Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Details, Details pt. 2 Revisiting

This past summer I tried my hand at refinishing furniture. After finding a pair of fabulous end tables at the local Habitat for Humanity Restore ($12.50 each), I set about sanding, stripping and painting them. For the finish I used a classic paste wax. One coat and the surface began to look shiny, two and there was some depth that I hadn’t noticed before. Three coats brought out a beautiful luster.
Last week I started talking about the small details that make a novel come to life. I mentioned the importance of creating history – the world and the characters didn’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere at the beginning of the story.

Today, I’d like to explore making a story richer by revisiting an earlier event multiple times throughout the novel. Just like a fine finish on furniture, coming back to an idea can add new layers of meaning and understanding. This helps give depth to our perception of what’s happening.  

Although some of my favorite books use this technique to great advantage, to be honest, I don’t often pick up on it during the first read. It’s only after closing the book with a contented sigh that I start to wonder why this book was so much more satisfying, so much more real, than the other books I’d recently read.

And since I’m not particularly articulate in explaining these things, and since examples always make things clearer, I’m going to use The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold to illustrate my point. This book is wonderful, and so intricately plotted.

(Here is one problem with not using universally popular books like Hunger Games or Harry Potter – I’m not sure how familiar you, dear reader, are with this book.  So, here’s a quick run-down:)

Cazaril returns from war, broken in mind and body, to the palace where he once served as a page. He wants only a quiet place, no glory, certainly no danger or excitement. Hired as the tutor to the young Royese Iselle, Cazaril soon finds that there is no peace in the House of Chalion. A god - given curse hangs over the royal line, threatening his young charge and all he holds dear.

 And so, with that introduction, I’d like to focus in on just one thread of the story – that Cazaril has been a slave on a galley ship. It doesn’t seem terribly important. It’s an event that happened before the story even opens. But, throughout the novel, it is revisited again and again, and each time the reader gains a more profound understanding of the event's true meaning in the story context.

Here’s the breakdown, and remember, this is not the main gist of the story. These things are written almost in passing as the current action of the story is progressing:

  • Page 1 - We find Cazaril, dirty, decrepit, in cast off clothes, hobbling down a path. 
  • Page 4 – His back is covered with painful adhesions – we don’t know why. 
  • Page 10 – We learn that he had walked from the port city of Ibra where he had been resident at the Temple Hospital of the Mother’s Mercy, “dedicated to the succor of men cast up, in all the various ways they could be cast up, by the sea.” 
  • Page 12 – We read about “his back, the ropy red mess of scars piled one across another so thickly as to leave no untouched skin between, legacy of the last flogging the Roknari galley-masters had given him."
  • Page 26 – At the palace he relates his story and we discover that he was a military man whose fortress was under siege. When a surrender was arranged, there was some mix-up. All the officers were ransomed – except him. He was sold to the galleys.

Can you see? Bujold is basically telling the story backwards. She could have just said on page one that Cazaril was going back to the palace after having been wrongly sold to the slave galleys. But by having the information come out a little at a time in between all the main action, she creates, not only building tension, but a subliminal feeling like there is substance and history to Cazaril’s life.

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read this book yet, please, do yourself a favor and get it before you read on. 

So…the thread continues to build a little at a time as the main story continues (and sorry, I’m not going to dig for pages on the rest of this, but it's interspersed until nearly the end of the book).

  • We learn that Cazaril’s missing ransom wasn’t a mistake. He was sold out by his superiors. 
  • We learn how on the slave galley, he was sure he was dead from the last beating he had taken. 
  • And how he had taken the beating because he was protecting a boy who had recently been captured. 
  • And how that boy turned out to be integral to removing the curse on the House of Chalion. 
  • And how that beating was also necessary to removing the curse.

The event of him getting beaten on a slave galley doesn’t even happen in the story. And yet, each retelling, each layer that is added, creates a depth, an immediacy that makes the world and the characters that much more real. And in the end, it ties back to the main plot in such a masterful way.

So, here’s my tip for the day: for a richer storyline, try revisiting key events in the novel and add new understanding or information each time. Even if it isn’t part of the main plotline, it will create a sense of history that will make a story come alive.*



*Can you spot the ways JK Rowling used this technique in Harry Potter?


  1. My favorite story line in Harry Potter is in the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I dearly wish I could go back in time and read it for the first and second time again. Although a lot of the explanation happens at the end, there is still a lot of discovery that goes on throughtout the book.

    It seems like this type of storytelling is an art. You've got to stay be true to the narrator's point of view without revealing too much information off the bat. It's a tightrope act, but worth it when it is done right. This was a great post, Susan!

  2. I love Lois McMaster Bujold, and I loved this book. Have you read the sequel, Paladin of Souls? It's not quite as intricately plotted, but it's still a lovely, fascinating read.

    Thanks for the tip - I really hadn't thought about doing it that way, but I'll definitely be keeping these tips in mind in future plottings.

  3. This is a great tip. I know I've read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies that use this technique, the slow reveal of back story. Like in the movie The Others (revealing what the mother did to the children) and Dolores Claiborne (revealing how her husband died). If it is done right, it creates a tension that pulls you all the way through the story.

    Excellent Post!!!

  4. I recently watched a movie where they used this technique, but I think they gave the details a little too subtly, or maybe they didn't give enough away in general. I had no idea what the character's motivation was, despite the fact that the little clips of flashback were supposed to clue me into her ultimate goal. It didn't work. I was lost until the very end, and when I finally got there, I was really angry at the huge leap I had to make.

    I agree that slowly revealing a detail here and there about a character's history can work--and work well--but I think it's important that a writer be comfortable with this technique before trying to use it.


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