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Backstories, setups, and lead-ins

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Jul 22, 2019.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'm at the very front end of a new novel, thinking about where the story starts. I think I figured out something and thought I'd share. A tip o' the hat goes to MalikMalik for making me think backwards.

    The story is about Frederick who sets out on an adventure to become emperor. The inciting incident is surely the moment when he is told by an emissary that the German princes have just voted to depose Otto of Brunswick and elected Frederick instead. Otto isn't going to go out willingly, so it means going north (Fritz is in Sicily) to fight. Fritz has few resources and a number of powerful enemies, so he has a big decision to make.

    OK. Thinking backwards. If I open with that scene, we aren't going to care much because we've barely met the kid, which means I have to back up.

    And here's where I had my minor insight. The scenes that come prior to the Inciting Incident are sometimes called backstory, sometimes setup, sometimes simply Act One. For some reason, the phrase "lead-in" came to me, and that clarified.

    Because, you see, once I decide I need to set up the Inciting Incident, I'm again at sea as to where to start. If I'm not careful, I wind up with a Prelude starring Fritz's grandfather! But I have a guiding light here. What I need in those opening scenes is not merely setup, not just back story, but scenes that specifically lead up to that Inciting Incident.

    The key moment isn't the delivery of the news, it's the decision Fritz makes. So, the lead-up (in ... choose your own preposition) consists of involving the reader in that decision. What's at stake? Who stands to gain or lose? What are Fritz's own hopes and fears? What and who will he bring with and leave behind?

    I don't have the details of this, but thinking in those terms, focusing particularly on how I bring the reader to that moment, lets me sketch the opening scenes. From here on, it's all ice cream and roller skates. :)
     
  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I had a friend in college who majored in screenwriting, and he referred to it as the Setup and the Payoff. The Payoff is the big moment that makes readers go "Whoa!" And the setup is what you have building up to it.

    The thing to keep in mind is that your book has several of these big "payoff" moments, and you might need to start setting up a few of the later ones even in Act 1. One way to layout a book is to space out these big payoff moments, and then for each you write out the events leading up to them, and then look for places where you can overlap setups for the different payoff moments. It's similar to waypoint writing.
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Yep. I have some payoff moments in mind. There are some payoff moments in the historical events themselves, so it's just a case of embroidering those. More of a challenge will be adding in some character growth moments. The historical documents fall into two camps: panegyric and ... well, there's not a good antonym. Condemnatory comes close, but the things said about Frederick II go way beyond that word. Anyway, nothing balanced and certainly not much that's insightful. I don't have to invent the history, but I do need to invent the man.
     
  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Inventing the man seems key.

    If he's going to go on this quest to become emperor, then the setup would be a combination of showing where he is now (shape of his current life), showing (or at least hinting strongly) that he is currently dissatisfied with his life, and because it's a historical fantasy, showing how the land itself may already be in turmoil or at least somewhat unsettled. Then, when the news comes, these pieces will fall together. Becoming emperor will essentially be the answer to these things.

    You will also want to lay the groundwork for his relationships to various individuals. Becoming emperor isn't the only decision he'll make; choosing who will come with him is also a decision.

    You may want to hint at various subplots that will involve Fritz. For instance, if he has a current antagonist in his life and that person will hound him throughout his quest, you'd need to establish that antagonism. Or, if he's going to be romantically involved later, you may want to lay the groundwork for that in the setup. (This may not include introducing his love interest in the setup if she appears later, but showing Fritz trying and failing in love, or visiting brothels, or whatever, may lay the groundwork for this aspect of him.) If Fritz has important flaws that will affect his quest or later subplots, you will want to establish or hint strongly at those in the setup.

    All this brings up one of my own conundrums. I have a horrendously difficult time distinguishing between organic and forced inclusion of data/info in a story's setup. In my apprentice-master wizard story, I want to establish that the apprentice has difficulty learning the most basic wizarding skills but also has a natural magical ability quite different than the abilities any other wizard in this land has. Neither he nor his master understands this ability, even though the apprentice has successfully used it a few times (over ten years) and it affects every other attempt at magic casting (why, in part, he has difficulty learning the most basic wizard casting.) Both apprentice and master are largely clueless about this aspect, also, at the beginning. So I have this one example of his magic, a candle with a flame that just won't go out, ever. I've written a brief set of thoughts the master wizard has about this candle; it stumps him. But in a way, these feel forced. At least, I fear it may be forced. As if I'm just too eager to include this bit of data in the setup. Other factors in the setup present the same sort of problem. So coming up with the right scenes, events, etc., for the setup, to make all this introduction more organic, is a troublesome thing for me.
     
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  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Are those scenes written, FifthView? It sounds like you're worrying about what hasn't yet happened.

    I'll argue it this way: there's no such thing as organic vs forced inclusion of anything. Or, rather, *everything* in a story is forced. Or organic. The adjective is unhelpful. You're inventing all of it. The only question is whether or not it works, and that doesn't happen until you've written it, and then you're First Judge of its success. There comes a time when the author is no longer a good judge of what's working, and that's why we have beta readers and editors.

    But until you've written it and had your own opinion of the result, everything is potentially brilliant and potentially crap. You'll argue every side and be right (and wrong) every time. You're playing a game of three-card monte where you never turn over the cards.

    As an outsider, I love the unending candle, and especially because your MCs are stumped by it. I can just picture the wizard pacing around the thing, staring at it, not letting anyone else see it because he doesn't want to admit it stumps him. And the reader will be stumped right along with him. And the apprentice is stumped but in a different way. Maybe it scares him because he doesn't know how he did it and he can't seem to do it again.

    My only critique is to wonder about the ten years. After so long a time, this mystery would fade. People adjust to *anything*. Ten years deflates the issue, unless Unexpected Magic starts happening more frequently, and maybe more alarmingly. Then it becomes a story problem, and that's great. But if it's just this thing that happens every once in a great while and nothing much comes of it, well that's less compelling.

    I'd love to see the scene where Apprentice first lights that candle. And to see the attempts to extinguish it.
     
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  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    These are interesting; I think I'll give these some more thought.

    I've written the scene. It opens the book. (Yes, openings are usually rewritten, so why worry, eh?) The book opens on a training session. The apprentice is working magic, but weakly—as normal for him. During the scene, the apprentice's effort automatically recalls the candle to the master's mind. He sends his own mind toward where the candle sits between two graves. (The apprentice's parents are buried on the property.) And this is where the master considers that candle.

    It seems organic, and yet it seems almost forced. I had considered opening the book with the apprentice standing over those graves and the master coming upon him; at which point, the candle would be noticed, and the master's thoughts about it would happen here. My mind then wonders whether this would be a more organic intro to the candle.

    Starting much earlier, when the apprentice creates the candle, might be good. I'm not a fan of flashbacks, and even as an opening set further in the past, this approach would seem to start "too early" for the tale. Then again, this sort of thing has been done successfully in stories I liked reading, so who knows?

    This is what I mean when I mentioned settling on the right scene to do this best.
     
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Why does the candle have to be so much earlier than the story opening?

    Let's assume it does. In which case, why does the apprentice's effort recall the candle to the master's mind? The master is engaged in training his apprentice, so why does the master's attention wander? And why to that, specifically? There are two questions here: why in story terms, and why in character terms. It pays to know both, but right now I'm more curious about the story side.

    Why is it important for me as the reader to know about this candle? Is it the eternal nature of it? The accidental nature of it? Its location between graves? What's important here?

    To me, the more immediately interesting angle is the relationship between master and apprentice. The kid (I'll pretend he's young, and the master old) is a disappointment. Which makes me wonder why the old man keeps him around, keeps investing effort in a lost cause. Guilt? Mule-headedness? An obligation of some sort? Every angle piques my curiosity. And why does the apprentice keep banging his head against this wall? Why not go out and get honest work. Stand-up comedy, maybe. And, finally, with so little progress over so many years, why have these two not tried to kill each other?

    Those questions pull me in more than does the Case of the Curious Candle.
     
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  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    They have an easy, long term relationship. They've both long grown accustomed to each other. The kid was a young boy, an orphan, when he came into the master's life. The master had already lived fifteen years alone, a sort of self-exile to a small village twenty five years before the story begins. Taking on the kid as apprentice happened largely because of these factors. The master was bored, lonely in his life; the kid had nowhere else to go. The kid's personality is extremely even-keeled; this is one great difference between them, since the master is by nature rather volatile in emotions. Their fundamental magics are related to this difference. The candle is an example, a kind of totem, of this kid's even-keeled nature. The master's specialty is blowing things up with his magic. There is also the fundamental nature of the wizarding society in this land, since a contract is made between would-be apprentices and masters, and only the master can release an apprentice when the apprentice reaches mastery (or, alternatively, this happens automatically when a master dies.) I picture their particular relationship as the sort of long term pseudo-family relationship that could happen between any two people; the apprentice-master relationship just happens to be in addition to this.

    It's plot-important, as the kid's magic will ultimately be the magic that allows them to defeat a serial killer of wizards. But the kid's character arc will in part be this increasing understanding of his own magic. Which is why he starts out as described: seemingly weak in magic, but having other abilities not yet plumbed in depth.

    Of course, "What's important for the reader to know now, at the beginning" is a great question. I want to plant the seeds for the later plot-relevant candle, but early it should just be a symbol of the kid's personality while making the reader curious about its greater significance. Also, it introduces the fact that the master wizard, who is extremely powerful and knowledgeable, doesn't understand everything about every sort of magic.

    I do think the idea of having description accomplish multiple things should be translated into this introduction in the setups of books. Whatever scenes I settle on should be designed to accomplish more than one thing. I do need to address the past, these things I've mentioned in this comment, which would include how these two met, the fact that the apprentice's parents died and are buried on this property, etc. So there is this to consider when redesigning the early scenes.
     
  9. William Russell

    William Russell Dreamer

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    So this candle is the catalyst that brings the wizard and the apprentice together. By intriguing the wizard as he doesn't understand it, it creates more interest in him for the apprentice. This feeds the relationship that develops in the future over time. The candle is what makes the kid/apprentice capture the wizard's interest. Maybe exploring how the wizard is intrigued by the kid/apprentice and his candle and what makes it so different from other magic. Even looking at how the wizard can see the power or use of understanding this foreign type of magic. Just thinking about it and offering my thoughts. I like the premise and the candle aspect. Very creative. Especially how the magic is different and will ultimately save everyone in the future.


    I think this is great. The personality aspect is a great idea. The volatile older wizard and the steady young apprentice - kind of flips the script on traditional stuff. The unraveling of the mystery of his magic is also a great idea. Starting out weak and then becoming the most important thing because of this difference in magic. A hindrance and then a strength. Maybe his magic could be more based in emotion - the result of his parents death being so traumatic that it triggered his magic and made the candle without him knowing how he even did it. Maybe the magic was created in him as a result of the trauma. Perhaps it transformed him somehow or in combination with something else morphed into a new magic. Just thoughts coming to me. You may discard or accept as required. : ) I like the concept though. Nicely done.
     
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  10. Magicat

    Magicat Scribe

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    I have stumbled on this fascinating exchange, on my return to Mythic Scribes. I love the idea of the eternal candle too. May I offer a thought, picking up this from skip.knox on 23 July. (I hope I've copied it successfully, my computer skills leave much to be desired.
    I thought the same. But if the more volatile master was getting irritated by his apprentice and said something like "why can't you do something basic like this, when you conjured that wretched candle you're so proud of?" then it would add something about the relationship and to the apprentice's character. He has one thing to be proud of and is clinging to it through thick and thin. Could this be one of the planks in the platform which you build for the revelation of the importance of this new special magic?
     
  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Agreed. I don't know if it's the case here, but in my own work when I'm feeling a little lost as to how to work a scene or even how to make some more strategic story choice, most times it comes down to spending more time with the characters. Inside a character's head. When it's not clicking, it's because I'm standing back, out here in the author's seat, moving pieces and building sets. I'm the director, and a director is needed, of course.

    But there's no play without the actors. To make the scene work, I have to get out of my author's chair and get on stage, see things from the inside, with their eyes. And with their history. Come to the situation with a specific character's background, how he's feeling that day, what he was expecting and what he's getting. and what he remembers, the grudges and hopes he holds. Then the scene comes alive again and I find a way through. It's not always the best way, but it sure beats spinning in that chair.
     
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Thanks William RussellWilliam Russell, MagicatMagicat and skip.knoxskip.knox! You've given me much food for thought.

    Yeah, I've been approaching the idea with a mind to twist the normal trope of apprentice-master. At present, the master's POV is intended to be the main POV also, although as the story continues this will switch more to the apprentice's POV, but without removing the master's experience as important to the tale. Generally, the hidden/background theme for me is that generational flip, or how we old fogies feel ourselves to be the center of things (as we did when we were young) but come to learn that the younguns have now "taken over the world" (metaphorically).

    skip.knoxskip.knox: I think you've hit the nail on the head. Putting myself in the character's chair for a scene will help me decide which scene is best and how to write it. What's he thinking, feeling, confronting at this moment? That seems to be the key factor. Thanks!
     
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  13. Danskin

    Danskin Scribe

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    Interesting discussion! I think I tend to start a bit too late. Maybe it's because I started out with short stories, where you are encouraged to just include the 'core' of the story, and let the reader work out the rest.

    Having said that, there can be overkill in set up, I think. It can make things slower – as a reader, I'd want to get on with the action, and would be happy if the background details were revealed to me gradually. And also, if I was credited with enough intelligence to read between the lines.

    Finally, there is a lot to be said for a prequel. With both books/series that I have worked on recently, I became interested in the story of what happened before (though I haven't actually written either down, yet!)
     
  14. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    I understand this dilemma. While I agree with skip.knoxskip.knox somewhat about everything being invented, and therefore rendering these adjectives meaningless, I propose that they do have some merit. When reviewing one’s own work, I constantly question whether the reader would find this data forced or organic. To put it another way, are the spinning gears of your story showing, or is it woven seamlessly into the larger tapestry.
    Great insight, as usual :). This is basically the same conclusion I came to. Glaring, plot important beacons guide my outline, but as I flesh out my characters, I find that the more I comprehend why and how the plot points are important to them on a personal level, the less obvious the mechanics become. It’s a case of switching seats, getting different perspectives. I’m at the point of walking away for a while, coming back ‘in character’, walking off, then back as director, rinse and repeat. I find it exhausting, not at all efficient (which drives me crazier), but completely necessary at this stage and ultimately rewarding.
     
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