This week, I’m recycling a writing prompt from a couple of years ago, all about slang, because it fits so wonderfully with this month’s theme of ‘backstory’.
(Also, because I’ve been on vacation and …)
Invented languages, or slang, are wonderful ways of establishing culture in your novel and of making sure your dialogue feels like dialogue and not ‘speechifying’.
I talked about this on the podcast recently. Check it out.
Read the full prompt here, then come back and leave a comment to let me know what you think. Did you read the linked article? Did it spark any ideas for you?
This month I’m giving you prompts that work in different ways to support your long-form fiction/novel writing. This week we’re looking at the micro-cultureS in your novel’s world.
Write a story that explains how the culture of your novel’s setting evolved
- Even if you are writing contemporary fiction, don’t assume that the culture of your novel’s world is known to all your readers. There are what I think of as “micro-cultures” in every community, every family, every workplace. Just like in gardening, there are microclimates—I can grow tomatoes agains my house’s south-facing wall, but they would utterly fail if I tried to plant them on the cooler, shaded north-facing wall. My property isn’t very big, but it still has micro-climates!
- Think about your fictional world’s culture in the novel. What does your main character feel they have to do, ought to do, would be shunned for doing?
- How did those attitudes develop?
- Write that story.
- For example, in the movie “Steel Magnolias”, family and community are everything, and life revolves around the beauty shop. Why? Because a until very recently, women like them had very few choices in life. They found husbands, had children, entertained, and gathered at this ladies-only retreat where they could, for once, let loose and trade confidences. Write a story of the older women in that movie, when they were young. That will help the town and those secondary characters feel very real to your audience.
- Conversely, in “When Harry Met Sally”, family plays no role at all. Harry is full of flaws, misbeliefs and self-harming psychological behavior, but we never see where it came from. It’s possible that Rob Reiner didn’t need to know Harry’s backstory because he was Harry, or at least knew a lot of guys like him, and knew enough about their behaviors to make him seem real. But if you want to be able to branch out and write characters who aren’t like you, it’s useful to explore the culture they came from. What was Harry’s family like growing up? What was the micro-culture in his neighborhood. What makes him so divorced from the family structure, relying only on a small group of friends?
- Likewise if you’re writing in a more alien culture, it can be useful to write backstories about the early days of the prevailing religion or of the minority cultures that your secondary characters come from (surely no world is utterly homogenous?!).
- Writing these backstories is useful for more than just research. You can use them to intrigue readers (give away a free story to get people on your mailing list and introduce them to your writing and your world). You can submit them to publications, and use those publishing credits to prove to agents and publishers that there is a built in audience for your novel. You can collect them and sell them to fans of the first book while you’re writing the sequel…
Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi
Have I I convinced you to dig into your novel’s backstories yet? Leave a comment to let me know what you’re thinking and what you’re writing.
This month I’m giving you prompts that work in different ways to support your long-form fiction/novel writing. Today’s prompt digs deep into your protagonist’s past.
Photo credit: GôDiNô
Write the story of the childhood event that scarred your character
- If you haven’t already, get hold of a copy of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and read all about character misbeliefs. Re-read it, if you own a copy!
- Every character has to have a flaw. Maybe you decided that yours was commitment-phobic, or that she was overly-honest, or that she couldn’t hold down a job. There are lots of ways that could be fun in a novel, but a deeper question is: Why?
- What happened to your main character at an earlier point in their life, that caused them to begin acting this way?
- Once you know that, the subtle ways she reacts will change. She won’t just be commitment-phobic, she’ll get unreasonably angry when anyone promises to take her on vacation, because when she was nine her dad promised to take her on vacation but instead blew the money taking his new girlfriend to Vegas, and your main character never had a real relationship with him again after that.
- In Story Genius Lisa Cron asserts that harmful adult behaviors originate in behaviors that were actually protective, at some point. So, by not trusting her Dad again, your main character protected herself from getting hurt by him. But that pattern of behavior stopped serving her at some point (probably right around the time your novel starts) and she has to learn to overcome it. Knowing what caused her to begin acting that way is extremely useful.
- Digging into your character’s past gives you news ways to show their flaws in your novel.
Photo credit: GôDiNô
What did you write about? Leave a comment!
This week’s prompt is inspired by this article on lost American slang. There is such richness and yet a foreign feel to the language in the quotes, that I couldn’t stop thinking about using this as a way to spice up my own writing.
(The examples in the piece remind me of both Harold Hill — The Music Man’s pop-culture references were meticulously researched — and Mr Burns from The Simpsons! It also made me wonder if Disney intended Bambi’s “Thumper” to have a double-meaning for older viewers.)
Write a story in which your characters have their own slang, dialect, similes and metaphors tied in to their time/place/culture.
- Feel free to make up the slang. No need for historical accuracy here. Just be consistent within your world.
- Think about how your characters see life. Are they agricultural? Sports-obsessed? (When I moved to the US I was bamboozled by political articles in newspapers that relied heavily on sports analogies that meant absolutely nothing to me). Are they engineers? Are they space-based?
- Play with current expressions and change them to fit your characters. In a space opera “How on earth?” becomes “How in the twelve orbiting satellites of Juno?”; the fable of the grasshopper and the ant is transformed into a fable about worker droids and love-bots; etc. In my speculative-fiction novel-in-progress, my atheist-mechanics use expletives like “Great Gears!” where we might use profanity.
- You can use slang to distance one generation from another (my husband and I are constantly having to explain our bon mots to our children, who are growing up on a different continent as well as a different millennium!)
- Have fun with this.
Writing a story is more than just throwing some characters into a situation and seeing what happens. A good writer builds a whole world around the story of the characters.
This is more than setting: it’s also the soundtrack, the slang people use, the color palette of the rooms, the social hierarchy hinted at…
Spend Some Time Painting A Realistic World Around The Edges of Today’s Story
The most obvious place to find examples of this ‘world-building’ is in science-fiction (especially futuristic or space stories) and fantasy. Each of these genres has to define everything for the reader from social structures to the shape of the vehicles, to the way gravity works in this world (think Harry Potter’s wizarding world and its unconventional public transport, or Star Wars vs. Firefly in how they handled the sound of space ships.)
But every story needs a certain amount of ‘world-building’. In a Hercule Poirot story we are in a world of drawing-rooms and exotic locales, and a certain class strata. In 50 Shades of Grey, we are introduced to a world where certain people define the shape of their relationship with detailed contracts.
Pay attention to the details of your world today.
And when you have written your story, log in and post your success in The Victory Dance group or simply comment on this post and let the congrats come flying in.