I learned this interesting little technique in a recent Clarion Online Writing Workshop: How to Write Emotionally Engaging Characters in Short Fiction presented by A.T. Greenblat, and now I’m seeing examples of it everywhere.
The idea is simple. Use something from the character’s background to describe an action, reaction, emotion, or decision the character is making. Or as it was presented in the workshop: “Preface a current decision or perception with the character’s background that is informing this decision/perception.”
For instance, here’s a couple perfectly serviceable sentences I just wrote:
Paul bowed deeply, but not so deep as he might to a lord. He was uncertain of the old woman’s station.
And here’s how Frank Herbert actually does it in Dune:
Paul gave the short bow his dancing master had taught — the one used “when in doubt of another’s station.”
It’s so good! Not only do we learn that Paul’s parents are wealthy enough to hire a dancing master for him, but also that there is a lot of hierarchy in this society. We learn that Paul is a cautious and respectful young man. We even learn that it’s possible for one to be “in doubt of another’s station”, which is interesting in and of itself.
But this technique is not just about packing information into a few words. Even more important is the ability for background information to show how this particular character uniquely perceives an event, how it feels from their perspective.
Compare and contrast again. Here’s my description:
The news took a moment to sink in. The impact of it hit Naomi before the looming agony crashed over her.
Again, that’s fine, perfectly serviceable. But here’s how Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck do it in Persepolis Rising (Expanse 7):
When she’d been about eleven, Naomi had been working in a warehouse on Iapetus. A steel support beam had popped its welds, sprung out, clipping the back of her head. It hadn’t been pain, not at first. Just a feeling of impact, and her senses receding a little. The agony had two, maybe three seconds to clear its throat and straighten its sleeves before it crashed over her. This felt very much the same.
My description of the event could apply to anyone, but the actual description is unique to Naomi. It also shows us that Naomi has had a rough life. She was working in a warehouse at age eleven. There’s also a whiff-of-death to this description. She could easily have died when the beam hit her; will this latest catastrophe be the end of her? This description even suggests the answer, probably not. She’s survived this long in a hard, dangerous universe.
Sparrowhawk’s cold face graced Arren with a smile of such incredulous, incongruous happiness that Arren was stunned. He could see in Sparrowhawk’s eyes that the archmage finally saw him as an equal.
That’s my writing of a moment Arren has been waiting for the whole book, to finally get treated like the adult he sees himself as. Here’s how Ursula K LeGuin actually wrote it in The Farthest Shore (pg 154):
Arren’s fencing-master in Berila had been a man of about sixty, short and bald and cold. Arren had disliked him for years, though he knew him to be an extraordinary swordsman. But one day in practive he had caught his master off guard and nearly disarmed him, and he had never forgotten the incredulous, incongruous happiness that had suddenly gleamed in the master’s cold face, the hope, the joy-an equal, at last an equal! From that moment on, the fencing master had trained him mercilessly, and whenever they fenced, that same relentless smile would be on the old man’s face, brightening as Arren pressed him harder. And it was on Sparrowhawk’s face now, the flash of steel in sunlight.
Digressing into a memory in a pivotal moment might seem distracting, but the technique brings such a richness to the experience that it can be worthwhile (so long as it is used sparingly).
Another thing I like is the flexibility. The first example shows the technique applied to a minor point, the second two, to reactions to major plot points.
That’s all I’ve got time for now, but let me know in the comments any other examples of this technique you have noticed.
Best of luck and good writing!
p.s. Consider checking out this video that reminded me of the line from Dune:
Dune’s Writing is Incredible. Here’s Why.
p.p.s. I’m dangerously hyped for the Dune movie at this point.