Friday, June 17, 2011

Fiction Friday: Old Story/New Story

If you subscribe to the Randy Ingermanson EZine "Advanced Fiction Writing" you probably saw this last Friday when it came out. But if not, read on. This is great advice! It's long, but make yourself read the whole thing. (If you want to subscribe to his free ezine like all the smart writers do, the last paragraph has info as to how to do so.)

One of the biggest mistakes I see in beginning
novelists is when they write a novel with characters
who had nothing going on until the story began.

I mean nothing. No plans, no ambitions, no goals. These
characters are having a completely uneventful life
until the story starts. Then BOOM -- suddenly they have
a whole lot going on.

That's not the way the world works and it's not the way
a novel works.

In the real world, when something big and exciting and
dangerous happens to you, it always interrupts
something. Maybe not big and exciting and dangerous,
but something important to you.

Just as an example, I have a friend who was in New York
City on September 11, 2001, when a big, horrible,
dangerous story erupted. But my friend didn't go to New
York for that story. He was there to launch his next

That book launch got interrupted, and it never really
got rolling, because it was overtaken by a much bigger
story, a story which is still going on.

When a new story starts, it always, always, ALWAYS
interrupts an older story already in progress.

The old story is generally something fairly normal. The
new story is much bigger and quickly pushes it out of
the way.

Before long, the old story is mostly gone, although old
stories have a funny way of intruding on the new
stories, and pushing them in unexpected directions.

The usual term for the old story is "the ordinary
world." This is a misleading term. It makes it sound
like the old story actually has nothing going on --
that it's all setting and no plot.

Not true. The old story has a very definite plot. It's
just not nearly as exciting as the plot for the new
story. But it has the same lead character.

When you write a novel and there is no old story going
on, it feels weird. Like your characters are just
sitting around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for a
story to come along and give meaning to their vacant
little lives. Characters like that are dull.

Maybe an example will help.

I have this friend named John who was having trouble
with his wife awhile back. A lot of trouble. They were
fighting all the time. Finally, she picked up and moved
from New York to LA because her boss offered her a big
promotion. She moved across the countery with their
kids. Leaving John behind.

John is a cop. He can't just drop all his cases and
move across the country because wifey got a promotion.
And anyway, he's the kind of guy who likes to wear the
pants in the family. OK, so maybe he's a bit of a
chauvinist. John is old school, and maybe having a wife
who's a hotshot in the business world makes him feel

Anyway, after six months of screaming fights by phone,
John decides to eat his pride and go to LA and visit
his wife. Try to make peace. Patch things up. See if
she'll come home. He takes some time off from his crazy
caseload at work and flies to California. Did I mention
John hates to fly?

But he does it. For his wife. Because he really,
really, really wants to make this marriage thing work.

When he gets to LA, there's a limo driver there to meet
him. Compliments of wifey's boss, who happens to be
Japanese and a very polite guy. John gets in the limo
and tells his troubles to the driver on the way in.

Did I mention this is Christmas Eve? And there's a
Christmas party going on at wifey's office? And one of
her co-workers is hitting on her? And she's not all
that jazzed that John's coming to town? And she'd sorta
like to make up with John if it's not too inconvenient,
if he'd just stop being a jerk?

The problem is that the office building where the party's
going on just happens to be the target of a terrorist
attack that begins ten minutes after John gets there.

And now John's wife is a hostage and he's alone in the
bathroom, barefoot, armed with only his standard issue
cop gun while he listens to machine guns firing out in
the hall.

That's where we transition from the old story to the
new story in the movie DIE HARD, starring Bruce Willis
as New York cop John McClain.

The old story takes maybe 10 minutes of the movie. The
new story takes the rest of the two hours. But all
through the movie, the old story keeps popping its head
up, making complications for the new story.

John's wife is ticked off when she realizes that he's
trying to save the building single-handed. He could get
them all killed!

When her slimy co-worker realizes this, he tells the
terrorists who John is and tries to negotiate a "truce"
that would get John killed.

John gets in more and more trouble as the story moves
along, and he really ought to just pack it in and give
up. But he can't give up because he wants to reconcile
with his wife, and he can't do that if she's dead.

The old story makes the new story deeper. A lot deeper.
Without the old story, the new story wouldn't work
nearly as well.

OK, maybe another example.

I have this other friend named Claire. She's a nurse
married to a guy named Frank. It's a little hard to
tell how their marriage is going because it was on hold
for a long while.

What happened is that Frank was in the military and so
they were separated for several years because there was
a war going on. Claire can't help wondering if maybe
Frank had a girlfriend while they were apart, but
that's just not something she can ask him.

In any event, Frank is out of the military now and has
a junior position in academia. Claire and Frank are on
vacation trying to do one of those marriage enrichment
things. And hopefully get a baby started.

Maybe I forgot to mention that both Claire and Frank
live in England. They're staying in a bed and breakfast
place in Scotland. Frank is doing a spot of research
about one of his ancestors who used to live in the area
a couple of hundred years ago.

While Frank's doing his research thing, Claire meets
the local ladies. It seems that some of them have very
weird talents, but Claire can't quite figure them out.
There's something very odd about these folks, and she's
just an outsider who can't seem to break in.

Claire and Frank manage to spy on the local women doing
a weird sort of ritual dance at the site of some standing
stones. Next day, Claire revisits the site and ...
somehow finds herself transported back to 18th century

At this point, the old story transitions into the new
story of the time-travel romance novel OUTLANDER, by
Diana Gabaldon.

The old story was about Claire and Frank putting some
fire back in their marriage after several years on ice.

Now Claire is in a new story, in which her main goal is
to survive and get back to her own century.

But the old story keeps intruding. The first person she
meets is Jack Randall, her husband's ancestor from long
ago, a captain in the hated British army and not a nice

The new story is a long story, with many twists. It's a
better story because of the old story that it
interrupted. Claire really does want to get back to
Frank and finish up her marriage enrichment.

But it's not so easy to get back to the standing
stones, what with being mistaken for a prostitute,
getting captured by the suspicious locals, and then
being married off againt her will to Jamie, a towering
hunk of a man who is in all kinds of trouble because of
his past run-ins with Captain Jack Randall.

The old story takes up only 35 pages of OUTLANDER. The
new story takes up nearly 600 pages. The new story is a
lot more interesting than the old story, but it works a
whole lot better because there is an old story.

Now what about your novel? You probably have a pretty
good handle on the new story -- the main plot of your
book. But what about the old story -- the story that
the new story interrupts?

What is your old story? How does the new story
overshadow the old story? How does the old story
complicate your new story?

Don't confuse the old story with the backstory.

Backstory is everything that happened before your novel
begins. It covers your lead character's entire lifetime
and maybe several generations before that.

The old story is not that. The old story is what's
going on right when your novel starts. Your lead
character has plans. Those plans are going to be
horribly interrupted by the new story, which breaks in
on the old story and sends it to the back of the bus.

The old story is important because, for most novels,
your old story is where your book begins. It's a rare
novel where the new story begins on page one, paragraph
one. Normally, you begin with the old story, with small
plans, small ambitions, small goals.

If you don't have an old story in your novel, then it's
going to feel strange. Like your characters were taken
out of a deep freeze just for your novel.

What's your old story? In chapter one of your novel,
what do your characters have planned for today, for
this week, this month, this year?

How does your new story break in on the old story and
smash all those plans to bits?

Most importantly, how does the old story keep jamming
itself into the gears of the new story, creating

If you're having problems figuring out what your old
story is, here's an exercise you can do:

* Make a list of your five favorite novels.

* For each one, write a one-sentence summary of the new
story -- the main storyline of the book.

* Write a one-sentence summary of the old story -- the
storyline that your lead character THINKS is the story
in chapter one.

Doing this exercise will show you how your favorite
authors have solved the same problem that you need to
solve. You'll learn something from this exercise.

Now go apply it to your own novel.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 26,000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit

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and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.
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