogies! Unfortunately, I tend to jump the gun and use mixed analogies which don't always make much sense. :(

awnlee jawking

@sejintenej

More than that, you have to make the readers care about the characters.

Too many novice authors create cardboard cutout characters who are all good or all bad to the extent of being cartoonish in their one-dimensionality. I don't think readers care about back-stories in those situations.

AJ

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