Tuesday, December 6, 2011

16 Active versus Static Backstory and Description

Unless, possibly, they are Science Fiction, our novels don't happen in a time void. Each of the characters has a past that colors his or her view of what is happening and what will happen. The past also affects how these characters react to each other.  So no matter how active the present story may be, there are going to be times when we have to fill the reader in on something that happened before the events started. We also need to cue them to where we are physically because, again, stories don't happen in a void. HOW we cue the reader, however, matters. Unless we do it well, we risk stopping the forward momentum of the story.

Fortunately, there are many different techniques for getting cues to the reader without interrupting story flow. Think of them as different brushes in an artist's toolbox. Which one we choose will depend on the type of scene we are painting and the energy we want to invoke in the brushstrokes.

Narrative Balance

I love how Les Edgerton describes passive description in HOOKED, his excellent book on writing craft. He talks about the "writers of yore" who took up paragraph after paragraph after long paragraph describing  "skittering waves, rolling toward the breast-shaped hummocks of the sun-kissed beach." Today, even a sentence or two of that kind of description makes a reader skim. Frankly, today, a long paragraph of any kind of description, whether it's describing a setting, a situation, a character, or even a character's thoughts or emotions, puts the reader at risk of developing a roving eye. Bad writer. No cookie.

Think of this in terms of picture composition. Imagine that you are looking at a painting.  A Rembrandt. There's the obligatory dark background, the customary light shining on an interesting, perfectly-rendered face, the jaw-dropping precision of the lace or fabric detail. In Rembrandt's painting, all of this is balanced. There is just enough dark background, just enough clothing, to set off the money shot, the face that is the artist's true objective.

These days, I think we writers have to look at our scenes more in the way that an artists studies a canvas. We need to have a good balance of dialogue, action, description, and introspection. Our target audience and the type of story will dictate how much of each will be successful, and the placement in the scene and within the book overall will also change the balance.

Slivers of Detail

As a rule, video games, television, blockbuster films packed with special effects, and just the general speed of life these days means that long passages of description of any kind aren't going to work. So how do you get in your description and backstory? In slivers sandwiched between action and dialogue.

Here are a few examples from randomly opened pages of recent books:
"We have to find my sister," I finally say, the thought of her kick-starting my mind away from the horror of what's going on, giving me a goal--something to focus on so that I'm not pulled under in the tide of panic.

"How?" Catcher stands facing me. He looks as helpless as I feel.

"I don't know." I start jogging across the roof, dodging around old barren gardens thick with dead weeds. I vault a low wall onto the next building and thread my way toward the bridge at the end of the block.

"Where are you going?" Catcher shouts, following me across the spindly bridge, the boards under my feet almost rotten.

"Home," I call over my shoulder as I race south. This corner of the City was practically abandoned even before the horde hit, and most everyone who tried to scrape out an existence here already left after the Rebellion, when it became pointless to pay such high rents to live in a city that no longer promised safety and order.

We cross past a few panicked families, their backs loaded with bags of supplies as they rush from roof to roof toward the docks to the southeast, the only hope of an escape. "What do we do?" they ask, their eyes wide and terrified, but I don't know what to tell them and so I just keep running.
Carrie Ryan, The Dark and Hollow Places pgs 96-97

Kieran laid rough palms and finger pads on my forearms, and I goose-pimpled beside the air conditioning duct. "You know me, Quince." He let go before I could shrug him off. "Nobody knows me like you."

All eyes watched him exit with a dignity humanity lost long ago. Unbeatable, that's what his body language said. There was just somewhere else he'd rather be.

As the door closed behind Kieran, the vampire chef raised his glass in a toast, leading all those gathered in doing the same. "I dedicate this drink to the countess of this fine establishment, she whose destiny is this dream.

Bradly Sanguini raised his glass to me.
Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tantalize, pg 202

There was a moment of silence. Then Clarisse said, her voice unreadable, "Will you be?"

Something in her tone caught at Isabel. She almost said, "Not if you don't stand in my way." But she remembered who she was, and what she was here for. Not to make friends, and not to be kind. Keeping Clarisse off balance was the best way to deal with her for now.

"I might," she said. Then she left Clarisse's room and made her way through the corridors to her own.

Leah Cypess, Mistwood, pages 52-53

What do you notice in the above passages?

Active Description

What I notice in those three brief excerpts is that the characters are interacting with their environments and engaged in them. Immersed in them.

The authors don't follow a recipe. Three lines of dialogue, two sentences of description, a paragraph of action. They simply put the character in the moment, and show us what the character is thinking and feeling as they move and talk.

Simple, right?

By slivering the description into the middle of the action, it serves multiple purposes. It brings the scene into sharper focus, helps us visualize what's going on, forms a backdrop for the unfolding action, lets us identify with the character more deeply, and informs us. All at the same time. All without stopping the story.

Active description. Beats the heck out of staring out a window thinking about how to describe a breast-shaped hillock on a wind-swept beach.

Infusing Backstory and Description with Conflict

It would be wrong to say that we can't use blocks of description and backstory successfully. Even the breast-shaped hillock on a wind-swept beach could be fascinating if the character doing the describing is a convicted sex-offender, say, who hasn't seen a woman in 47 years and has no hope of getting one, and maybe we know that his new neighbor, a beautiful woman, is on her way over to bring him a welcome-to-the-apartment-block casserole. In this case, knowing that he's seeing the dunes as breast-shaped will infuse the coming scene with tension.


Tension. Urgency. Conflict. The keys to the kingdom.

Description and backstory can work to heighten the tension of a scene, or they can inform tension that already exists.

Consider the following passage:

A great tapestry hung across the wall to the left of the bed, woven forest scenes in muted green and white. The elaborate bed was all gold-trimmed green, as were the few low benches and chairs laid out along the sides of the room. Unbidden, a snatch of song leaped into her head: For the Shifter's eyes are green, green, green, as green as the woods she loves....

Straight across from the foot of her bed were two vast windows with a long mirror between them. She limped over and looked in the mirror, with no clear idea of what she expected to see.

Her eyes were brown. So was her hair, which was filthy and hung in dark, limp tangles past her sharp chin. Her skin was pale, with regular but plain features--wide forehead, flat cheekbones, long thin nose. She was still wearing the clothes the prince had given her, and beneath them her body was lean and wiry. She stared at her reflection, certain that she had never seen it before.


She whirled away from the mirror, the name ringing in her head. Isabel. When the prince had called her by that name, it hadn't mattered; she hadn't possessed a name, couldn't remember ever having a name. But now, in these clothes, in this room, she knew she did. Isabel.
Leah Cypess, Mistwood, page 12

It's a quiet page, right? But now consider that the girl in the mirror has been told she is the Shifter. In that case, her eyes should be green. Why aren't they? And why doesn't she remember who she is? The description of the room, necessary to build the world she is in, functions as a trigger to the memory, and the memory allows not only the backstory to come in, but builds the mystery of who she is. Conflict. Quiet conflict, but it is enough to propel us to the next page, and the next.

 Scene-themed Description

We all know the advice: start with action. We all work our butts off to come up with great, moving spectacles of drama for our opening paragraphs so that we lure potential readers onto our word-sharpened hooks and reel them in. Examine the following:

The alleyway was so narrow that Attia could lean against one wall and kick the other. She waited in the dimness, listening, her breath condensing on the glistening bricks. A flicker of flames around the corner sent red ripples down the walls.

The shouts were louder now, the unmistakable roar of an excited crowd. She heard howls of delight, sudden gales of laughter. Whistles and stamping. Applause.

Licking a fallen drip of condensation from her lips, she tasted its salty grit, knowing she had to face them. She had come too far, searched too long, to back out now. It was useless feeling small and scared. Not if she ever wanted to Escape. She straightened, edged to the end of the alley, and peered out.

Hundreds of people were crammed into the small torch-lit square. They were squeezed together, their backs to her, the stench of sweat and bodies overpowering.
Catherine Fisher, Sapphique, First Page

What kind of a crowd is this? Catherine Fisher tells us in the next sentence it is a mob. But we already know that because she has used scene-themed words to get us in the mood.

Kick, flames, red ripples, shouts, roar, howls. Even the gales of laughter. We are thinking of torch-bearing villagers even before we get to the word applause, and that little scene-themed phrase, "gales of laughter," negates any chance this is a happy applause. We know before the author tells us that the mc is scared. Is there tension in that scene? Would you keep reading? I would. (And did!)

Here's a different kind of scene:

Phoebe compressed her lips. She didn't want Mallory with her on Nantucket. She wanted Ryland. She could just imagine them, hand in hand on the beach, in the evening, with the sun sinking below the horizon and a giant flock of tiny sandpipers sweeping along the surf in their magical, synchronized formation.

Instead of her sneaking up to his apartment, she could be showing him all the places and things she loved. Benjamin could take them out on his little sailboat. Or, better, she could borrow Benjamin's boat and take Ryland out herself, and he could have the room next to hers, and even though they would have to behave themselves--actually, she would want them to behave themselves--

"No," Phoebe said. "I'm sure Mallory can't come."

"Ask her," Catherine said pleasantly. Firmly.

Phoebe was suddenly furious. Why wouldn't they just take her word for this? She looked straight into her mother's eyes and spat: "Are you going to make me?"
Nancy Werlin, Extraordinary, pgs 174-175

The above passage breaks "rules" we have all heard a hundred times. It tells. It use adverbs in dialogue cues. But it does both of those to achieve a specific effect. The description doesn't break the flow of the story, because it is contrasting the freedom Phoebe could have at the beach with the "sneaking" she has to do here.

The adverbs in the dialogue cue signal a contradiction. They are telling us the intent belies the words. (This only works, btw, because Nancy Werlin isn't in the habit of using adverbs in her cues, so we know that now it's a signal to pay attention.)

And the telling sets up the tension, the contrast, the reason behind the conflict.

The author could just as easily have said:
Under her mother's sharp scrutiny, Phoebe's eyes slid away. "I'm sure Mallory's too busy."

"Ask her anyway," her mother said, her voice gentle in contrast with her expression.

Phoebe cocked her chin, hands fisting. "Are you going to make me?"

I had to work hard to avoid the telling in there, and frankly, I'm still telling. Moreover, the body language is dull and predictable. It gets the job done, but only barely, and it doesn't inform us. It doesn't cue us to what's going on inside the character's heads. It doesn't characterize the way that Nancy Werlin did.

In Werlin's passage, even if we'd never met Phoebe's mother, we know exactly the kind of mother she is. We know the kind of girl Phoebe is from this brief excerpt, and how she feels about love. We see the freedom of the beach and we don't need to see the adjectives attached to the apartment written out. We know it will be small and confining, in Phoebe's view, and somehow shabby.

A Thousand Decisions in Every Scene

As writers, we make countless decisions on every page. Do we have enough action, how do the characters speak, what do they say, how do they act, how do they react to what is happening? How do we describe what they are seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing, thinking?

In the long run, there is no formula. We need description and backstory. We tell all the time.

All we need to remember is to balance what we do and keep the reader in mind. Integrate. Activate. Get in, get out. And make every description do double or even triple duty. Easy as sticking a knife in your heart.

We'd all like to believe that if we just write a good book, it will sell. The truth is, we need a great book these days, and that great book has to grip the reader from the first page to the last.

How do we do that? Make sure we don't risk losing them along the way in mazes of static backstory and description

What do you think? Does this make sense to you? Do you read long passages of description or do you start to skim?

Happy writing,



  1. Oh I just want to eat this page up! Such delicious stuff here. Back story is essential but must be handled correctly or it ruins a good story! Wonderful tips and examples, thank you.

  2. I skimmed through this post since I don't really have the time now to read all the way through, but this is a good reminder. I need to improve my sense of space for my book's first fight scene.

    Now, I have a fence, some park benches, a few trees. Those trees need more action. Maybe have stray bolts hit them, making them rustle and have leaves fall on the characters?

  3. These are some wonderful tips, some new but most re-emphasized on how to make backstory more reader-friendly and less info-dump.

    Thank you so much.

  4. I'm a skimmer - unless description has a purpose - just as you've described and shown so well here. Great examples - thanks! :)

  5. Such great tips especially with the examples from the passages you chose. Wish there was a formula but you're right, there isn't one.

    And congrats on winning the award at The Bookshelf Muse this week. You so deserve it.

  6. This is awesome stuff. Love this line: We need to have a good balance of dialogue, action, description, and introspection.

    I'm always wondering if I've got too much internal dialogue or too much action. This is a good rule of thumb. Thanks!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. Thanks, ladies! Aren't these great examples. I'm having so much fun with examples these last weeks. Literally any page of these books pulls up great writing, and that just confirms why YA lit is so strong these days. The top writers are masters of their craft while managing to write commercially appealing concepts.


  8. Wow, Martina! Eventually, you're going to have a writing book from these awesome craft posts!!! So true that good writing isn't enough these days--every line has to pull double- or triple-duty. Sometimes I skim description, other times I don't--depends on the author's tone and content, as well as the level of tension.

  9. While I value this type of advice and tend to apply it myself when I write, I was once more struck with the contrast we often make between the old style and the new. You write:

    "He talks about the "writers of yore" who took up paragraph after paragraph after long paragraph describing "skittering waves, rolling toward the breast-shaped hummocks of the sun-kissed beach." Today, even a sentence or two of that kind of description makes a reader skim."

    It is more of a question, really, than a point or an argument: who are these "writers of yore"? Since a reader "today" will skim that kind of passage, does it mean that we don't read these authors anymore? We certainly don't read all the old authors anymore, and probably not as much as we used to. But classics and readers' favourites still often come from centuries ago.

    I don't think I can mention a single favourite author of mine who wrote much past the mid-20th-century, and surprisingly, such is the case of most readers I've come to interact with on the Internet. Of course, not all older writers were necessarily into passive description; what I'm trying to say is, why such a great emphasis on "today", when "today" hasn't yet proven its worth, and most people keep preferring "yesterday" to "today"? Of course new books sell, and I myself buy, read and enjoy them; but very little at this point has been serious competition with the "writers of yore" (probably the "very little" that will become classics and make the "writers of yore" of tomorrow).

  10. Ara, you are way to sweet. Applying the stuff is so much harder than having the insight though, isn't it? I usually end up writing posts about the things that I struggle with the most.

    Beth, thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    asiamorela, I think it's partly a generational thing as well as a literary versus commercial thing. Certainly there are many literary novels that have long passages of beautiful description and introspection. Certainly, there are many teens who adore books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or CATCHER IN THE RYE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, or even THE THREE MUSKETEERS, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. There are probably fewer who don't skim through MOBY DICK. But the classics are the greatest works of literature. The books that have been loved by generations not for their prose, but for the amazing stories and concepts the prose brings to life.

    What I believe that Les Edgerton was referencing is more the commercial writers from decades ago who may have been immensely popular at the time, but whose books don't appeal as strongly to commercial tastes. The truth is, there is much more competition for fewer slots on the publishers lists. That's sheer numbers. There are more writers, and more competition for a potential reader's time and attention. We have to bring our best. That's all I was saying, and in that, I was merely referencing what I have read in so many craft books, agent blogs, and editor's notes. Just because a passage is beautiful doesn't mean it belongs in our manuscripts. It has to serve multiple purposes, and we have to use every word purposefully.

  11. Great post, Martina! And thanks for the examples.

    If we take the analogy of writing as the act of transcribing a movie in our mind, we should look at setting as the props that our characters interact with. That way the descriptions will be active--because of that interaction.


    Yes, people still read the old classics...because they're classic. We all know that best-selling authors can get away with more simply because they're best-selling. The same goes with the classic stories.

    Now, due to TV and movies, people are used to stories with deeper POV. Most stories today are an emotional experience more than just a commentary on society. And in deep POV, we need to see everything through the characters' eyes.

    So if you're writing a pure classic-style, omniscient POV, commentary-on-society novel, then yes, this writing style might clash with your intent. But don't mistake people's love of the classics for love of the writing style.

    Just as very little of today's writing will become future classics, very little of the writing from 100 years ago is considered a classic. Again, it wasn't the writing style of the time period that made them classic. It was the story. Most new authors who wish to be successful would be better served by a writing style that immerses the reader into the story, as that's what most readers now want and expect.

  12. @asiamorela:

    Or you could just read Martina's comment because she worded it so well. :)

    I just did a guest post at the GirlsWithPens blog about the different elements a scene can include, and as Martina mentioned, if beautiful passages are in our manuscript for multiple reasons, readers are more likely to *not* skim it.

  13. Jami,

    Well said! I love the point that even beautiful passages should serve multiple reasons, and that will actually encourage the readers to pay attention to them. And that's an excellent point about modern readers expecting a deeper POV!

  14. Great advice - another writer described this as salt and peppering your scenes, which I found apt, like your "slivering" --

  15. I am impressed visit this beautiful post.Torch carrying villagers, we are thinking about, we get word of applause,and the theme of the little scene phrase,the wind of laughter, to deny any chance, this is a happy applause.Before we know, the author tells us that, MC is afraid.

    torch on roofing


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