Sarah Aronson’s new novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship.
During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter.
My rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”
Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?
First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.
This is what I do:
I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.
Then I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.
It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.
Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my writers.com students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.