(Check out my guest blog today on The World’s Strongest Librarian, a very cool website by Josh Hanagarne, who is the world’s strongest – and tallest – librarian.)
A genius plotting technique straight out of primetime drama.
Long ago I was giving a screenwriting workshop at a facility that was also hosting a novel writing workshop in another room. Rumor had it the instructor, a very successful mystery author you may have actually heard of, was having a little mean-spirited fun at our expense.
Wonder if he’d still have been a smartass if someone had ever wanted to adapt one of his novels for the screen, and then told him he wouldn’t be allowed to write the screenplay – that’s how it happens, by the way – because he didn’t have the right chops.
Writing can be an elitist avocation.
Novelists look down their noses at screenwriters, who are paid orders of magnitude more money, who, because of that fact, in turn look down their own noses at them.
Published authors look down on at self-published authors. Literary types scoff at genre writers. Genre writers diminish authors working in genres other than their own.
And critics who have never published anything longer than 700 words look down on all of us.
It’s all bullshit, folks.
Truth is, each corner of the storytelling world has something to offer the rest of us. The more we know about what makes other genres and literary styles work, the better we’ll be within our own respective areas of focus.
That includes television, too.
Especially some of the really good stuff running in primetime these days.
Watching the season premiere of Burn Notice this week (the USA Network number one rated cable drama, and my favorite program), it occurred to me that we can all take a page from the primetime TV drama book.
It’s a little kernel of pure storytelling gold that, like story structure itself, may have escaped you if you weren’t aware of it. Once you know what it is and why it works, you’ll never not notice it again.
Best of all, you just might even use it to take your own stories to a higher level.
This spectacularly powerful storytelling technique resides at the confluence of plot and character. At the collision of backstory with dramatic tension. At the crossroads of sub-plot and sub-text.
And if that sounds like some advanced stuff, it absolutely is.
If you’ve wrapped your head around the basics and are looking for a little graduate level nuance to separate your story from the slush pile, pay attention.
Straight out of primetime television. Who’d ‘a thunk it.
Foreground Plot versus Background Plot
It sounds so simple once you hear it. But it’s precisely the thing that keeps you coming back to a successful series and its lead character – in television and in novels – week after week, season and after season.
It goes without saying that a good story – your story – has a primary plotline. Your character has a need, faces a problem, is in quest of a solution, embarks on a journey to reach a goal.
And of course, there is opposition to that goal, some person or force that stands in their way. Sometimes that opposition resides within the hero (internal conflict), but usually it is an external antagonistic pressure that must be conquered, provided the internal demons are conquered first.
This is storytelling 101. Think of this storyline, the one that launches at the First Plot Point in your story, as the foreground plot.
Now for the magic ingredient, straight out of the boob tube.
As the foreground plot unfolds, it does so in relationship to a background plot. This is a pre-existing, more personal set of problems and life-circumstances for your hero that are either dealt with simultaneously with the foreground plot, or set aside temporarily while the foreground plot is addressed.
In The Good Wife, the hero’s politician husband is in prison for lying to the grand jury about his affair with a hooker. Her teenage children are in rebellion, and she is a junior associate at a snotty law firm driven more by the politics of money than justice and client welfare.
And yet, every week, layered on top of this daunting set of circumstances and challenges, our hero is given a case to solve, an innocent to protect, a dark and shadowy icon of power to dethrone.
This foreground storyline resolves in an hour. The background storyline remains from week to week.
In Burn Notice, the exact same dynamic is in place. Our hero, Michael Weston, is a spy who has been burned, tantamount to being fired and just short of being dead. He is left with only two friends and his highly-tuned wherewithal as a lethal spy to try to discover who burned him, and why, all in quest of getting his job back.
But that’s not the foreground plot of each episode. With that as the background plot, he takes on yet another job to defend an innocent against the forces of evil. At the end of the hour he’s saved his client while also dealing with yet one more background blow from the unseen forces that want him to disappear.
Name a primetime drama, any drama, and you’ll find this dynamic in place. Even the soapy ones like Grey’s Anatomy offer us a once-only 60-minute foreground plotline set against the on-going angst of the background plot.
Stories that focus on one story at the expense or omission of the other, leaving the story with a singular plot focus, come off as flat. Stories that offer both a foreground story and a lingering background plot give the character rich motivation and lend a context of character empathy that offer a richer experience than either plotline alone.
Are you doing this in your stories? Maybe you should.
But before you do, be careful of these seductive traps.
Sometimes a background story becomes fodder for sub-plot, but not necessarily. It merely needs to be present, lending context. If there is something about the background story that can be resolved within the confines of the story at hand, rather than left lingering, then it is indeed a sub-plot.
But you don’t have to resolve your background plot to make it effective. After the hero saves the day, we might see her or him return to the lingering problem that was there before it all started, which is a great segue to a sequel.
In fact, the background story is the very essence of a series character. Think Harry Potter in his continuing quest to find his parent’s killer, which is always lurking in the background of whatever storyline resides front and center of episode in question.
Also, don’t confuse background plot with character backstory.
Backstory is what happened in the hero’s life before the story begins, thus defining the character’s world view, fears, preferences and inner demons.
A background plot exists both before and throughout the story in question, and calls the character to action rather than simply defining their past experiences.
Think of it this way: backstory is what happened before your story beings… background plot is what is happening to the hero before the first plot point introduces the foreground story. It remains in play, but takes second fiddle to that foreground story until it is resolved.
You need both.
Don’t confuse background story with sub-text.
Sub-text is the landscape of thematic relevance that provides the unspoken tension and ground rules that drive the motivations and behaviors of the players. Sub-text can arise from your background story, but it can and should be more than that.
In the great drama House, for example, the sub-text is the hero’s inner demon that prevents him from connecting to other human beings. This is neither foreground nor background story – it’s sub-text – but it does inform and color both.
Watch and Learn
Complex as all this may sound, in execution it comes off as fluid and very natural. The best way to wrap your head around it is to experience it.
As in, turn on the television.
Now that you know what you’re looking for, you’ll easily sense its presence the next time you pick up the remote and flip channels. The more intimate you become with a program and its hero, the more you’ll understand that the background plot is the bedrock of the program itself.
If Castle wasn’t writing a novel based on his assigned police detective mentor, you probably wouldn’t tune in next week. That dynamic, which fuels the escalating relationship between the hero and the ridiculously sexy Detective Beckett, is what separates this otherwise generic whodunit from all the other primetime crime shows. Each of which, it must be noted, sports a background plot of its own.
At least, they do if they hope to get renewed.
What is your hero dealing with before, during, behind and after the foreground plot of your story?
A compelling answer to that question might just get you published.