The Power of the Shadow Story

ShadowsI was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and a new writer came up to me, said she had a great concept and had used one of my books to outline the plot. She was now 30k words into the novel and scared. She said it felt like she was looking out at sea from a tiny raft. There was this looonnng way to go in Act II, but now she wasn’t sure she had enough plot material to make it.

“Ah,” I said like a liposuction surgeon, “the sagging middle. No worries. I’m here to help!”

We sat and talked a bit about signpost scenes and she understood all that. But it was clear she needed more “story stuff” in her plans.

So I suggested she write the shadow story. This is the part of the novel many writers never think about, yet it’s one of the most powerful plotting techniques there is. It will take you places you’d never find if you only danced around in the light.

Simply put, the shadow story is what is taking place away from the scene you are writing. It’s what the other characters are doing “off screen.” By giving thought to the shadows, even minimally, you greatly expand your store of plot material.

A few tips:

Start With The Antagonist

The most important shadow is the opposition character. Someone once said a good plot is two dogs and one bone. So while your Lead is gnawing the bone in one scene, your antagonist (off screen) is laying plans to snatch that bone away. Or setting in motion a scheme to kill the lead dog. Or messing with the dogs who are helping the lead dog.

Or maybe he’s overusing canine metaphors.

Whatever it is, by getting into the head of the opposition character, who is somewhere else, you will come up with all sorts of ideas for plot complications. It’s almost automatic. Fresh scenes, mysteries, obstacles will spring up from your writer’s mind. Your Act II problems will begin to melt away.

Supporting Characters

You also have a cast of supporting characters, major and minor, who all have lives and plans and motives of their own. Here you will find the fodder for those plot twists every reader loves. Like when a seeming ally turns out to be a betrayer. Or an enemy becomes a friend. Why would that happen? Let their shadow stories tell you.

Shadows Inside the Lead

You can also delve into the shadows and secrets of your Lead. Maybe you’ve done this already, by giving your Lead a backstory and answering key questions about her life (education, hopes, fears, lost loves, etc.)

But every now and then, in the middle of the writing, pause to come up with something going on inside the Lead that she is not even aware of. Try what I call “the opposite exercise”: The Lead, in a scene, has a specific want or need (if she doesn’t, you need to get her one fast, or cut that scene!) Now, pause and ask: what if your Lead wanted something the exact opposite of this want or need? What would that be? List some possibilities. Choose one of those. Ask: Why would she want that? How could it mess with her head?

Then look for ways to manifest this inner shadow in some of your scenes.

Or imagine your Lead doing something that is the opposite of what the reader or, more importantly, you would expect in that scene. What sort of shadow (secret) made her do that?

Just by asking these sorts of questions, you deepen your Lead and add interesting crosscurrents to the plot.

That’s the power of the shadow story.

Practical Tools

There are two excellent ways to keep track of your shadow story material.

First, Scrivener. I know some people are intimidated by all the bells and whistles of this program. My advice is to use it for a few simple things (mapping your scenes on the corkboard; keeping track of your cast of characters) and then learn other stuff at your own pace, and only if you want to. At such a reasonable price, Scrivener is cost effective for whatever you use it for.

Here is a screen shot of a scene being written (click to enlarge). The page with the text is just like a Word document. Scrivener lets you dedicate a document to one scene or chapter.

Mount Hermon 1 Notice on the bottom right there’s a box labeled “Document Notes.” This is place where you can jot down anything relating to the scene on the left. Perfect for shadow story. You can be as brief or as detailed as you like.

The other method is to use the Comments function in Word. Just insert a comment which gives the shadow material:

Mount Hermon 2

Remember, all sorts of good stuff happens in the shadows. Go there, snoop around, then come back to the light and finish your novel.


42 thoughts on “The Power of the Shadow Story

  1. I have Scrivener…must learn how to use it! Will start right away.

    What I don’t have in my WIP is a human antagonist. The justice/injustice system is the antagonist.

    Since I’m working on the middle right now, I’m finding twists and plot points in the other characters: the protagonist’s granddaughter with FAS (and diminished capacity) and especially her unsavory friends who take advantage of her, the daughter, the police, the attorneys, the judges, etc. Other than the granddaughter’s unsavory friends, the rest are simply human, and their weaknesses, rather than corruption, create the injustices.

    And a contagonist, the brother of the protagonist. Lots of grist for the mill, i.e., there’s no shortage of potential twists.

    The greatest challenge for me will be to ensure that the twists I use reinforce the overall themes. At this point, I’m scared I won’t be up to the challenge, but I’ve been scared before, so I guess I’ll solve it somehow.

    I’m thinking that PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turow might be a place to start (can’t remember an actual antagonist in that story and I didn’t fancy the ending), but do you know any other examples?

  2. Forgot to thank you for yet another great post.

    BTW, years ago, when I was just starting to learn about writing fiction, I read your book on plot and structure. Thank you for that one, too!

    • Thanks for the good word, Sheryl. I always advise putting a “face” on a group or system opposition. It makes the conflict much more intense for the reader. You can have more than one, as in The Verdict (the other lawyer and the corrupt judge).

  3. Shadowy questions, how wonderful. I especially like, “ask: what if your Lead wanted something the exact opposite of this want or need?” I’m going to try this. Thanks.

  4. Excellent tips, Jim. I would suggest a third method, one I call a plot matrix. Use a basic MS Excel page. Label each column with a character’s name. Label each row a scene or chapter. Note in each row under each name what that person is doing at that moment, even if they aren’t in scene. The simpler the better. Life goes on for all these characters, even if it’s not their chapter. Their activities will bloom into plot ideas to fill the sagging middle.

  5. James, I’ve been using Scrivener for 4 years now, but only in the last 3 months have I had a mac version. As good as it is on a PC, it is even better on a Mac! Oh, and Super Structure made my last book so much easier to write. Will use your Shadow story and Joe’s Excel suggestion in the next one. Thanks!

  6. Jim, thanks for a great post. I printed this one out. I’m working on a sagging middle right now, so this is very helpful. Maybe, instead of liposuction, I’m looking for collagen injections.

    I forgot to mention last week that I enjoyed your article on short stories in the current issue of WRITER’S DIGEST – “Short & Strategic.”

    Also, thanks for letting us know about the freebie short story, IRON HANDS (IRISH JIMMY GALLAGHER). Enjoyed that one a lot.

    Sure would love to see a series of shorts based on the stories you put on this blog a year or so ago, with the 1800’s old crusty writer and the new kid still wet behind the ears. Sorry, I couldn’t find that post or remember names. But that certainly had potential for a short story series.

    Thanks for all the teaching you do on this blog.

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes, I’ve always intended to do more of those stories about William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster coaching young Benny Wannabe.

      For those interested, you can type “Armbrewster” in the search box at the top of this blog, and you’ll find the stories there.

  7. Jim,

    Great stuff! Figuring out the opposition’s “Shadow story” (love the name!) gives me plenty of obstacles for the hero’s story. It also ties in beautifully realizing that the antagonist(s) and supporting cast can all have arcs of their own which affect what happens to the protagonist and his/her plans. Very handy Scrivener tip with Document notes, something I want to use in my current WIP. Thank you!

  8. You must be reading my mind because this is exactly what I’ve been working on this week! In using “Super Structure” to plot out the season arc of my novella series and the novellas themselves, I realized I needed to know more of what the antagonist was doing if I was going to effectively plan out the back and forth.

    I turned to Donald Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook”. He has several amazing exercises on fleshing out your antagonist–why he’s justfied in his actions, what point in history supports his cause, an outline from his POV–and it works like a charm every time.

    Your extra suggestions regarding the other characters and what other things the main character has to accomplish are perfect!

    I love Scrivener and one of my favorite parts is the Inspector. Previously I used it to jot down notes for the scene, but I love your idea to use it for developing what the characters are doing.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • You are the author! You are as God to your story world. YOU can know what the antagonist is doing, and any other character. Then your first person narrator can encounter things that happen, not knowing where they came from. But you do, because you came up with them in the shadows.

  9. These are great points. I’ve used the antagonist’s and other characters’ shadow story before without realizing it, but never thought about the protagonist having one. Thanks for this!

  10. As always, dead on. Book 2 of my series takes place mostly in the bar. There are a few other locations, the dead stripper’s house, the farm where the bikers are holed up, the chemical plant, but most of the character interaction is over the bar. The big crimes, the drug running and the frame-up of the imprisoned cop, all occur off-screen. Filtering those in are what is key and I like this technique a lot.


  11. Love my Sunday morning coffees with TKZ! Thanks for another great column!

    I have used Scrivener (for PC) in the past and really like it. But I recently tried OneNote one someone’s suggestion and love it even more!

    For those of you familiar with Microsoft Office products, you might find OneNote easier to jump into as its very straightforward. The working screen is as wide as you need it to be, and functions like a bulletin board that you can randomly plunk thing on – text, photos, charts, whatever you want. Great for brainstorming and mind-mapping, creating timelines and family histories, etc.

    You organize materials by tabs – eg plot, characters, research etc, and each tab can have it’s own sub-tabs. So super easy to organize everything, reorder and reorganize material, etc.

    Other great features: automatic save, screen clipping direct into any section of your file you want, material copied from web is saved with source reference. Best of all it’s FREE and compatible across all your devices.

    The one big con I see vs. Scrivener is the export function to print your whole manuscript may take an extra step or two. But this largely depends on how you set up your working doc.

    Overall, this is a minor con for me outweighed by the intuitive interface of the program. I wish I had tried it sooner.

  12. Great post (as always, Jim!) and I had never thought of using Scrivener to do a shadow story alongside the main one – but that’s a wonderful use of its tools. My issue is, sadly, usually way too much happening in my plot and ‘shadow stories’ so I normally need to kill off a few of these rather than add:( But they always linger for future plots!

    • Good point, Clare. All this material certainly can go in our mental (or e-) folder for future reference. Nothing is wasted this way. Even with stuff we don’t use, the mental exercise is good for our plotting muscles.

  13. Fascinating.
    I tried Scrivener but was defeated by it. (granted, I didn’t try hard). But you make me want to try again. Thanks for the great post.

    • Kris, for you and Doc, below, I advise: use it as a corkboard first. And use the inspector. That’s it. Write scenes and then look at the cards on the corkboard. You’ll love it just for that!

  14. Jim, Like PJ, I own Scrivener and have tried it twice, only to give it up and go back to writing with MS Word (which has never misbehaved for me). However, you’ve convinced me that perhaps the third time will be the charm for this dinosaur. And thanks for the concept of “shadow story.” I do it in my mind, but maybe I should put it down and keep track of it. After all, I am nearing the age of senility. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my applesauce and a nap. : )

  15. Mr. Scott, this is a great article! I often find myself lost in the second act and find it difficult for ways to move the plot along. I am definitely going to try this. I’ve heard so much about Scrivener. I downloaded the trial version, but it seems too daunting. So many options.

    I just ordered your book about Plot and Structure, to add along with the rest of my collection of your books. Thank you again.

  16. James time and time again I learn something when you write a post. This is a fantastic tool to use. I have book marked it and I know it will help me with my shallow subplots. Thank you. You never disappoint, thanks.

  17. (I love Scrivener and have been using it for almost ten years now.)

    This is a funny coincident that you mention shadow story.

    Yesterday, I was going through my plot outline, revising according to my editor’s advice. It’s the first time I’m using Super Structure.

    About one of the scenes, my editor wrote: “Also that would give her something to do while he’s out investigating, trying to figure out how to pick the lock, or get out a window, etc.”

    That made me think about how I (I’m a beginner) leave my characters motionless more or less while other characters are doing action.

    Your blog post made it clear how to do that. Excellent! Thanks 🙂

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