Monday, May 1, 2017

Signs of a Great Story

After months of planning, re-planning, worrying, scurrying, saving, spending, searching, packing, cleaning, and worrying some more, we're finally in Alaska--Eagle River, Alaska, to be precise, about ten miles north of Anchorage. My daughter found a wonderful job in a veterinary clinic in Anchorage, and since we loved Alaska the first time we were here when her husband was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, we decided to return.
If you look closely, you'll see me waving at the very top of this
mountain after fifteen hours of climbing in freezing temps and
blizzard conditions. Wait, that's not me. That's a tree. And no,
I didn't climb it. I lied.

There is simply NO quick way to reach Alaska. You either drive for eight or ten days, twelve hours at a stretch, or fly. We flew. Thirteen hours, two layovers, and thousands of miles later, we reached our destination. Fortunately, Delta had individual televisions at each seat (something I've never experienced before when flying to and from Alaska because I always flew CCC Airlines--Cheap, Chintzy, and Crowded). Over the course of the day I was able to watch two movies, one of which, Signs, is an all-time favorite of mine. Although I know every word of dialogue and have seen it at least fifteen times, something struck me this time that I'd never noticed before. 

Signs is the perfect movie to watch if you're looking for great examples of backstory, foreshadowing, and plot development. Maybe it hit me 35,000 feet in the air precisely because I know it forward and backward and was free to appreciate it from the creative point of view. Maybe it was just the altitude. In any event, I realized what a skillful production it was on so many levels: acting, directing, and writing. I could watch Mel Gibson brush his teeth and be entertained. He and Joaquin Phoenix were brilliant together, and Cherry Jones as the police officer lent just the perfect touch of seriousness. The kids, played by Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, were adorable. Douglas Aibel was responsible for casting the movie, and he did a superb job if it. M. Knight Shyamalan was great as Ray Reddy, the veterinarian who has a mysterious tie to the Hess family, and also wrote and directed the movie.

I wanted to give credit to those who, for me, at least, were paramount in bringing such an excellent example of what great writing (and subsequently, acting) can do for the viewer. The same, though, can be said of authors of books that grab our attention, the ones we want to read over and over to savor something a bit different each time. The foreshadowing in Signs, which was also used as backstory, was brilliant. Even though the arrival of aliens and how the Hess family handled the invasion was the focal point of the story, the backstory was intertwined beautifully and skillfully and turned out to be every bit as important as any other part of the movie.

My goal as a writer is the same as every writer's--to make our stories as memorable and adeptly crafted as possible. The careful use of backstory, without bogging down the reader, as well as skillful foreshadowing can make our stories unforgettable. Many times these opportunities occur during the editing period when we know our story inside and out and realize something important is missing. I know I'll be extra careful from now on to make sure my own work reflects the artfully crafted story it can be if I employ these clever elements.

How do you handle backstory and foreshadowing? 

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  1. I should get my eyes checked. I clearly see you. LOVED Alaska and plan to go back sometime. Took us nine blooming days to drive up there, though we've been assured the road is much better. :) Timely topic, Deborah, as I'm just completing a novella that's set during the time between the end and the epilogue of a previous published novella written for a series based on I Corinthians 13. This new series is based on Philippians 4. It was a little putzy trying to get all the details to fit in there right, especially with how much and when to stick in details of the backstory. A novella doesn't give you much room to do more than set the hook, give the fish some play, then reel it in. For foreshadowing here, I thought it best to use it twice from the heroine's POV by saying the bad guy was going to get nailed, but now how or why. From the hero's POV I decided to let him talk about his proposal ahead of time. It's a romance, after all.

  2. Thank you Deborah! I know I use backstory and foreshadowing, but it seems to happen organically, so I don't know that I can give it any kind of structure.

  3. Lisa and Linda... thanks so much for commenting. Lisa, I would love to read your series. What's the name of it? And if you're ever in Alaska, let me know :-) Linda, I too find that backstory and foreshadowing comes organically, and I find that to be a real blessing. Seeing it done so cleverly and skillfully in a movie is a real joy for me to watch :-)