Saturday, October 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Tell Me a Story: Working With World Building Backstory

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Seven

This week’s questions:

My issue with this scene is the timing/pacing. I'm wondering if this is the wrong place for this storytelling moment. The whole story is over 500 words and it lends to the overall plot of the trilogy, but not this first installment, except that it shows how the discrimination the boy's people have against the MC's people started. Should I tell a shorter story here? No story at all? Or is this one ok?

Market/Genre: Unspecified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

That night was too terrifying and miserable for worry over Awaya and Colum. Great banging waves threw the boat up in the air and then slammed it back down so savagely it’s a wonder it didn’t collapse. I clung to Bran, who wouldn’t let me go despite my dry heaves and cold sweats.

“Shanjii.” His teeth clacked so rapidly I could hardly make out his words. “Tell me a story?”

I nodded. It would probably make the night go by faster if I had an occupation. I decided to tell him one of the longer tales from the lore, the story of how the world was born.

“Before all things began, the islands of Lacuna were one big land mass full of magic, floating in the Endless Sea. Sahlaana lived there. She became lonely and faced to the east and swallowed the wind, then she turned north drank of the sea, and lastly she faced west and ate of the land. She gave birth to three sons: Tatso, who ruled the Body; Tanga, who ruled the Mind; and Tiga, who ruled the Heart. For a time, Sahlaana was happy. Then she decided she needed a daughter. She seduced a star in the night sky and gave birth to Taijala, who ruled the Spirit.”

Bran sighed and tucked his head into the curve of my neck; his breath was the only warmth I found that grim night.

“One day a raven flew overhead…”

My Thoughts in Purple:

That night was too terrifying and miserable for worry over Awaya and Colum. Great banging waves threw the boat up in the air and then slammed it back down [so savagely] it’s a wonder it didn’t collapse. I clung to Bran, who wouldn’t let me go despite my dry heaves and cold sweats.

“Shanjii.” His teeth clacked [so rapidly] the two "so adverbs" in a row jumped out at me I could hardly make out his words. “Tell me a story?”

I nodded. It would probably make the night go by faster if I had an occupation.[ I decided to tell him one of the longer tales from the lore, the story of how the world was born.] I'm curious why she picks this one. You might consider showing her deliberate a little on what to say, so it's clear she picks this story to accomplish X reason. Is it to pass time? Make Bran feel better? Why is this story important?

“Before all things began, the islands of Lacuna were one big land mass full of magic, floating in the Endless Sea. Sahlaana lived there. She became lonely and faced to the east and swallowed the wind, then she turned north drank of the sea, and lastly she faced west and ate of the land. She gave birth to three sons: Tatso, who ruled the Body; Tanga, who ruled the Mind; and Tiga, who ruled the Heart. For a time, Sahlaana was happy. Then she decided she needed a daughter. She seduced a star in the night sky and gave birth to Taijala, who ruled the Spirit.”

Bran sighed and tucked his head into the curve of my neck; [his breath was the only warmth I found that grim night.] This feels retrospective, but I got the sense earlier this boat scene was happening in "real time."

“One day a raven flew overhead…”

The questions:

I'm wondering if this is the wrong place for this storytelling moment. Should I tell a shorter story here? No story at all? Or is this one ok?
This is a tough one because I have little context to work with. But you said something telling in your question:
The whole story is over 500 words and it lends to the overall plot of the trilogy, but not this first installment, except that it shows how the discrimination the boy's people have against the MC's people started.
This says to me "this story is here to tell the reader a bit of world building backstory." That alone suggests there's a problem with it. It's here to explain.

The biggest problem I see is that readers have no reason to care about this creation story. Since it's there to explain backstory that's not relevant to the scene or this book of the trilogy, it does nothing to move this scene's plot. The story is stopping dead to explain history readers don't care about. Odds are they'll skim it, especially since it's a large block of italicized text.

I'd suggest either cutting it, or finding a way to make it relevant and make readers want to hear it.

To keep it, perhaps put the creation story in greater context to the scene. Maybe the boy wants more than just a story. He wants to know why they were kidnapped and set adrift, or how people can be so mean, or something that gives the narrator a reason to choose this particular story. The "why us?" conversation could even come earlier, and then Bran can ask for a story here and the narrator can choose the creation one based on their earlier conversation.

(More on dealing with backstory here)

You could try breaking up the story so it's more of a conversation between Bran and the narrator. Structure it so it keeps the story moving as the narrator talks to Bran to distract him from their predicament and he's bravely trying to be strong (or whatever fits the story). Perhaps use the creation story as subtext to illustrate a greater meaning of the situation. She's telling a story, but what she really means is X. You might look at the movie, Life is Beautiful for inspiration here.

To make readers care, it would probably have to answer a question they already have. If they want to know why things are the way they are, they might be intrigued by it. Though to be honest, creation stories are a hard sell due to their nature. It's all "made up" events that have no actual bearing on the story, so there's nothing at stake and nothing to learn. They're common skimables for the same reason a lot of prologues are--the information doesn't matter to the story.

(More on crafting backstory here)

Overall, I'd suggest clarifying what you want this creation story to do. If the only reason it's there is to explain backstory for later books, then I'd cut it and save it for when that's relevant. But if it illustrates something larger thematically, or allows for characterization, or does something to move the character arcs or story, then you could probably make it work with some finessing. It'll be tricky, but doable.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

6 comments:

  1. This certainly has promise, and sounds like an intriguing world.

    I definitely agree with the Janice's comment: "This feels retrospective, but I got the sense earlier this boat scene was happening in 'real time.'" If the line "One day a raven flew overhead..." is a continuation of the tale being told by Shanjii, then it does sound a bit off.

    Also, as someone who has suffered from horrific seasickness on more than two occasions, I can tell you that it was hard enough trying to occupy my mind by "focusing on the horizon", let alone telling a story from my world, as your character does here. I just can't believe it, especially since Shanjii is having "dry heaves".

    If this was told in a dialogue, rather than a telling monologue, it would make all the difference.

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  2. I just have trouble believing that a story could be told in these circumstances. They seem to be on a boat in a turbulent sea--how can this person tell a coherent story while sick? And isn't it loud inside the boat? How do they hear each other so well?

    I happen to like creation stories and mythology, but we're moving from a situation that is tense to a story that is not. I can't invest or engage in this creation story because the boat situation still has my attention.

    I like Janice's idea of the story answering questions for the characters (and readers), but would they stop and ask 'Why' questions at this moment, or would they just try to survive as best they can? It's like a person wondering who cut the brake line as the car barrels over the bridge into the lake.

    To me, this would work better in a quieter, safer moment. Then the story-within-a-story could grab more attention, and the characters would be able to be more reflective to ask questions that are pertinent to them and the story.

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  3. For a very nice example of world-building myths that also advance character plots, I found Megan Whalen Turner's "The Thief" balanced it well.

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  4. Wow! This is exactly the issue I have. In one of my chapters, my beta reader cut my back story explanation for the same reason (why should I care). I kept wondering how I could incorporate the facts without bogging down the narrative. I love the idea of using dialogue.

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  5. To make readers care, it would probably have to answer a question they already have. If they want to know why things are the way they are, they might be intrigued by it.

    I think this is the key. If this is an answer to a question already living in the story, then the reader will go with it. Otherwise, I think it will be a skim.

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  6. Janice, thank you so much; this was exactly what I needed. I totally see your point/s. And also to the commentors: thanks for taking time to leave your thoughts, I totally get what you guys are saying. THANKS!

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