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.