Getting to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem

How do you establish characters while making them interesting and keep the audience along for the ride while you do that? It is time to get to grip with this problem.

As writers, we need to establish our characters, set them in a world. We need to outline the goal the characters are working towards while foreshadowing the obstacles between the character and their goal. We need the reader to care long enough to do all that and the reader will not care unless we do all that. This is the bootstrapping problem.

Every story ever written has to wrestle with the Story Bootstrapping Problem.

Thus anonymous reader asks

When your backstory is as important as your story how do you tell both without tacking on a bajillion word introduction?

As hard questions go… Oh, boy. Here we go.

The Story Bootstrapping Problem

I was hoping no one would ask this because this is exactly the topic that I have been struggling with myself.

Every story has a bootstrapping problem. Readers need us to get on with the story and be interesting which requires that we have character, place, and motive established but to do that we need to get on and be interesting.

Writers Stack Exchange has a question about “A long backstory right at the beginning” which at least addresses the Story Bootstrapping Problem. I read that question several times before I tried to answer but, ultimately, I needed to do a lot more reading.

In Fixing Chapter One Patricia C. Wrede tackles the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Incidentally, Patricia’s blog is a great example of an authorial platform, but I digress.

Chapter One and the Story Bootstrapping Problem

In a short story you have maybe a paragraph or two to get to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem but in a novel, this is the task of Chapter One. The Story Bootstrapping Problem is what chapter one is for. For this very reason, it is sometimes recommended that you write the first chapter last. It is good advice at least for some of us some of the time.

When it comes to how you start your story, writersdigest.com has some pointers on that, and guess what? You still have to start with Chapter One.

Patricia C. Wrede tells us:

It is the job of the first chapter to get your readers to care about the main character, or at the very least, to be interested enough in the character to keep reading.

Chapter One is the linchpin of the entire story. Chapter one supports everything else as a foundation. Chapter one is, by far, your hardest working chapter. It is no surprise that it is also the hardest work.

Look at all the things the first chapter must do:

  • Make a promise
  • Orient the reader
  • Establish character
  • Set up the plot
  • Show the world
  • Make us care
  • Keep us reading

Solving the Story Bootstrapping Problem with a promise

Chapter One needs to promise the reader that it is worth them continuing. The promise is the cheque that the first chapter writes and the rest of the novel has to cash.

A really good promise is whatever it takes to make the reader excited to keep reading. If you make your promise well, you don’t need to establish backstory, character, or pretty much anything else that does not fit in Chapter One.

Conceptually, the promise solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem is similar to Linguistic Bootstrapping only on the scale of a single novel. You need to give the reader the tools to infer, deduce, or discover backstory right before they need it.

The promise might be a striking statement, an intriguing idea, a dastardly deed – almost anything can be your promise (depending on genre). How well the promise solution works is entirely down to your skill as a writer. Sorry, there are no easy answers here today.

Aristotle’s Poetics says that we need to stage our story from Pity to Fear and, finally, Catharsis. So we need to show a character unjustly suffer in some way. In otherwords, Aristotle suggess that we use Chapter one to make the reader pitty the main character.

Think how Harry Potter starts. Pitty the abandoned boy, we most certainly do.

Orient the reader and make them want to stay

I’ve never read any Steinbeck but I have it on good authority that his introductions were almost all description that went on for pages and pages. These descriptions were so good, so rich that, as the reader, you want to go and live there – right now.

If you can orient your readers to the point that they get lost in your world, then they will stay long enough for you to introduce them to characters and plot as you wish. This orientation might be harder than the pity route but should (at least in theory) work just as well.

Strong orientation is, potentially, a great solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Again, this is down to your skill as a writer. That level of captivating detail is probably not something I could attempt right now.

Solve the Bootstrapping Problem by establishing character

Another route into the bootstrapping problem is to establish a strong sense of character. Someone that the reader feels deeply attached to. That is, I think, why sequels work so much better than episode one stories. If we have been following a series we already know the characters.

Aristotle’s suggestion could also be taken to mean that we should hook a reader (or listener, or playgoer) by opening a story with a reason to pity the character. By this, we could say that you must have a reason to feel empathy for the character’s plight.

To make this work, the reader needs to be able to think “that could be me”. Even if they do not consciously think it.

You might try to make your hero an everyman or put them in a common situation that goes uncommonly wrong.

It can help to show that your character is charismatic. Some might say that this was vital. This works in much the same way that we make friends. We meet someone and like them even before we know much about them. For our story, we need enough like to let the relationship between the reader and the character bloom. To do that the reader needs to care about the character early on.

Whatever else you do, you are almost certainly going to need to put your main character on the stage in Chapter One. It will help your story no end if the readers are interested in what happens to them.

Bootstrapping with a character readers care about gives you time to get the plot going. Of course, how well this works depends on you as a writer. There are no shortcuts here.

Bootstrapping vs Plot

In a plot-heavy story, sometimes you simply need to lay the bare facts before the reader.

The danger of going in plot-first is that if you do this wrong you may commit the crime of info dumping on your poor reader. No one wants that. Info-dumps are a storytelling fail.

Getting the facts in early can work well as part of the “start at the height of the action” framing device. Let your plot be like a locomotive charging along and taking the reader with it.

Remember though, framing devices are just devices and they will not hook your reader alone. Only your skill as a writer can do that.

How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem

I am currently figuring out how to bring a lot of emotional baggage into a story from before the story started and have the reader care about it as much as the characters. I am not sure I have figured that out yet. If you have a good answer, pick up some easy reputation points on Writers’ Stack Exchange with your insights.

  • How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem?
  • What approaches have you applied and how did you get on?
  • What makes your Chapter One really work?

Share your insights with us in the comments section below.

Advertisements

Writing Love and Romance

I have a confession to make. I am not qualified to write this post. Love, romance, and intimate relationships in serious fiction are something that I struggle to get right.

Not being one to let my weaknesses hold me back, I’ve been looking into the whole topic of writing love and romance.

Blog posts about writing love and romance

Being a geek as well as a writer I have been looking at what other people have had to say about writing love and romance. Here is a cross section of the blog posts that I looked at.

Good Reasons to have love and romance in a story

There are some great reasons to include love and romance in a story. Here are three good reasons.

  1. Love and romance happen in real life so why not in fiction too?
  2. Love and romance are a central part of the story.
  3. Love and romance are the story (I think we all know what you are writing)

I am sure that you can think of more good reasons to include love and romance in your story. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment. However, this list exists to contrast with some very bad reasons to include love and romance.

Very bad reasons to include love or romance

Love and romance because I need a female character

Oh dear muse, no. Just don’t. Not ever…

This is just about the worst reason to include love and romance. If your female character cannot stand alone without the romance then she is an interloper. There are many good reasons to have strong female characters in a story. You don’t need romance for any of them.

Love and romance to fill up the word count

Just, no.

Apart from anything else, this would be as boring to your readers as it is likely to be to you as a writer. Stop worrying about your word count and tell the best story you can.

Love and romance to motivate the hero

If you ever – and I do mean that literally – if you ever need romance to give your hero motivation then you have not got a story but a cliche. I mean, honestly, stop that right now.

Come back tot he idea of love and romance in your story after you have sorted out the hero’s motivation.

3 things that make you better at writing love romance

After all that reading I have come up with three things that will make you or me better at writing love and romance. When you think about it, this is common sense for writers.

  1. Read good love and romance writing.
  2. Write more love and romance.
  3. If possible, get out there and experience life.

Swap out “love and romance” for any other aspect of life you want in your story and the same three rules apply.

What, you wanted some magic formula? Please. This is writing, not magic (the two are very similar sometimes).

Using “magic moments” for love and romance

Oh, very well then. Here is how to use a magic formula for writing love and romance. This magic formula is derived entirely from writing theory and is based on no direct experience whatsoever.

Rules for writing love and romance

  1. Feelings matter, keep them in focus
  2. Show far more than tell
  3. Avoid cliches
  4. Anticipation builds expectation
  5. Let the reader do some of the work for you

Let me briefly explain these rules. Love is an emotional topic, therefore you need to be comfortable talking about feelings. Furthermore, you need to be able to show what characters feel not just tell the reader. If you use cliches to do this, you will kill your story.

Do not be in a rush. Anticipation can be a powerful tool. Think about romance stories (I’m talking about the sort of story where all there you have in a romance) we don’t rush to the happy ever after but take our time getting there.

Anticipation can let the reader do some of the work for you. If you can present the reader with the material to start shipping your characters for you, then they will do a lot of the heavy lifting too. A close cousin of the cliche is the pattern. The pattern of love and love stories contain a common language that signals to the reader that a love story is in progress. I’m going to talk about patterns another time. If you know how to use them do, if you are worried about cliches avoid them.

Now the magic

The magic formula is actually the magic for all story telling. The formula is in two parts:

  1. The Scene
  2. The Sequal

The love and romance scene

In the scene a character wants something. In this case, maybe to confess her feelings to her love interest. There are obstacles to overcome. Something defining happens. Often this is a disaster to be dealt with but as this is romance this could be a mid-story win for the hero.

A married man, alone at the bar, wants a drink. There are a lot of people at the bar and the barman is busy. Disaster strikes as some (hot) woman starts chatting to him and he misses his opportunity to be served.

A timid girl alone in the castle wants to go horse riding. Guests arrive and she must receive them. Disaster! Prince Charming is walking over to her.

The lovers, separated, long to be reunited. They must overcome the distance between them. Success, they finally find each other.

The sequel to the scene

In the sequel, there are four stages to be covered and they need to happen in strict order.

1. Emotional Reaction

This is vital to a love and romance moment. The emotional reaction is both the payoff and the motivator so do not skimp here. This is, I think, where I might be going wrong- time will tell on that one.

A married guy approached by a hot lady might feel flattered but shy.

A timid girl, approached by her prince charming, might feel flustered but overjoyed.

The lovers, reunited, are relieved to be back together. This is a big emotional payoff so we dwell on those feelings.

2. Reasoning

The more pure romance you are going for the smaller this section will be. If the hero is in denial about his feelings this is where he will try to reason them away. He might even think about what the right thing is to do here.

The married man might reason that he needs to end the conversation with the hot lady at the bar. He might conclude that this is the right thing to do.

The timid girl might reason that her prince charming is telling her the truth. She trusts him.

The loves reason that the conflict is over.

3. Anticipation

This is where the character considers what others might do and say. He anticipates what might come next. This is fairly internal but you need to show it nevertheless.

The married guy might anticipate that he can get away with a night of forbidden passion.

The timid girl might anticipate being hurt as she has before.

The lovers anticipate living their happy every after. They think about how they will spend the rest of their life together.

4. Reaction

This is where the character does something following from their anticipation and they set up the next scene where they want something and must overcome obstacles.

Our married guy might decide to cheat (or try to).

Our timid girl may run away from her prince charming. Thus setting up the prince for a chapter of him trying harder to win her heart.

The lovers, meanwhile, are sailing off into the sunset.

We are on to the next scene

Rinse and repeat, as they say.

That’s the structure of a scene, generally, but with the theory applied to love and romance. I’m going to be giving this a try soon.

Over to you

When it comes to love and romance in fiction, I am just a beginner. This is more theory than any practical experience here. Please use the comments to share your insights into writing love and romance.

Three things games could teach writers about writing

Today I want to look at three very specific things that games could teach us writers about the art of writing. Things we should know and yet, somehow, seem to forget on a fairly regular basis.

Each of these three things comes with a video by Extra Credits but when they say “games” or “your game” image they are saying “stories” or “your novel”. You’d be surprised how often the exact same points apply.

Bad writing (in games)

Bad writing makes bad story telling

Before we get to the video which is both short and informative while being entertaining and easy to watch, let us talk about Sci-fi.

Sci-fi is really two entire genres:

  • Science Fiction – what might be possible
  • Science Fantasy – just accept it and have fun

One is about reality and the other is a flight of fantasy with high-tech gear in it.

A stand in for including some sort of high-technology magic, without really understanding what we are talking about, is technobabble. And while a little can be fun, most of the time all you are doing is talking nonsense.

It’s okay to ask the reader to just accept that the doodad in the green box makes the thing happen if you are happy to be writing at little more science fantasy rather than hard science. If you actually have no idea how the science works and really don’t care, then don’t try to explain it to the reader. Instead, you might want to think about showing them the exciting adventure or whatever it is that made you want to tell this particular story.

The video goes into great detail about the difference in writing style and genre between Star Wars and Star Trek and there’s probably no reason for me to cover the same ground. You can watch the video for that. However, let me point out this – The Star Wars original trilogy never explained what The Force was and it did not spoil the series.

Sometimes, in a story, a thing just is. You don’t need to explain what was happening, you just need to let the audience enjoy it.

I see in a lot of writer’s groups in Thanet and online subscribe to a cargo-cult of writing which insists that every last thing must be fully explained and work within a scientific system. Even if that thing is magic.

Sometimes, “a wizard did it” is all the explanation needed. We are not narrating an RPG and there is no need to maintain detailed numeric tracking systems for every aspect of magic, or science, or whatever fantastic element you are talking about. So long as the audience can enjoy the fantastical element of your story and you are consistent about it, you have probably done enough.

Over explaining, especially badly done which only shows that you don’t understand the science yourself, is only going to spoil things.

Guns in games and stories

Guns (and weapons in general) say a lot about the culture of a story

This second video talks about “The American cult of the gun”. I don’t plan to say too much here but have you ever considered the cultural implications of certain choices you make with your story?

In the west, we often write about a protagonist on a quest for the betterment oft he self. To get the girl, to save the day, to be the hero. Likewise, we can tend to see the gun or the car as a tool to achieve personal freedom. On the other hand, other cultures might see the sword or the gun as an extension of the self.

I can imagine that I just lost you. Watch the video and lets talk in a moment.

So what do you think? Do you still see your story in the same way? Or have you perhaps just caught a glimpse of how our culture informs the way we build characters and plots?

When we put a gun in a character’s hand, is it just a gun or is it a representation of his own power in the service of others?

That might seem like a pointless abstraction but that “pointless abstraction” can have profound implications for the character development and even the way in which we will show the protagonist using the gun.

It might be a bit much to extract from this one example the whole concept of how our culture colours ever aspect of our story telling but if this video can help you to start thinking about it, then I have done my job here.

Hard-Boiled games and stories

Why Are There So Many Gritty Video Games (and stories)?

Another huge mistake I see touted in writers groups is that to make a story more mature all you need is to make it more hard-boiled with sex, bad language, and graphic violence. The reality is that this often just serves to make your story seriously lacking in the maturity stakes.

Over the last few years, I have encountered advice from Thanet based writers that insists that it is a good idea to just cut loose with swearing and blood to tell a better story. “The more hard-boiled, the better,” they say. This is categorically wrong.

Hard-boiled writing for its own sake is writing. Just because a good story has blood and violence in it does not mean that putting blood and violence in yours will make it good. Your story will still be as good or as bad as it was before but it will now have more blood and violence and may have suffered as a result of this unneeded inclusion.

There is really only one reason to put blood, bad language, and violence into a story – if it completely makes sense to do so and the story would unavoidably suffer to avoid doing so.

Stories with violence that is completely unjustified are just splatter porn fan-fiction. Worse still adding more “hard-boiled” elements into a story without understanding what they are there for will almost certainly make your story less interesting to read. Boring stories do not sell and no one wants to read them.

That’s not to say that bad language, sex, nihilism, blood, gore, death, and all that should never be used. Like any thematic element to a story, if used well, they can be a vital part of the recipe. Used carelessly and all you have is a story no one will want to read.

Gritty does not equal better.

Over to you

Tell us what you took away from these videos

  • Do you agree with these three lessons that games can teach us?
  • Is there a vital point I missed?
  • What did you take away from those videos?

Tell us your thoughts on these topics in the comments section below.