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Can powerful, emotional language eliminate the need for backstory to help make moments sad?

  1. Sure!

  2. No, not really.

  3. It depends...

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  1. saltedkale

    saltedkale New Member

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    Can powerful language eliminate the need for backstory?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by saltedkale, Sep 15, 2020.

    I'm currently writing a short story with some emotional moments.

    My goal is for my reader's to feel similar levels/types of emotion that I did when I wrote those moments (when I played these "scenes" in my head, I was not in control of my body and I always hated crying and people who did it).

    So the question is: Without character development, can a sad situation be emotionally devastating to someone who has zero emotional connection to the characters involved?

    Just to clarify what I'm asking, I'll put it another way: is it possible for a the language of a scene (paired with things like symbolism/perspective) to be so powerful and universally recognizable that backstory isn't necessary to help convey intense emotion?

    A scene in a movie doesn't require backstory, the viewer doesn't need to imagine, they can just experience it as it happens. But, without any experience in writing this way, I feel I must resort to adding backstory.
     
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  2. Kyle Phoenix

    Kyle Phoenix Active Member

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    Voted "It Depends".

    If you started a novel with a scene in which someone has a cup of coffee, crosses the street and gets run over by a car, you have the "emotional hook" that might draw the reader in to the story. You could then plausibly have them waking up in a hospital bed with amnesia and no memory of who they are or where they are from. Hence no need for a back story and the novel can focus on the character development of someone trying to find out who they are and recover their memories and identity.

    Off hand one example of a character with amnesia I can think of, is Jason Bourne from the Bourne Identity (both the film from 2020 and the novel from 1980). So I assume it is possible, but it depends how you take the reader with you on the characters journey and whether you have the skill to pull it off.

    I don't know if you can make it work but at a guess, it is typically better to know the writing conventions and why you have them before you start breaking them or playing around with them. The creative part is probably deciding which rules you break and which ones you stick to. Not having a backstory would be one of those conventions, but you need a plausible explanation of why your going to defy your readers expectations.

    I think that readers typically don't want massive amounts of backstory and for writers it can distract from the plot. Dumping backstory on readers is not an efficient or effective way to tell a story. However, in the same way you try to get to know a person in real-life- some little details may help them connect and add some context to their motivations and actions, helping answers reader questions on "why?" a character takes one path and not another. So you could try a very minimalist backstory, based on anecdotes or passing comments coming up in conversation between the characters as they might do in real-life rather than dense paragraphs of narration.
     
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  3. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Get off my Balzac... Contributor

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    Not going to have much of a story without character development. You don't need to have a sprawling backstory either, but you're going to need some kind of personal journey/process/arc/etc....

    Zero? No, you'll have nothing because nobody will care. Having said that, there are many degrees between "effective" and "devastating," but with no connection at all there will be nothing to get emotional about.

    Not really. There's a cap to what powerful language or awesome prose can accomplish by itself. Without something to adhere to--or to contextualize it--it's just a string of words. And after awhile, the level of language will become normalized to the reader. In short, it will cease to razzle-dazzle and the reader will be waiting for something to care about.

    Powerful language can do a lot of work for you, but it's a relatively unimportant tool compared to character development, emotion, plotting, etc... There are thousands of books that succeed without powerful language because they have good plot and characters, but I can't think of any that succeeded just on powerful language. Granted, you don't have to knock the ball out of the park for each category, but ZERO emotional connection?

    No, you'll have nothing.
     
  4. J.T. Woody

    J.T. Woody "With torn and bleeding hearts we smile" Contributor

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    Personal opinion:

    if i open up a book to a random page... like no context or anything.... and the character is crying or someone has died, or something traumatic that is supposed to elicit emotion happens.... i'm not going to feel anything because i'm not going to know or understand why this character feels this way.

    Likewise, if i turn on the tv and its Jack holding Rose's hand on the door, floating in frigid water... I'll be curious as to how we got to this point. But him dying would have no effect on me (on the Titanic note: my sister watched that movie with me when she was 6. sat and watched the entire thing and at the end, when Old Rose "goes to sleep" and wakes up as Young Rose on the Titanic and everyone is there waiting for her, my sister cried her eyes out. I asked her what happened, and she sobbed "she died and all the other people are dead but now she's with them again and its happy but they also died!!!".... had I just randomly changed the channel to that part, there would have been no crying or no understanding of that scene).

    Doesnt matter the cinematography or the flourish of words.... i need context/character development and background information for emotional moment.

    Horror? not so much. the language and mood can stand on its own.
     
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  5. Le Panda Du Mal

    Le Panda Du Mal Member

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    I say, "sure!" I think of how a brief poem can evoke such powerful emotions and create a whole world. I believe prose can do the same. The language must be both imaginative and vivid- not merely descriptive, not merely narrative.
     
  6. saltedkale

    saltedkale New Member

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    Wow. Thank you. These are great replies and have given me a lot to work with.

    This is my first real foray into serious fiction so this is good to know!

    This is a good idea. I think I should say here that this short story actually started off as a backstory for a table-top character. I'm not sure that changes much but I can imagine that if I shared with this someone who played table-top games and knew it was a backstory, they might have different perspective on it (or at least different ideas about what to expect). I do want it to be more like a short story than just a background though.

    Thank you I think I needed to hear/read this.
     
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  7. saltedkale

    saltedkale New Member

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    lol
     
  8. Samlet

    Samlet Member

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    I'd suggest you can reveal the backstory as part of the scene, quite possibly after the sad situation has been described:

    John comes in and says "I saw a terrible accident on the way home. Firemen, police, ambulance all around. It was this really strange little bubble car, never seen one like it before, looks like it got run over by a big truck, driver didn't stand a chance, they'd just cut him out as I was passing."

    "What colour was the bubble car?", says Jean.
    "A sort of luminous yellow, most odd, why do you ask?"
    "No reason".

    Jean couldn't tell John, but she knew that there was only one car like that and it belonged to the man she'd been meeting every Thursday afternoon for 15 years. It sounded like her other husband was dead, and it put her into a silent shock and a terrible panic.

    Does that count as backstory?
     
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  9. saltedkale

    saltedkale New Member

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    I think that's an incomplete backstory. It could technically be called "backstory" but I think a backstory is something more.

    One of the things I was actually wondering about is how you know when you have enough backstory. For your story, unless the person who dies is important to a central character or to the plot itself, it's sufficient. For my purposes, that little probably wouldn't cut it.
     
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  10. Whitecrow

    Whitecrow Member

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    Voted "It Depends"

    It all depends on what kind of character is and what kind of situation.
    For me, the best example was Rorshak from The Keepers.

    Every dialogue or monologue, both in the comics and in the film, makes you understand and feel the character, even without his story.

    How they do it ... There are a lot of associative things in his monologues, descriptions that make you see the world through his eyes. The character must have a distinctive view of the world ... Everyone thinks that the world looks the same to everyone, but this is not entirely true. Depending on the character, psychological state and character story changes the way the world looks. He should describe the world as if he sees it as different, and act as if he sees it as different.
    The character must have distinctive dialogues, monologues and actions that speak for a lot.


    Personal.
    "Another sleepless night full of voices. Rats? People? Thoughts? I don't know, and it doesn't matter. Life is a senseless escape from one nightmare to another. Time to go to work. Empty railway carriage. Recently, I began to see cracks, they appear wherever I look and disappear, enough to concentrate and watch carefully.
    The whole world is bursting at the seams and may fall apart at any second, but no one notices. Nobody cares.
    Work colleagues keep asking the same question, "Why do you come to work so early?" They get the same answer: "Habit". They don't know how annoying it is to be stuck in the same day and hear the same question every day."

    What can you say about me and my story? What type of character am I?
    Sorry for the bad english.
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2020
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  11. Lazaares

    Lazaares Senior Member

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    Most of the time I'd say not.

    But there are ... few exceptions.

    The two play on each other; even if the moment works solely with words a background could still vastly improve it further.
     
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  12. Justin Attas

    Justin Attas Active Member

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    Like most others it seems I voted "it depends" My take on your question is this: with the right language and presentation, a scene can convey backstory, without actually showing it. If you're not going to explain a connection between two characters outright, I think this is paramount. Between what they say, their body language, and what they do to/with one another, you've got to show the emotion between the characters. Readers don't need to know exactly what went down between them in the past, but the way they interact can certainly inspire emotion if shown proper attention.
     
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  13. saltedkale

    saltedkale New Member

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    Update: I decided to add a bunch of dialogue. I found it was easiest to impart significance to characters via conversations and spoken word rather than exposition and simple narration.

    If anyone clicks this and is looking for similar advice, I would recommend dialogue (unless, of course, it doesn't have a place in your project). Dialogue allowed me to infuse my character's with more personality/depth/emotion in fewer words than any descriptions could.
     
  14. Kallisto

    Kallisto Ruler of the world... somewhere... Contributor

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    The short answer to your question, "No."

    The long answer is a bit more complicated. Death scenes work if either a) we care about the person who died b) the person who is left behind or c) both. So, it's not a question of the scene itself, but how the characters are built. And to build likable that your audience cares about does not require a back story as much as it requires qualities that people can relate to.

    Now, authors do tend to use backstories because that's the easiest, most straight forward way to connect an audience with the characters, but it's not the only way. But when you don't do a backstory, you do have to be laser focused on your content and its themes. Making a sad death scene for its own sake, because you want to make the audience feel bad, isn't going to cut it. You're audience is going to sniff that one right out.
     
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