Filter to Enhance Story

By Gail Gaymer Martin

Authors often set up perimeters for a storyline by weighing it with backstory or details when they provide readers with information to help them understand the motivation for the characters. As we’ve heard many times, backstory or details can bog down a novel when it’s piled into the beginning of a novel. Too much emphasis on story theme or message can do the same. Think about these alternatives.

The old saying action can speak louder than words is true. Use action to filter the character’s motivation or the theme of the story. Instead of telling the reader through narrative or dialogue, find visual ways to show a character’s longing or need.

Filter the backstory
I sometimes suggest using weather or nature to enhance the mood of a scene. Sunshine obviously reflects a sunny situation. Rain does the opposite. But be more subtle. Sun beams down on a woman reading a letter as she sits on the porch steps. Her expression darkens as a cloud sweeps over the sun and throws a shadow on her. This doesn’t need explanation.

Now we know the letter has something unpleasant. She could crumple the paper, tear it to shreds or drop it on the porch steps as she hurries inside. Let the reader wonder for a moment while she reacts. Details come later. Have a character look at a photograph and reflect an emotion. Wipe away a tear. Smile. The reader knows the character’s feelings through his reaction to the photograph.

Filter the Storyline or Premise
Don’t open a novel with the obvious. Draw interest by suggesting the premise or storyline before being blatant. Use a discarded newspaper headline to set up a situation. Serial Killer Strikes Third Victim. A young woman glances at the newspaper, frowns and peers over her shoulder. We get the point.

Perhaps a radio program or billboard announces an event—a rodeo, beauty contest, or state lottery offering millions. Nothing need be said, but it sets a question for the reader. Will this become a major event in the story?

Using the lottery idea, a young woman steps into a shop and purchases a lottery ticket with the comment, “Here goes another five dollars down the drain.” She smiles and leaves. We get the point. Something will happen. We’re curious. Will she be a winner? Will the winning ticket put her in danger? This sets the stage with a subtle hint of things to come.

Filter the Subplot
Subplots need to connect with the main characters, but subplot can help develop a theme, message or storyline by mirroring the same or similar problem in the life of a main character. Don’t let the main character realize this. Instead, as the main character observes his friend’s problem, give him the insight to eventually find the solution to her own struggle.

Readers are intelligent. They enjoy deciphering the hints and clues the author gives as to the problem and the reason. Don’t take away from their enjoyment by laying all the details in front of them. Use offhand comments, radio bulletins, newspaper articles, signs, overheard conversations, and even nature to provide a more subtle way to build the storyline and enhance it.


gailmartinMulti-award-winning novelist Gail Gaymer Martin writes Christian fiction for Love Inspired and has written for Barbour Publishing, where she was honored by Heartsong readers as their Favorite Author of 2008. Gail has fifty contracted novels with over three million books in print. She is the author of Writers Digest’s Writing the Christian Romance. Gail is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers, a keynote speaker at churches, libraries and civic organizations and presents workshops at conference across the US. She was named one of the four best novelists in the Detroit area by CBS local news. She lives with her husband in a northwest Detroit suburb. Visit her website at Her latest book, Her Valentine Hero, released in February.

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