I’ve been a life-long reader and can’t imagine anything more satisfying than curling up with a book and losing yourself in its pages. If I were a foodie, it would be equivalent of eating my way through five star restaurants. As a child of immigrant parents, I had to wait until the first grade before someone taught me how to read. Before then, I would look at books and pretend I knew how. My older cousin once called my bluff, and I made up some story on the spot to convince him. And so a writer was born.
Imagine my despair when I realized that somewhere along the road, I’ve become a pizza critic. Figuratively, of course.
Early in my husband’s career, he went from a typical university student who lived on pizza to working in the food service industry as, yes, a pizza inspector. It was his job, over many years, and for a couple of major pizza chains, to go to these stores and check their product (and other things). For years, he couldn’t order a pizza without analysing the darned thing: from the rise and the stretch and the distribution of toppings and the quality of the cheese. Those of you in the industry are nodding your heads because these terms have meaning for you. But as a civilian, all you know is that the pizza tastes good (or not).
I am a pizza critic but instead of analyzing the rise and stretch of the pie, I’m picking apart books for style, character, pacing and plot. I don’t mean to do it, but living and breathing story as a writer makes me more sensitive to gaps on the page. Where I may, as a civilian, have finished reading the book with a vague sense of ‘meh’, now I can’t help analyzing it. The character arc is weak. There is no ‘world normal’ in this, the pacing is off, etc. It’s diminished my reading experience in one way because I’m no longer able to slug through ‘meh’ anymore; on the other hand, it’s heightened my appreciation for well-crafted stories and the subtlety that underscores exquisite storytelling. Here are a couple of examples.
A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe
If you want to learn how to weave backstory through a complex story, read Guy Vanderhaeghe and take notes. We all get tripped up with backstory; new writers especially want to throw in their character’s cereal eating preferences and family tree. But good backstory, really the only kind we should include on the page, matters to the story. It has a place in the character arc. It isn’t a nice to know; it’s a must understand. True masters know how to thread the backstory with perfect balance. Too much in the beginning and the reader is snoring. Too little, the writer is accused of withholding. The trick, having admired and picked apart A Good Man, is to give us as much as we need when we need it and no more.
In A Good Man, the story opens with the protagonist’s father, a man of wealth, has bought out his commission. We learn that the protagonist’s service record hasn’t been exemplary and there is a blemish that no one talks about. That’s all for now and that’s enough. But as the story progresses, we gradually learn more about this past action until the end we understand how deeply this has impacted the character’s sense of worth. We see how this backstory has driven the character. It’s a beautifully constructed and flawlessly revealed backstory.
The Crystal Cave (Merlin trilogy) by Mary Stewart
I read this book to pieces in my late teenage through my twenties until the binding gave out. It took me twenty-five years to finally get another copy, and with a great deal of trepidation, I re-read it. Loved it! As well as re-discovering the magic of this story, I now saw it from fresh eyes. No one does description like Mary Stewart.
As writers, we are encouraged to use the five senses. Done well, it transports the reader into the fictional world. Done not so well, it overloads the reader with meaningless description. Think of a stew with every known spice thrown in willy-nilly.
Mary Stewart uses description not only to establish setting but also to show character. The protagonist in this trilogy, the Merlin of legend, is a man with psychic gifts and above average intelligence. He’s an herbalist, a naturalist, a bard and an engineer. No magic wand. He’s a character in tune with the world around him and the descriptions heighten that link. Instead of calling it a bird, the writer names it a marlin. She uses the specific rather than the general.
I’ve only covered two elements of craft: backstory and description. In my pizza analogy, these would be the equivalent of rise and stretch.
Now your turn. Do you have any examples that show good distribution of toppings and quality of cheese?