Writing Right with Dmitri: Back-Vectoring the Story
Today, children, I'm going to let you in on a little secret technique I use when constructing a narrative, be it fact, fiction, or persuasive essay-writing. I call it 'back-vectoring'. Now, I don't pretend it's original, or that other people don't do it. I just don't know what they call it. I come from a long line of people who re-invent the wheel, and there's no reason why I shouldn't have stumbled across this particular technique through trial, error, and late-night wake-up calls from the subconscious. But maybe I could save you a few sleepless nights.
What back-vectoring consists of is a way to figure out where to start telling a story. A lot of times, that's where we're stuck: how to begin. I have a little trick that just might help. To do that, I'd like to walk you through a scenario or two.
The Absent-Minded Detective Writer
Some people imagine that a good detective story starts with the discovery of the body of Colonel Blimp in the library. He's dead as a doornail, is the good colonel, and nobody knows how the perp did it, since all the doors and windows are locked. Now, write yourself out of that one.
Bah, humbug. The story really begins with the ending: you've figured out that you want to tell a tale of mystery, horror, and revenge, beginning in far-away India. Colonel Blimp, it seems, was a bit of a cad. Back in the days of the Raj, he'd jilted some memsahib, and she'd vowed to get even. She waited and waited…years later, she had the perfect plan…
You figure out the ending first. Then you work back to the crime, and hide your clues like shiny Easter eggs all through the landscape of your narrative. Then, and only then, do you figure out what I call the 'L&O scenario'.
The 'L&O scenario' consists of the discovery of the body, with attendant foolery. At the beginning of nearly every episode of that long-running New York City TV series, somebody finds a body. But first, they have an argument about theatre tickets, or traffic, or who's dating whom. It's a nice distraction. The audience knows this, and is just waiting for one of the arguers to stumble over the corpse and let out a yell.
How does the detective-story writer get to the 'L&O scenario'? By back-vectoring. You work backwards from the solution.
Finding the Perfect Place
Last week, for professional reasons, I was researching the work of a prize-winning historian. This man is brilliant. He's known for writing history so well that readers feel like they're right there, in the middle of it all. He's garnered praise from every quarter. So it was surprising to learn that this gifted man was at the centre of an odd scandal. It seems that he'd claimed, in a radio interview, to have been present at certain historical events as a participant. And it wasn't true.
The briefest look into this professor's biography would reveal the lie: he was on a different continent at the time, and his whereabouts could be accounted for. Yet he'd claimed otherwise. Why did he do it? He didn't need the cachet of having been at the scene. People were puzzled.
Another historian who knew him hazarded a guess. He suspected that this writer got so caught up in his story-telling that he re-invented his personal biography to suit his present attitude. If he felt this way about the events of the recent past, why, he should have been there, doing certain things, at a certain time. And maybe it slipped his mind that history isn't as easily rewritten as all that. I don't know if that's the real explanation for the historian's tale-telling, but it makes sense to a writer.
Now, a word of warning: don't write George Washington into a Paris salon in 1754. That's not on. The man was dodging bedbugs in western Pennsylvania. I know, I've read his diary entries on the subject of frontier housekeeping. But if you've got a fictional character, he can lounge around Madame de Staël's all you like. Just move him to shortly before Napoleon exiles that good lady from the capital. (She kept making fun of him.)
Before you decide how to tell your story, figure out where your character's pivot point is. Then work backwards along the vector that gets him/her there. Start with a hook that lands you on that vector.
You want an example? Sure you do. Have you seen Mad Men? The producer/writer of this US TV show said that one season, he knew only one thing: at the end of the season, a character would be sitting in a motel room. She would be excited, because it was her first real business trip as a professional copywriter. She would delight in all the perks of the motel: the fresh towels, the little soaps, the room service…and then she would look out the motel room window. And see, in the parking lot, two dogs having sex.
According to the camera people, that scene was quite easy to film. The dogs did their thing, accepted their treats, and let everyone go home early. They wished all actors were as accommodating.
Now, Matt Weiner says, he wrote an entire season's worth of episodes by working backward from Peggy Olsen's motel room experience. The season was rich, full, and satisfying. But oddly, everything that happened led up to Peggy's looking out that window…
We are used to living life in linear mode. That's as it should be. We don't know what will happen tomorrow. If there is a Providence in the fall of a sparrow, we don't know about it at the time. But as writers, we are expected to. We're both the gods and the recording angels of our characters' lives. We have the responsibility to tell their stories. And this little back-vectoring trick is a handy way to get there.
Remember: stories are read forward. But the best way to write them is backward. Figure out where you need to go, and then go back and make sure you get there. Writers are the only people who get to do time travel every day. And they don't even need a tardis.