Friday, May 19, 2006

Well, Jim, I Was Walking Down The Street...

Meljean made a comment to Wednesday's post that ties in with my current dialogue issues:

"I find I end up with speeches." Meljean remarked.

I'm with you on that one, too. If my characters aren't exchanging banal banter, one character is monologuing at the other one.

This is an especially tough challenge when I want one character to divulge some bit of backstory to another character. I have yet to master the art of dripping backstory into the main narrative in such a way that readers absorb it by osmosis. Instead, I seem to rely on one character going the "When I was a lad..." approach.

But, in my defense, I feel somewhat as if my hands were tied. A lot of my characters have interesting backstories, and usually there is one or two defining incidences that have put them in the position of being the right character for the particular story at hand. Many times, I have imagined these character-shaping scenes in my head to great detail, and it makes me sick to boil them down to something as simple as "my mother was a bitch" or "my boyfriend left me when I was sixteen." A lot of times, those backstory events are as interesting to me as the story at hand. (And did you notice the liberal use of to me, since I do know that sometimes backstory is boring to everyone else.)

Since prologues in general are a no-no, that leaves me either to ignore backstory-critical moments or to find another way to reveal what happened. I know flashback can be used to great advantage, but I also know that it takes a master to work flashback in such a way as to keep the current story from grinding to a sickening halt. I'm working on mastering that technique.

Meanwhile, I seem to rely on the old "Tell me what happened..." dialogue, wherein said characters are in such a place with some time to kill that they can bare their deepest darkest secrets. I find that this method accomplishes a couple things for me.

1) It demonstrates that the characters - usually the hero and heroine, but sometimes two good friends - have reached a point in their relationship where trust has solidified enough to reveal their damaged selves.

2) It establishes a new sense of intimacy between the characters. After the confessing, they know each other better than anyone else. There is a new level of connection there.

3) It explains to Character A why Character B behaves in a certain way and clears up any Big or Not-So-Big Misunderstandings that hover beneath the surface.

4) It allows me to portray relevant backstory in such a way that it (hopefully) effects the reader on an emotional level, helping her (or him) to empathise with the character more deeply. Well, yeah, if the evil step-dad killed her puppy, no wonder she hates all men with a passion.

5) It allows me to show, not tell. Sort of. Technically, one character is telling the other character what happened. But in the words chosen, it the depth of description and details revealed, you can achieve so much more than what could happen in straight narrative.

6) Because the injured character is reliving the past vicariously in the telling of it, you can bring to fore emotions that character might have experienced at the time. Nothing more effective than that big, strong Alpha-male breaking down sobbing as he explains how devastated he was when his mother died when he was only 10.

So, as I see it, lots of good reasons to use conversation as a place for backstory dumpage. But I do know it needs to be done with some finesse. That's the part I'm struggling with. How to go about things so you don't end up with pages and pages of paragraphs with only the occasional quotation mark to remind the reader that someone is speaking and that they haven't accidentally walked into a 1st person POV story run amok.

A final benefit to this method, albeit one the readers might not ever see or appreciate, is the ability to have the character tell his or her story in his or her voice (allowing practice in nailing that voice) and having all the pertinent details spelled out in one place. Kind of akin to having a character write his or her own biography during the character creation phase, only on an incident-specific level.

I'm a big fan of the "Tell me what happenened..." approach. Hope that's okay.

1 comment:

meljean brook said...

Your list of reasons is exactly mine -- I do love the intimacy of one character in bed with another, telling something from the past (which is where my latest speech comes from). And when the backstory is important -- it has to come out, at some point. And it's always more effective when that specific scene is related, not boiled down and oversimplified.

Hell, isn't that what readers are often pissed off about? "I find out that his big secret, the reason he treats the heroine like crap, is because his mother slept with other men?"

But you get a specific scene in there, something that's really effective/devastating, and it's not as easy to dismiss. It becomes a part of the character, instead of the chip sitting on his shoulder.