Sunday, September 1, 2013

Moving a core event (or using backstory for structure)

I just--okay, it's been a few days--got out of some workshops, and crashed. I'm not as young as I used to be, and short nights just don't cut it anymore. People say that you need less sleep as you age, but I don't think that's true. I used to do four like clockwork, and now I find myself doing a full eight and hitting the snooze alarm for another two. It totally eats into my time.

I got a wonderful question in the troubleshooting workshop, and I'd like to post the response, because it clarifies how moving a core event works on the actual structure of a story. Maybe I'm finally learning how to get my thoughts down in short form, instead of meandering (thank you, Melinda!)

I was wondering if a core event can be shown at the beginning of the book or if it needs to be in the past - how recent can a core event be that sets a character on a certain path through their way of thinking?

It depends on the story, because it's a structural issue controlled by what you're trying to do. A core event can be an inciting incident (further along in the story) or the first thing on the page, or just something in back story. And it's probably good if I use Kim, since I've used her as an example in ES.

As it stands, Kim is the heroine of a contemporary short (like a regular Harlequin romance (a cherish) ). Very Debbie Maccomber.

Cleo’s death—her core event, is in her backstory because the death is Kim's motivation (she's running from pain and guilt) and her conflict driver (she can't let herself love Tyra, because it's a betrayal of Cleo). She can't allow herself to love Jason because she loved her husband, which led to the accident that killed Cleo. If she does, it makes Cleo's death pointless.  Kim’s story is the story of her growth from pain and guilt, and being shutdown to opening up to love, releasing her guilt, and acknowledging that while it was a horrible mistake, she didn't deliberately set out to kill Cleo.

This simply means that even though Cleo’s death happened in distant backstory, Kim never moved on, and when the story starts we're dealing with ingrained emotional trauma. The reason I had it in backstory was because I needed it to be far enough "back" for the trauma to soften a little, and for her to have a less immediate kind of pushback--in other words, for her to be "able" to think and feel at the same time.

Now let’s move it to the beginning and have Cleo die on-stage.

There is no way Jason can be a plumber in this story, because Kim won’t want to mess with the bed and breakfast. She’s too close, in the process of spiraling downwards from the up close and personal chapter one accident. This is the structure for a hard, intense, dark story. The first story is dark, but has a softer feel. It’s a story of love, redemption and recovery. It’s got a kid and a dog, walks on the beach and family dinner.
It’s healed scar tissue.

A first page event is raw, bleeding, and intense because the reader witnesses Kim as her daughter dies. There was something like this in Seattle awhile back. A woman was driving out of the mountains with her kid and the logging truck in the next lane lost control. It spun out and took out a bunch of cars, but this car—the one with the kid in it, was the one right next to it, and the woman was only mildly injured. However, her daughter was messed up and witnesses told the reporters how the woman kept screaming her kid's name as she tried to get out of the crumpled car and reach her daughter in the seat (that had been right next to the truck) next to her, only to have her kid die—screaming and crying for her mom. They said the woman kept screaming, and screaming, and screaming. It was very sad. People broke down in the interviews.

This is raw scarring—a big, bleeding, gaping hole that can't be fixed by Tyra or her dad because it’s too new.

However—if I make Jason Kim’s friend, then I'm setting the stage for him to burst into the hospital and hold her hand while she cries and stares at the wall, and later, to break down her door and stop her from slashing her wrists. Or maybe to take away her bottle, nail her window shut and sleep in her doorway until she can eat again.

Maybe, over the course of the story, they scream at each other—and he slams her against the wall and kisses her out of fear and desperation because he’s terrified he’ll lose her to her growing darkness.
Tyra is no longer part of this story. There is no dog. The bed and breakfast doesn’t matter, and whether Jason is a plumber or a Greek tycoon also doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re two people trying to salvage a life that was shattered with Cleo’s death.  Maybe the story ends with Kim finding Jason sprawled exhausted in her doorway, and she goes away to make him a cup of coffee and sit beside him? It might not be a happy ending, but it works for where Kim started and how she ends. And he wakes up and smiles...because she isn’t better, but now there’s hope.

This means that instead of the slow-building story I had before, I have Kim lashing out emotionally and the story ends when Jason helps her to get her emotions under control, so she "can" think again. It's not that she can't think, it's just that her process is being disrupted by her emotional reaction to Cleo's death and later--her reaction to Jason's interference.


Edith said...

Wow Jodi, there's a world of difference between the two make that a universe! Another superb explanation. Thanks! Now if I could only put this wonderful advice to good use......

Unknown said...

Oh Wow! I just found your blog. I'm writerly informationaly overwhelmed. I stayed up reading your posts until I couldn't read any more.

I love structure and am so excited to continue reading and improve my writing.

Thank you.

Jodi Henley said...

lol, Edith. :) Thank you very much!

Hi Un!

lol, one day you'll have to tell me who you are--but until then I hope you don't mind if I call you "Un."

Welcome to my blog (a belated welcome, but sincerely meant all the same). Hope you stick around, maybe ask questions? I love questions. :)