Pub Rants

Category: Character Development

Rhetorical Story Development

This month, let’s tackle a narrative device that lots of fiction writers use, one I’m calling “rhetorical story development.” It’s when writers have characters ask themselves rhetorical questions as a means to deliver character or scene information to the reader. Here’s how to recognize this device, understand why it tends to lack depth, decide when to use it (and when not to), and approach revision.

A rhetorical question is one that’s asked merely for effect with no answer expected. Here’s an example of how fiction writers use it as a narrative device:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. How could Rob accuse Anna of such terrible things? Didn’t Rob know that Anna was the love of his life? Didn’t he care that after this they could never be friends again? “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Here’s another:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods. I shivered. Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows? What choice did I have? This was the first clue I’d found in months. Was there any other way to find out what really happened to my sister? I squared my shoulders and marched toward the treeline.

­Writers who use this device are giving us a glimpse of what’s going on inside the POV character’s head in moments of confusion or indecision. Nothing wrong with that, per se. In fact, fiction writers should give us that glimpse; otherwise, if they’re only writing what can be seen and heard, they’re probably writing scripts in prose form rather than fully developed fiction. (Which is why “show don’t tell” can result in bad scene work, but that’s a topic for another day.)

However, here’s a caution. When the rhetorical-question device is used too often, a piece of fiction can begin to sound like a choose-your-own-adventure story narrated by someone outside the scene rather than in it, living it, being acted upon by it. When you look at the device more closely, you can see that it fails to give meaningful insights into how a character thinks—that is, what makes that character unique and interesting. In other words, if they’re asking themselves the same questions anyone would ask themselves in the scene’s particular situation, they risk becoming everyman or template characters.

In the immortal words of Jo Bennett to Dwight Schrute on The Office, “Stop asking yourself easy questions so you can look like a genius.”

OK, a little comic relief there. I get that characters aren’t pulling a Dwight and trying to look like geniuses—they’re often just trying to figure out what to do. But easy questions make for weak narrative. One way to do get your characters to stop asking themselves easy questions is to simply turn those questions into statements. Complete thoughts. Instead of showing us your character’s confusion or indecision, show us their belief or their resolve. Then show us how they’re applying that resolve to their decision about what to do or say next. If you do, then right away, you’ll be opening the door to more meaningful character development.

Let’s take a stab at revising our examples:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. No way would he let Rob get away with accusing Anna of such terrible things. Sure, he and Rob had been best friends since kindergarten, but Anna was the love of his life. No one—especially not Rob, who always got every girl he ever wanted—got to talk about Anna that way. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

Notice how James comes across as much more resolved in this revision. He skips over the questions and gets straight to the heart of what he’s really thinking in that moment. But what if James is the type of character who really is always questioning himself? Then try:

James stared at Rob, fists at his sides. He had two options. One, back down the way he always did, walk away and let Rob’s lies about Anna hang in the air between them. Or two, stand up for himself and the love of his life once and for all, thirty years of so-called friendship be damned. “Take it back,” he said through clenched teeth.

There are myriad ways to develop or stay true to a character in a moment of analysis and decision without using the rhetorical-questions device.

Let’s revise the second example:

I stared at the mysterious symbols carved into the tree. The last symbol was an arrow pointing into the woods, where shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches. I shivered. Everything in me wanted to turn and run, but this was the first clue I’d found in months. Someone in those woods knew what happened to my sister. Soon, I would know too. I squared my shoulders and marched toward the trees.

In this case, questions like “Should I follow the arrow? Allow myself to be swallowed up by the shadows?” can just be cut. They waste space that otherwise can be used to paint atmosphere (“shadows hung like shrouds from gnarled branches”), clearly express internal conflict (“Everything in me wanted to turn and run”), or develop tension (“Someone in those woods knew”).

None of this is meant to say that you can never use this device or have your characters ask themselves rhetorical questions. It’s just to point out that overuse of any device is a good thing for writers to be aware of and, hopefully, add another tool to your self-editing toolbox.

(Header Photo by Olya Kobruseva)

Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

Such encounters might kick off a nasty bout of cognitive dissonance. If our ubiquitous structures aren’t adhered to, then these stories shouldn’t work. So why do they? The answer is simple: Because different types of stories and different ways of telling them have, over centuries, evolved all over the globe. Learning, using, teaching, or critiquing others’ work based on only one of several similar structures is painfully limiting to both storytellers and their audiences.

Let’s look at an example of an ancient, non-Western structure.

Kishōtenketsu is a four-act plot that can be traced back through the centuries to several countries of East Asia. Though the word is Japanese, the structure itself originated in China. (We’ll circle back to China in a minute.) Author Kim Yoon Mi explains that, in Japanese, Kishōtenketsu describes the four acts as follows:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

In contrast, Western structures centralize tension and conflict. American writers are clubbed constantly with the following rules:

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must develop both internal and external conflicts and resolve them at the end.
  • If you have no conflict, you have no story.

But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

How did this come about? To answer, Kim Yoon Mi cites episode 6-04 of Wes Cecil’s Human Arts podcast, “Chinese: Languages and Literature” (2015). In summary, China endured centuries of brutal famine and war, and as such, conflict was never a good thing; therefore, Chinese stories decentralized conflict. So while stories that followed the Chinese qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé structure (the precursor to Kishōtenketsu) certainly included conflict, conflict often took a definitive back seat to characters’ personal development.

Here’s another difference. In our familiar Western structures, writers are expected to wrap everything up at the end, to leave no questions unanswered (unless they’re setting up a sequel, in which the expectation is still that cliffhanger questions must eventually be answered). But of Kishōtenketsu, Kim Yoon Mi says, “the conclusion isn’t always a resolute solution to everything….It’s more like a wrap up for that particular issue, while indicating the story still goes on beyond that…often with notes about the occasional backslide.”

Will Western audiences understand a Kishōtenketsu story? That’s a good question, one Kate Krake of Three Pillar Authors tackled on their blog back in 2016. Krake writes:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four-act, no-conflict structure may risk not engaging with Western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Kishōtenketsu is only one among many non-Western structures. (Please visit Kim Yoon Mi’s excellent article “Worldwide Story Structures” to explore myriad others and see examples.) I would argue that American agents, editors, publishers, and slush readers, if they are truly committed to making space at the table for diverse voices, have a duty to educate ourselves on the vast alternatives to our comfortable old “acceptable” story structures.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

Photo by Aaditya Arora from Pexels

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part II)

How much page-space you devote to building backstory depends on what type of story you’re telling and how you want to develop your lead characters. There’s no one-size-fits-all backstory formula, but there are some pro tips that can help you strike a masterful balance between What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The Balance

When I’m working on a manuscript or reading a book for pleasure, here’s how I think of backstory:

  • The more complicated or developed the backstory, the more I expect it to impact the current story.
  • The simpler or less-developed the backstory, the less I expect it to impact the current story.

That’s because the more page-space you devote to something, the louder you’re shouting at the reader, “Pay attention to this! It’s important!” If it turns out not to have been important, readers have every right to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck was the point of all that wasted page-space. That’s Page Economy 101.

What do I mean by “impact the current story”? I mean affect the plot. And by plot, I mean the external arc. Remember that all stories have an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart) and an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist). A lightly developed backstory might inform the internal arc, explaining why a character is they way they are. But with a heavily developed backstory, the reader isn’t wrong to expect a big plot tie-in later on.

Here’s an example: If you briefly mention somewhere in the setup that your protagonist used to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, then readers think “this guy is caring and capable” and move on. But if you devote lots of page-space to his backstory (how his father taught him to swing a hammer, how he wanted to be an architect but couldn’t afford the schooling, how he got involved with Habitat, all the many life lessons he learned and wonderful people he met along the way), then my story-brain starts whirring. It now feels set up for a third act or final battle that can only be solved by someone with his unique set of knowledge, skills, resources, connections, or experiences. In other words, it feels set up to expect that you’re planting an ace up his sleeve that will get played at a critical, climactic moment.

Wound Events vs. Inciting Incidents

One key reason backstory is so important is that it’s where the wound event lives. (The idea of a wound event has been explored extensively by story experts like Michael Hauge and John Truby, so check them out if you want a deeper dive.) I’ve worked with lots of writers who’ve never heard of a wound event, or who confuse their wound event with their inciting incident, which can wreak havoc on a story’s structure later on. So to clear it up in the most basic terms:

  • The wound event happens before page one and kicks off the internal arc.
  • The inciting incident happens on or after page one and kicks off the external arc.

In other words, the wound event is a single, critical backstory event that weighed your protagonist down with whatever emotional baggage they’re already carrying when they walk onto page one of your novel. It’s this emotional wound they must overcome by the novel’s end as a direct result of the events that make up the novel’s external arc. In other words, the internal and external arcs are intertwined and resolve together.

Prologues

Here’s a secret: Many prologues in both novels and movies exist because the writer wants to get the wound event in front of the audience first thing. This is an A-OK reason to open your story with a prologue. You’ll know you’ve experienced a wound-event prologue if chapter one starts with a leap forward in time—the ol’ “one year later” technique (though it doesn’t have to be one year). Examples of movies that open with a wound-event prologue are Return to Me and The Ritual.

The Takeaway for Plotting and Revision

What does all this mean for you as a storysmith? A wound event, because it is both structurally significant and thematically meaningful, is the least amount of backstory you should focus your efforts on developing. It might also be the most amount of backstory you should develop. Again, it depends. But here’s where I want you to pull out those pages I asked you to write last month. Whether you feel like you wrote too much or not enough, my only question is this: Can you identify a solid wound event in what you wrote? A wound event that resulted in the emotional baggage your protagonist will shed or otherwise confront head-on at the end of your story?

  • If no, can you scratch what you wrote and start building a meaningful backstory from the wound event up?
  • If yes, can you cut all the other backstory that’s not related to the wound event?
  • If cutting all the other backstory feels difficult, can you articulate how all of it will affect your plot? Yea verily, why your plot—not your character development or protagonist’s internal arc—will fall apart without it?

I already mentioned that the wound event sometimes shows up as a prologue. It can also be a flashback. Or it doesn’t have to be a scene at all. It can be something your protagonist discloses in dialogue. Or something you reveal to the reader through your protagonist’s internalizations. How and when you reveal your story’s wound event is up to you. But one piece of advice I love is that the writer should write the wound event—not necessarily to include in the novel, but so that she can stand beside her protagonist as he endures that event. So that she can bear witness to that formative moment, and then later imbue his scenes with the raw emotional residue it left behind.

The Takeaway for Querying, Pitching, and Opening Pages

Finally, when it comes time to pitch or query your novel, lean away from backstory. Sure, a sentence or maybe two of setup might be a necessary foundation for your actual pitch, and that’s OK, but the sooner you get to the story story—the one that starts on page one—the better off you’ll be. I’ve read query letters where half to all of the proverbial ink on the page was devoted to explaining everything about What Came Before. I’ve also sat through entire pitches where at the end of the eight-minute appointment, the writer is still talking about their hero’s or world’s backstory. These are missed opportunities! After all, the agent has their ear open for something they can sell. Story sells. Concept sells. Backstory alone does not.

Likewise, in your opening pages, avoid big, long, explainy, expository passages meant to lay out your novel’s backstory. That’s all stuff that can (and, for many agents and editors, should) be more elegantly woven in only after the story is rolling forward and gaining compelling momentum. Your opening pages are an agent or editor’s first impression of you and your work, and if those pages read like a history textbook, you might be in trouble. Open in scene, with character, setting, and conflict, you’ll have a much better chance of engaging and hooking the reader.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part I)

I was working with a client recently who had spent quite a bit of page-time developing a complex backstory for their protagonist. Their agent and I, looking for ways to tighten the plot and reduce the word count, saw all this backstory as an opportunity to trim. Since it never had any effect on the story as it was currently structured, it felt not only superfluous, but also unnecessarily complicating. Yet the author was reluctant to cut it.

We asked why, and their response made sense. They needed the protagonist to have a particular personality and temperament, a certain unique way of looking at the world and making decisions. Their instinct said that type of person isn’t born but made. So they created a backstory that explained why their protagonist was the way she was.

That’s a great reason. However, it did get me thinking more about backstory. Backstory is one of the crucial elements of the craft of fiction, so it definitely deserves our attention. But should backstory be a workhorse that earns its place within your manuscript’s structure by serving more than one weight-bearing function? Or should backstory be part of the wallpaper, passively decorative and meant to be glimpsed only now and then in the background? Is there a point at which too little backstory makes a novel feel flat? Or a point at which a big backstory is too big?

First, let’s look at some backstory basics. Next month, we’ll look at some ways to think about backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and even query letters.

Backstory Basics

Every story is two stories. There’s the story that happened before page one and the story that starts on page one. Some stories rely heavily on a rich and well-developed backstory, and that’s OK—other stories, not as much, and that’s OK, too. In general, the human brain perceives time as a linear chain of causes and effects. When you set out to tell a story, you choose where the story starts. The second you do, you have divided your timeline into two stories: What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The two stories are linked. What Came Before informs What Will Happen Now. That’s cause and effect (or stimulus and response), and it’s how story works. When readers dive into chapter one of a new book, they immediately begin to form questions. Why is food scarce in this world? Why is the ship’s captain afraid to sail into that cove? For whom is this spy risking her life to gather information? Why does this man not trust his wife? What caused the people of the Badlands to despise the people of the Tundra?

In linear time, the answers are part of your backstory. But in story time, which doesn’t have to be linear, you get to decide when and how to reveal the answers to the reader. For master storytellers, such decisions are made with respect to balancing (a) the potential for maximum dramatic effect with (b) reader engagement. That’s because readers kept too long in the dark tend to disengage.

Backstory shapes character. Story-craft wisdom tells us we need to give our central characters a goal and a motivation, and that we should establish those things fairly quickly, whether on page one or not long after. Therefore, what a character wants and why they want it are the products of backstory. In other words, goal and motivation are the effects of some cause that occurred a moment, a week, a year, a decade, perhaps longer, before page one. In short, backstory is why characters are they way they are. This is sometimes referred to as a “wound event” and should not be confused with your story’s inciting incident—we’ll come back to this next month in part II.

Backstory shapes world. The world in which your story takes place also has a unique effect on What Will Happen Now as a direct result of What Came Before. Whether your story world is a vast, war-torn star system, an island nation struggling to survive a devastating natural disaster, a seemingly idyllic suburban neighborhood, or a courtroom where the fate of an innocent man will be decided, that world has a backstory. Your world’s history is a collection of causes that resulted in the laws, norms, codes of conduct, and social hierarchies (written or unspoken) that govern what your characters can and can’t do and what’s at stake for them if they stray. Backstory is why your world is the way it is.

Your assignment: Write one to two pages for each major character detailing that character’s backstory. Now write one to two pages detailing your world’s backstory. Set your pages aside. Did anything surprise you? Did anything pop up that you want to explore more in your manuscript, or perhaps in a sequel or prequel? Did you have a hard time making it past a sentence or two, or did you go way past two pages and find you had a hard time stopping? This assignment is just to get you thinking about your relationship with the What Came Before of your story. We’ll do more with these pages next month, so tuck them away in a safe place.

Next month: Ways to handle backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and query letters.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic