#105: How Much Backstory Is Too Much

Hello, Story Nurse!

My main focus at the moment is a fantasy novel. I’m only in the planning stages right now but I’m having a hard time figuring out what to do for this. My story is mainly centered on a group of people, and while they may age as it progresses, they are kids/teens. A big part of my story is about recovery and healing and such, so most of these kids have emotional wounds.

While their emotional wounds are obviously going to be present even when not outright mentioned, my question is; how much information of these traumas/wounds is enough? I fear that including too much information on their wounds may make it seem like I’m trying to force the reader to pity them, and that too little will leave the reader confused and in the dark.

How much is too much or too little? Any suggestions on how do I show their wounds and provide details without waving a neon sign?

Thank you,

Struggling (she/her)

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Story Nurse

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#104: Blocked When Switching from Fanfic to Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a mostly-retired fanfic writer trying my hand at original urban fantasy. I would very much like to be able to write from an outline, but I’ve been going completely blank when I try to plan my original stories compared to fic. However, my most typical process has always been to more-or-less happily ‘pants’ through a very very rough draft and then mold what I find into a story shape. That’s worked ok in the past, but now that I’m attempting original fiction in earnest, I’m encountering a problem that I would have found utterly comical to imagine happening to me.

In fanfic circles, I was known for writing doomed star-crossed lovers and other sorts of intense angst from canons that were full of horror and suspense. Villains were frequently my most favorite characters and I wasn’t shy about letting the heroes make enticing yet oh-so-regrettable choices.

Now that I’m writing my own original fic, which is supposed to be about decadent and frightening vampires, everyone’s behaving like a flawless paragon of reasoned maturity and working out their problems and desires in the most responsible ways possible. And so every plot conflict I try to set up is quickly defused, nothing scary or suspenseful ever gets to happen, and not one of my characters is willing to step up and do any of the villainous or catastrophic things I enjoy so much in other people’s stories.

It’d be one thing if I was discovering a heretofore unknown love of writing slowburn coffee shop original universe fic, but that sort of thing has vastly more tension then what I’m generating. I’m boring myself to tears!

I’ve never been unwilling to torture a character I’ve loved (quite the opposite) and I don’t think that’s all or even most of what’s happening here. It almost feels as if I’m afraid to get in some sort of trouble for having any of my characters behave anything less than ideally. I don’t know where that would be coming from, as I’ve never had any anxieties or confrontations regarding that with my fanfic. Perhaps borrowing someone else’s characters allowed me to fearlessly explore their pain, flaws, and terrible decisions because I wasn’t the one responsible for them.

I just want to be able to write stories that are fun for me to write, however dark or fluffy they turn out to be. Instead, all I’ve been writing are pages and pages of bland mush that I had hoped to find quite spicy. Your wisdom is appreciated.

—Defanged (they/them)

Dear Defanged,

There’s a lot going on here! I suspect you’re primarily hampered by two things: a focus on characters as the source of your problems, rather than as a reflection of them, and the habit of comparing your original fiction writing with your fanfic writing. Your letter scratches the surface; now it’s time to dig deeper.

Continue reading

#103: Writing Fluffy Stories in Thorny Times

Hi, Story Nurse,

I just outlined a romance novella and I’m trying to figure out its setting. It’s basically contemporary, with the obvious AU-ness that comes along with a functioning fantasy-genre-style system of magic—but who won in 2016? Has that election even happened yet in this ‘verse?

Can I write a simple fluffball escapist-fantasy romance set in the present-day US without addressing US politics directly? Like, am I capable of it? Separately, is it ethical to make the attempt? Is it ethical to not make the attempt?

How can I portray my protagonists sympathetically if they live in the present-day US and do not at least make a lot of sincere noise backed with some effort about \handflappy\?

But how do I focus on my actual plot—which is political only in the way that personal emotional journeys about minority religion and queer sexuality, both in counterweight to queermisic Catholicism, inherently are—if my characters are spending so many of their non-employment waking hours being actively political & stuff?

—Artist-Activist Butterfly (they/them)

Dear Artist-Activist Butterfly,

This is a great question that I think a lot of writers are struggling with right now, because we live in a very politically aware and active time. When so many of our own waking hours are taken up with thoughts about political activism and power dynamics and related anxiety and stress, it can be hard to remember what fluffy stories even look like.

I encourage you to take a step back and consider this problem through a historical lens. There have always been political and social challenges (especially for minorities), and there have always been fluffy stories that gloss over or steer around those challenges. If Regency romance authors can write happy bouncy funny stories that completely ignore or barely nod to the American and French revolutions (as recent to the Regency as the Vietnam War is to us) and the Napoleonic wars, you can write happy bouncy funny stories set in 2016 or 2018.

Here are a few options for how you might portray your characters as politically aware and engaged without it overwhelming the story:

  • They do activism that doesn’t directly intersect with politics, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or doing lay leadership with their religious organization (if they have one) or letting a trans teen crash on their couch after she’s kicked out of her house. This builds sympathetic characters and shows them living their political ideals, which frees you from having to reflect those ideals in frequent activism.
  • They donate money rather than time. Make one mention of monthly donations, and then move on to the focus of your story.
  • They talk about taking time off from activism to rest and recover.

Or you can just not mention it. I don’t think you need your characters to be ostentatiously political for them to be sympathetic. I’m sure you can think of any number of real people you like even though they aren’t deeply involved in activism, or their activism happens where you don’t see it. Your readers—who are presumably looking for a fluffy story—will likewise be perfectly happy to enjoy the aspects of the characters you put on the page, and not stress about the rest.

One thing that will help is keeping the scale of the story small. If it only takes place over two days in a cabin in the woods, it’s reasonable that politics wouldn’t be hugely relevant to the characters’ lives during that time. If it takes place over six months in a big city where there are frequently protesters in the streets and every bar has five screens showing CNN, or on a college campus where current events are frequently discussed and student activism is common, more political intrusion would be expected.

You can also write your alternate universe to be alternate enough that the election went a different way. If this setting has always had magic, there’s no reason to think history would have run the same course as it did in our magicless universe. Diverge from reality as much as you like.

As you observe, there are ethical arguments to be made both for and against writing fluffy stories that handwave politics. I’m personally in favor of you writing the story the way you want to write it. There’s room for all kinds of stories, and no shortage of people writing works that are explicitly political and emotionally heavy. I know many readers who are really eager for fluff right now because they’re so stressed out by politics and need a break now and then. Write for those readers, and for yourself.

Any novella needs to leave things out. It’s only a novella! It can’t contain the universe. Draw the lines where you need to in order to tell the story you want to tell.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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#102: Writing Sex Negotiations in Polyamory Stories

Hi, Story Nurse!

In a fanfiction I’m writing, I’m working on slowly integrating a polyamorous romance and while your previous polyamory posts have been super helpful, I’m having trouble. I’ll refer to the characters as Z, C and V. C is polyamorous but has no romantic or sexual experience beyond their feelings for Z and V. V and Z don’t strictly identify as either mono or poly but as of now, they’re only in love with C. All three of them are new to the V format of polyamorous relationships. I’m struggling with how to… approach sex within their relationship. I know every relationship is different and communication is key but even with that, the research I’ve done hasn’t typically answered this question of mine. How does a sexually inexperienced person approach or initiate sex with multiple partners? Is there a certain unspoken etiquette I don’t know about? Is it a gradual process with all partners or something that just happens? If it helps, Z is rather possessive but he loves C enough and is fond of V (they’re old friends) and just wants them to be happy. V is very open minded but I think he’d still feel an occasional bout of jealousy. (Which is understandable.) It’s tricky and I’m having trouble balancing it all even with the research I’ve done.

—Apprenty (they/them)

Dear Apprenty,

Thanks for giving me such an easy question to answer! No, there’s no universal polyamory proposition etiquette, any more than there’s universal monogamy proposition etiquette. How it goes depends entirely on the people involved. As with any romance story, your best bet is to put yourself in each character’s shoes as much as possible and write them doing what they’re inclined to do, with commonalities and clashes arising from that.

Continue reading

#101: Writing Submissions and Competition

Dear Story Nurse,

A really awesome opportunity has come up for a writing submission, but I’m aware that it’s going to involve going up against a friend who is also submitting (and I already have some difficult emotions about due to their comparative success). I don’t know whether it’s better to avoid the chance of direct competition exacerbating my already difficult feelings by not submitting, or to try it knowing that the consequences could be extremely tough to take. At the same time, I’m also aware that if I don’t try for this opportunity, that is still going to have an impact on my mental health. I don’t want to let my bad feelings bully me out of something that I’m really excited about, but I also don’t want to risk my mental wellbeing for one opportunity.

Thank you,

Hopeless Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopeless Romantic,

I don’t think this is a question someone other than you can answer, so I have some questions in return that might help you clarify what the right choice is for you. Continue reading