Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Monday, November 27, 2006

Can't Start A Fire Without A Spark

I don’t outline. Not in any “normal” way.

Sometimes, I wish I could. Or, better yet, that someone would do it for me. Just give me a nice complete skeleton of The Perfect Plot, and I fill in the blanks.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Sure. But it wouldn’t be real.

For me, a story must grow organically. Characters aren’t something you cut out of a magazine. Plots aren’t something you contrive. Plots happen because of who the characters are, their reactions under stress, their motivations as living, breathing beings.

Everything else is a lie. And we, as fiction writers, don’t want to tell lies, do we? No. We want to find the truth. That’s why we do this.

Sometimes, finding the truth takes some digging.

Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time filling in behind-the-scenes information for my work in progress, i.e. what happens offstage.

Why is this important?

One word: Are you listening? Listen closely now...


Oops! Wrong word.

Plastics are artificial. Plots are artificial. We don’t want artificial. We want organic.

The word I had in mind was catalyst.

The action offstage acts as a catalyst for what the reader sees, and what the characters onstage ultimately do.

Why did a young lady show up at my protagonist’s door, seeking help to find her runaway sister? An entire series of events, that happened offstage, compelled her. Most of that backstory will never make it into the finished book; but, it’s important for me, the author, to know, because to truly understand my characters, I need to know what motivates them. The why of their actions, onstage and off.

For every stick of dynamite that explodes onstage, a fuse must first be lighted behind the scenes. I need to know who, what, when, where, why. Especially why.

Know where your sparks originate, and that big old thing we call Story will suddenly fall into place.


Blogger Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Yes, yes, yes! You hit the nail on the head, Jude. Backstory is essential. In addition to events that happened off line, you need to know your characters rich and deep history - like where they went to college, who they dated, what they studied, and how well they did. Or when their grandmother died and of what, and how it affected them... Excellent piece. Thank you!

3:56 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Aaron!

I think you're right. The more you know about a character's past, the more believable their present will seem. I interview my characters sometimes: What did you really, really want for Christmas when you were eight? Did you get it?

Things like that.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful. The deeper you go into their psyches, the better. And the further you go back in time, the more thoroughly you understand circumstances that made them who they are "today." In the LeGarde series, I wrote four present day books before I wrote Tremolo, the book that takes Gus back to his childhood. It was really a fascinating journey, and fun to develop the experiences that I'd alluded to in the "present." I ended up liking the trip back in time so much that I've decided to create a parallel "young Gus" series that will continue on from Tremolo. Gheesh, before I'm done I will have documented his whole life in books. Great challenge, huh?!

Thanks again for a wonderful post!

7:39 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I wish you much success with your series, Aaron.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Brilliant. Absolutely. It's like actors who want to know about the childhood of their characters so they can carry forth those quirks and aspects into the adult character they inhabit. All off-stage.

And I wish I could tell you, from my eidting years, how many times I looked at a book and thought, "This aspiring author can dot every i and cross every t, but nothing about this book feels organic. I don't believe it." It felt like watching a cast of barbie dolls perform or something.


6:30 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thank you, Erica!

I love your actor analogy. Film and theater hold a superabundance of wisdom for the novelist.

7:30 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Absolutely true, Jude! I can't stand to be reading merrily along and have a character do something that appears completely out of character without some feasible explanation. It leaps off the page as something the author just tossed in for a chuckle or shock value.

You say you're going back filling in behind the scenes information. I work in the opposite direction. I start with too much information, often screwing up my pacing by inserting too much back story. The skill I'm currently trying to develop is weeding out the proper nuances to leave in so the character motivation in clean but the ZZZ factor has been deleted.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Lainey:

The behind-the-scenes info I'm filling in is for my eyes only. The reader will never see 99% of it.

I guess I do it ack basswards. I write the first draft--organic, seat-of-the-pants stuff, very lean, almost script-like--and then go in and organize a plot outline with offstage action that propels the scenes forward. It probably wouldn't be most people's technique of choice, but it seems to be working for me.

10:36 AM  
Blogger lainey bancroft said...

Jude, I wasn't implying for a second that I thought you were ack basswards! I envy you your careful steps and analytical approach.

It's me who is bass-ackwards!

Because I'm still developing write right skills, I do as much un-writing as writing!

Clear as mud now, I bet :P

2:06 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Lainey: I wasn't implying that you were implying that.

Hehe. Now I'm really confused. :)

The thing is (and I think this was also in On Writing), there are two kinds of writers when it comes to rewriting--adder toers, and taker awayers. It sounds like I'm an adder toer, and you're a taker awayer. Actually, I would RATHER be a taker awayer, because it's much easier to start with too much and then cut than it is to start with too little and then add.

There now. Aren't you glad I cleared that up? :)

2:40 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Adder toer.


4:45 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Erica.

Some day we'll organize a softball game or something--The Adder Toers vs. The Taker Awayers. You get to be on my team!

5:56 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Taker Awayer.

I've often wondered which is more challenged, and have lamented that I'm not an Adder Toer.

I suppose each has it's own positives/negatives.

Great post, Jude!

10:34 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Kathy!

2:07 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Great post! I have one piece of notebook paper where I write down characters' names, and sometimes keep track of plot threads that have started (to make sure I finish them).

It's so hard for me to keep all that stuff in my head! I need a stickier brain!

12:51 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Thanks, Sky!

Yeah, I have to write things down too.

I think the clinical term is Teflonic Encephalopathy. :)

11:30 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I keep calling you "Sky" for some reason. Sorry 'bout that, SPY.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous jude hardin said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...


I've taken your lead and have limited internet time, as well as TV time. Guess what? I actually have time to WRITE. Amazing, isn't it?

Is it difficult to add and flesh out your material?

I struggle with the taking away part...too many words, and what to cut, cut, cut.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Kathy:

Good for you. The internet and TV can be great learning tools, but more often than not they're mind-numbing wastes of time, IMO.

I've been fleshing out some scenes, and it's really kind of fun. Hard work, yeah, but fun. And I LOVE taking the scissors to other people's work. I might actually try my hand at freelance editing sometime.

9:32 AM  

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