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Figuring out what happens before the story begins and understanding your characters future are two of the most important details for crafting a believable, emotionally gripping, page-turning novel. Your characters could be bugs. But really if they are, they’re just analogues for human beings.

All stories told are about the human condition in some way or other. The present lasts for less than a second. It is the past and the future that stretches in near endless directions. Know them and you will infuse your fictional world with life and depth.

Rule number one: Know your past


Unless your story is going to start with the big bang you will need to take history into account. From a macro-overview of the setting to the microcosm that is each character. Even if you’re starting your tale with your characters birth, who his parents are or were must be accounted for.

No matter what you write about. Something has already happened that leads to the character being in the situation he is. We the readers don’t need to know it, but you do.

You need to know who has been to war with whom, who’s divorced, how long friends have known each other, what they’ve been through. You don’t need a handle on every angle, but you need a strong idea, and some essential details.

Fiction is about people, and people always have a past. So does everything they own. Name something in your life and I guarantee it has a history. Maybe a short one, but it came from somewhere and you have it for a reason.

When I first wrote this I saw fourteen stories on my desk. The wireless router that frequently cut out and needed to be unplugged for ten seconds so we could have internet. The box it was sitting on came from the day my mother and I got the idea to write index cards of plot points. We never got past buying and labeling them. But for some reason I had hers and she had mine. The candle that I valued so so much it moved from California in the hot trunk of my car. Wax melted onto the towel it was wrapped in, the damn thing was near glued to the base and I’d be damned if I could smell the great scent it once had. But it’s dark reds and purples on the single black candlestick were deeply pleasing to my eye.

I could go further. I could tell you about the little Japanese box my father bought me stuffed full of tiny remnants of memories including the phone number of a former coworker who is no longer alive. Or how I came up with the idea of the wishing box, where each item comes from and its significance to me. But I think by now you get the point.

History gives meaning to everything we touch. History gives meaning to your story.

Rule number two: Know your future.

Your characters lives are going somewhere. Things are going to happen after the story ends even if they die. We as people don’t get to know our futures, though we can often get hints of real life foreshadowing. But you need to know what happens to these characters after the words stop and their lives or legacy continues.

If a character is slated for death let him imagine a future he expects to have. Or if he knows it is coming, one he had wanted before learning he was terminally ill. Breath full life and love this doomed character from the start so that we mourn his loss when he goes.

Don’t abandon dead protagonists. If he has touched lives he will be missed. Let your survivors remember him. Many readers cry when a favoured character dies. It’s cathartic and it’s powerful and it’s only truly possible if he was alive to begin with.

The epilogue does not tell us everything, it can’t. Teach us your method of hinting at the future and then give us clues to ponder when we finally turn the last page.

Having a sense of future is not unrealistic. If you really think about the last five major things that happened to you, in most instances you knew something was coming, you just might not have been certain what it would be.

To be sure we can be paralyzed by shock. But usually what leads up to a catastrophic change was already set in motion. That is how psychics make their living. They ask you questions, they pick up on your reactions and tell you the future you already know but have yet to open your eyes to.

There are no surprises in life, only surprised people. When a wildfire rocketed through the forest five miles from my house. No one, not even the poor man who started it had expected it. But if we all knew the events leading up to the catastrophe many would have said to themselves. “If he’s not careful, he could start a fire.”

What about mental illness? That surely can’t be predicted? I can tell you from personal experience with Bipolar I, there are always warning signs. We just don’t always know how to read them.

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Last updated May 8th, 2017

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