Archive for category Writing Tips

Generating Page-Turning Momentum—Characters & The Wound

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Hmmm, what’s the story behind THIS?

Can we answer the question, “What is your book about?” in one sentence. Is our answer clear and concise? Does it paint a vivid picture of something others would want to part with time and money to read? Plot is important, but a major component of a knockout log-line is casting the right characters.

Due to popular demand I am running my Your Story in a Sentence class in about two weeks and participants have their log lines shredded and rebuilt and made agent-ready. Log-lines are crucial because if we don’t know what our book is about? How are we going to finish it? Revise it? Pitch it? Sell it?

Once we have an idea of what our story is about and have set the stage for the dramatic events that will unfold, we must remember that fiction is about PROBLEMS. Plain and simple. Furthermore, it is about PEOPLE who have problems. But not simply ANY problems. Very specific problems, which we will talk about in a sec ;) .

I will say that plot is very important. Our characters are only as strong as the crucible. Ultimately, all stories are about people. We might not recall every detail of a plot, but we DO remember characters. Ah, but here’s the sticky wicket. WHY do we remember characters? Because of plot. Stories are more than about people. Great stories are people overcoming great odds.

We don’t remember Luke Skywalker because he hung out on Tatooine waxing rhapsodic about his plight as a moisture farmer. We remember him and his allies because they went up against seemingly unbeatable odds and WON.

Yet, even if we come up with the coolest plot in the world, there are elements of character that should also be in the mix, lest our novel can become the literary equivalent of a CGI Star Wars Prequel NIGHTMARE. Characters should develop organically or the reader will call FOUL.

Additionally, if our characters are as deep as an Amarillo puddle, it will be virtually impossible for readers to emotionally connect.

Among many other reasons, I think this is why the Star Wars Prequels were like a bad acid trip at Chuck E. Cheese. Anakin was utterly unlikable and unredeemable simply because the writers were more focused on how many characters they could make into McDonald’s Happy Meal toys instead of sticking to the fundamentals of GOOD storytelling.

But Obi-Wan doesn’t take me seriously. Whaaaaahhhhhh! *SLAP*

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If we’re missing emotional connection between the audience and our characters, our story loses critical wattage. What are some ways we can help form that connection? Today…

The Wound

Real humans have wounds that drive our wants, needs, perceptions, and reactions and so should all our characters (even the Big Boss Troublemaker-Antagonist). Recently, I was helping a student of my Antag-Gold class plot her novel. She had a good protagonist who was a control freak. My question: WHY?

Yes, genetics will have a role in forging our personality, but genes do not a good story make. Having a character be a certain way simply because we need them to be or act that way will work, but so will a heart with damaged valves.

Wounds drive how we perceive our world, what we believe we want, and how we will (or won’t) interact with others. This is critical for generating story tension and character arc.

For instance, my father abandoned us, my mother was chronically ill, and my little brother was legally blind. I was left to grow up too fast and take care of far too much way too early. THIS is why I struggle with being a control freak. From MY wound, %#!* didn’t get done unless I did it.

Additionally, because I grew up in the wake of constant broken promises, I’ve had to work hard to trust. It’s been a challenge to delegate and allow others to fail or succeed without my constant meddling. Also in my growing up years, achievement=love/attention. That wound drove me to seek dreams that weren’t mine to please others.

I had to “arc” to walk away from people-pleasing if I wanted fulfillment.

Wounds are the NOTCH That Engages the GEAR

Think of plot like gears on a bicycle. So long as the gears are engaged and moving forward we have story momentum. Character is like the chain winding around those gears.

Some of you might be old enough to remember riding a ten-speed with the old shifters. You had to practice shifting gears to get the chain to engage a larger or smaller gear and if you didn’t get it right? The pedals spun and the bike just made weird noises. That’s because the chain has to be able to meet with the teeth of the gear via a space or a hole…or it won’t work.

Character functions similarly. We can have the gears (plot) and the chain (character) but if there is no notch (wound) that allows them to ever mesh and create tension? The story has no momentum and just makes weird sounds while we fruitlessly spin literary pedals. Wounds are the sweet spot, that hole, that allows plot and character to merge into dramatic momentum.

Some writers start with characters and others start with plot. It doesn’t matter so long as you let either be forged with “the wound” in mind. If you have a mental snippet of a rebellious renegade bad@$$ heroine and want to put her in a story, then think of a plot situation that will make her utterly miserable. She can’t grow if she’s comfortable.

Maybe instead of chasing bad guys, she is forced to become the caretaker for her three young nephews after her sister dies. This PLOT is going to force her to be vulnerable, maybe have a softer side, and lighten up. Now, character (chain) and plot (gears) are linked.

Same if we go the opposite direction.

Maybe you have a great idea for a story. You want to take down a mob boss. Who can you cast that will be the most uncomfortable and thus grow the most? A former hit man who’s given up killing because he promised his wife before she died? An agoraphobic ex-cop who can’t leave her house? A sweet, naive soccer mom who believes that Bedazzling makes everything way more AWESOME?

Genre will dictate some of the casting, but note if we cast someone who would reach our story goal with relative ease, we risk having a one-dimensional talking head. We also diminish tension because remember, readers LOVE seemingly unbeatable odds. So, if we cast a highly decorated detective to take down our mob boss, make sure there is something about him (a wound) that puts the odds against him.

Wounds Don’t Have to Be Big to Be BIG

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Thomas Ricker.

Often, new writers will default to wounds like rape or death or some big tragedy to create the wound. To be clear, I am not saying these aren’t viable wounds, but never underestimate the “smaller” and more relatable emotional injuries. The more a reader can empathize with one or more characters, the deeper that connection becomes.

Not everyone has lost their family to a sudden alien invasion— ;) — but they can empathize with maybe never living up to expectations, being bullied, or not fitting in. LOTR rests on a small band of Hobbits who believe they are too little to make a BIG difference.

Perhaps the character is the invisible middle child trying to forge an identity, the eldest trying to hold the world together, or the baby who “got away with murder” and “was handed everything.” Never underestimate family dynamics as sources for realistic and powerful psychic wounds.

For instance, my father was all play no work. Unfortunately, we suffered the consequences. Ironically, my grandfather was all work no play. Doubly ironic, my childlike father created a workaholic daughter (me); like thread, one loop feeding into the next weaving the “pattern” until someone changes “the pattern.”

Arc.

I’ve had to learn to lighten the hell up and balance The Force. But my workaholic, overachieving nature served up far more thorns than fruits.

Wounds Will Distort Happiness

Wounds generate illusions. Because I grew up poor and lived hand-to-mouth all through college, I “believed” that money and financial security would make me happy. At 27, I made more money than any person in their 20s should make…and I was miserable. I was eaten alive with emptiness. I’d achieved all that should have filled that hole—the college degree, the premium job and premium pay. And yet?

I was the person stranded in a desert gulping sand I believed was water from an oasis.

Am I "there" yet?

Am I “there” yet?

Character arc comes when a protagonist is placed in a problem strong enough to challenge the illusion and break it. The protagonist believes X=happiness/fulfillment. It is only through the story problem that the protagonist rises to become a hero, a person capable of realizing they were wrong and that they’d been coveting a shill at the expense of the gold.

Thus, when creating characters, keep the wound at the forefront of your mind.

How does it affect what he/she believes about their own identity? What do they believe will make them happy? What is it that you (Author God) know that’s really what will make them happy? What needs to change for that character to lose the blinders? What is the perfect problem (plot) to force the protagonist to see the hard truth of the unhealed wound?

What are your thoughts? Writing can be healing and therapeutic. Have you ever siphoned from your own hurt-reservoir to deepen your characters? Can you think of how even small hurts can become super-sized? What are some ways you’ve witnessed wounds driving people in wrong directions toward false happiness? Have you been there, done that and earned the t-shirt?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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66 Comments

Lies, Denial & Buried Secrets—How to Create Dimensional Characters

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

As mentioned in a previous post, one of my all-time favorite series is True Detective. There is a line that’s repeated in the series and it is SO perfect for our purposes today.

Sometimes your worst self is your best self.

It’s tempting for us to create “perfect” protagonists and “pure evil” antagonists, but that’s the stuff of cartoons, not great fiction. Every strength has an array of corresponding weaknesses, and when we understand these soft spots, generating conflict becomes easier. Understanding character arc becomes simpler. Plotting will fall into place with far less effort.

All stories are character-driven. Plot merely serves to change characters from a lowly protagonist into a hero….kicking and screaming along the way. Plot provides the crucible. 

Plot is the push that drives the change. Without the plot problem, the protagonist is never forced to face weakness and can comfortably remain unchanged. Plot forces the protagonist to face the worst self in order to eventually unveil the best self.

One element that is critical to understand is this:

Everyone has Secrets

To quote Dr. Gregory House, Everybody lies.

All good stories hinge on secrets.

I have bodies under my porch.

Okay, not all secrets in our fiction need to be THIS huge.

Secret #1—“Real” Self Versus “Authentic” Self

We all have a face we show to the world, what we want others to see. If this weren’t true then my author picture would have me wearing a Batman T-shirt, yoga pants and a scrunchee, not a beautifully lighted photograph taken by a pro.

We all have faces we show to certain people, roles we play. We are one person in the workplace, another with family, another with friends and another with strangers. This isn’t us being deceptive in a bad way, it’s self-protection and it’s us upholding societal norms. This is why when Grandma starts discussing her bathroom routine, we cringe and yell, “Grandma! TMI! STOP!”

No one wants to be trapped in a long line at a grocery store with the total stranger telling us about her nasty divorce. Yet, if we had a sibling who was suffering, we’d be wounded if she didn’t tell us her marriage was falling apart.

Yet, people keep secrets. Some more than others. Most of us have secrets we keep even from ourselves ;) .

In fact, if we look at The Joy Luck Club the entire book hinges on the fact that the mothers are trying to break the curses of the past by merely changing geography. Yet, as their daughters grow into women, they see the faces of the same demons wreaking havoc in their daughters’ lives…even though they are thousands of miles away from the past (China).

The mothers have to reveal their sins, but this will cost them the “perfect version of themselves” they’ve sold the world and their daughters (and frankly, themselves).

The daughters look at their mothers as being different from them. Their mothers are perfect, put-together, and guiltless. It’s this misperception that keeps a wall between them. This wall can only come down if the external facades (the secrets) are exposed.

Secret #2—False Face

Characters who seem strong, can, in fact, be scared half to death. Characters who seem to be so caring, can in fact be acting out of guilt, not genuine concern for others. We all have those fatal weaknesses, and most of us don’t volunteer these blemishes to the world.

In fact, we might not even be aware of them. It’s why shrinks are plentiful and paid well.

The woman whose house looks perfect can be hiding a month’s worth of laundry behind the Martha Stewart shower curtains. Go to her house and watch her squirm if you want to hang your coat in her front closet. She wants others to think she has her act together, but if anyone opens that coat closet door, the pile of junk will fall out…and her skeletons will be on public display.

Anyone walking toward her closets or asking to take a shower makes her uncomfortable because this threatens her false face.

Watch any episode of House and most of the team’s investigations are hindered because patients don’t want to reveal they are not ill and really want attention, or use drugs, are bulimic, had an affair, are growing marijuana in their attics, etc.

Secret #3—False Guilt

Characters can be driven to right a wrong they aren’t even responsible for. In Winter’s Bone Ree Dolly is driven to find her father before the bail bondsman takes the family land and renders all of them homeless.

Ree is old enough to join the Army and walk away from the nightmare, but she doesn’t. She feels a need to take care of the family and right a wrong she didn’t commit. She has to dig in and dismantle the family secrets (the crime ring entrenched in her bloodline) to uncover the real secret—What happened to her father?

She has to keep the family secret (otherwise she could just go to the cops) to uncover the greater, and more important secret. She keeps the secret partly out of self-preservation, but also out of guilt and shame.

I’m working on a fiction series and currently outlining Book Three. But in Book One, my protagonist takes the fall for a massive Enron-like scam. She had nothing to do with the theft of a half a billion dollars and the countless people defrauded into destitution. Yet, she feels false guilt. She feels responsible even though she isn’t.

This directs her actions. It makes her fail to trust who she should because she’s been had before. When she uncovers a horrific and embarrassing truth about someone she trusts and loves, she withholds the information (out of shame for the other person) and it nearly gets her killed.

This embarrassing secret is the key to unlocking the truth, yet she hides it because of shame. Shame for the other person and shame that this information reveals her deepest weakness…she is naive and has been (yet again) fooled.

Be a GOOD Secret-Keeper

This is one of the reasons I HATE superfluous flashbacks. Yes, we can use flashbacks. They are a literary device, but like the prologue, they get botched more often than not.

Oh, but people want to know WHY my character is this way or does thus-and-such. 

Here’s the thing, The Spawn wants cookie sprinkles for breakfast. Just because he WANTS something, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him. Don’t tell us WHY. Reveal pieces slowly, but once secrets are out? Tension dissipates. Tension is key to maintaining story momentum. We WANT to know WHY, but it might not be good for us.

The Force was more interesting before it was EXPLAINED.

Everybody LIES

They can be small lies, “No, I wasn’t crying. Allergies.” They can be BIG lies, “I have no idea what happened to your father. I was playing poker with Jeb.” Fiction is one of the few places that LIES ARE GOOD. LIES ARE GOLD.

Fiction is like dating. If we tell our date our entire life story on Date #1? Mystery lost and good luck with Date #2.

When it comes to your characters, make them lie. Make them hide who they are. They need to slowly reveal the true self, and they will do everything to defend who they believe they are. Remember the inciting incident creates a personal extinction. The protagonist will want to return to the old way, even though it isn’t good for them.

Resist the urge to explain. 

Feel free to write it out for you…but then HIDE that baby from the reader. BE A SECRET-KEEPER. Secrets rock. Secrets make FABULOUS fiction.

What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some great works of fiction that show a myriad of lies from small to catastrophic? Could you possibly be ruining your story tension by explaining too much?

Quick Announcement: Due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). 

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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When Dreams Go Bad—Dream Sequences, What Works & What Flops

This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography

This GORGEOUS image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Aimannesse Photography

In the past several posts we have been unpacking the “flashback.” But, over the course of us talking about flashbacks and how to deliver backstory, a lot of people have asked about dream sequences. Before we continue, I will say this again “Anything can be done.” Writing rules are always being broken but to break them well we need to know why they exist in the first place.

Thus, today we are going to talk about dream sequences and why they don’t work and look at instances where the do (which are rare, btw).

Dream Sequences to Hook

Often new writers will begin with some cool fantastical scene to hook the reader then POOF! The character wakes up and  “Ha, ha. It wasn’t real. It was a dream.” This backfires for a number of reasons. First of all, our first five pages are some of our most critical. They are the best selling tool we have for an agent, an editor and even a potential reader.

Think about your own book-buying adventures. When we browse a book store, what do we do? We read the first page or two to make a choice. If the first five pages don’t entice us, most likely we will move on.

As an editor for years, the first five pages are also a pretty good litmus for the overall writing. It’s like a cardiologist doesn’t need to crack open your chest to see if you have a bum ticker. Often the blood pressure, pale skin, sweats and dizziness are more than telling enough.

Same with the first five pages. I don’t need to read the entire book to tell every bad habit. I usually need five pages and almost never need over twenty.

Trick at Our Own Risk

Jester Baby from Scarborough Faire

Jester Baby from Scarborough Faire

This said, dream sequences that “trick” the reader will usually tick them off. Our job as authors is to manipulate the audience, but the audience should never “feel” manipulated. We have to be subtle.

Since the first five pages are telling about the rest of the work, if a writer has tricked me in the beginning, I realize that I can’t trust anything else that follows. Since I don’t trust, it can prevent me from being submerged into the fictive dream.

Reminds me of my dad trying to teach me to swim. He had a sadistic sense of humor and found dunking me when I didn’t know how to swim funny. Problem was, I needed to be able to trust so I could relax enough to learn. Since he dunked me the first time and left me choking for air? Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Aaaand that is why MOM ended up teaching me to swim.

We have to be very careful about breaking the reader’s trust if we hope to submerge them in our world.

Dream Disorientation

Also, dream sequences are very jarring. The reader is in one place and one setting with one group of people. Just about the time the reader is oriented (hooked), POOF! The scene, setting, etc. all change and the reader needs to orient all over AGAIN. Any time we shift like this and a reader has to adjust, we’ve provided a great place for a bookmark (which is bad).

Dream Double-Duty

When we hook with a dream and then shift, we then have the job of hooking again. Hooking once is already tough. Why make more work?

Dreams in Movies

Dream sequences might work well in movies, but remember we are dealing with a very different medium. Movies often will employ dream sequences because movies are at an inherent disadvantage. Movies only can use two senses; sight and sound. Movies are not only lacking three other senses, they also can’t relay what is going on inside a character’s head. This means they need to do things differently than a novel and that’s why dream sequences in a movie are more acceptable than in books.

An example would be the movie Gladiator. In Gladiator there are a couple of visually stunning scenes where Maximus dreams of his family and seeing them in the Elysian Fields. In this instance, a movie can get away with this because this feeling/sensation can’t be relayed in narrative like a novel. Additionally, since movies are visual and passive, it is clear we are in a dream so we don’t get the same disruption.

But I will add that even in screenwriting, writers are strongly discouraged from relying on dreams.

Dreams as Training Wheels

Dreams are more often than not in the same category as a “training wheel flashback.” It is a ham-fisted way of dumping backstory. Or, it is deus ex machina intervening to bail the writer out of a major plot problem.

The protagonist is in a real spot but then she has a DREAM and POOF! the answer appears.

Remember that the protagonist must do the hard work. The protagonist begins with a “normal.” This “normal” is then shattered with the inciting incident that introduces the story problem and shifts the protagonist’s world out of balance. The entire plot is the protagonist working to restore a “new normal” but the protagonist must do the heavy lifting.

Thus dreams that passively supply answers count as cheating more often than not.

Killing Our Page-Turning Tension

Remember when we talked about backstory and how telling too much could actually ruin tension and conflict because it makes the reader comfortable? The same thing can also happen with dream sequences.

Readers turn pages because they crave answers. Tension creates momentum.

And the thing about dreams is that if we (the readers) know this is a true dream, we aren’t worried for the protagonist because we know dreams aren’t real. If it is only a dream, there are no consequences. Dreams are by definition passive. Passivity kills story tension.

Kills it. Dead.

Now that we have talked about all the reasons dreams can go sideways, we will discuss how they might be used well.

Dreams as a Device

Often in paranormal stories we are dealing with someone who might have psychic abilities. Yes, dreams can be used, but make sure the dreams are generating more questions than answers and are propelling the plot forward. In this instance, dreams become part of the story.

For instance a psychic who has a dream of a murdered girl and the dream is what puts her eventually into the investigation. But in this case, the dream is a literary device, not a prop.

In this case the dream should be used sparingly. No convenient dreams to give clues or offer clear direction. That’s cheating.

Dreams as Plot

In The Cell the entire story involves a therapist traveling into the dreams of a serial killer using advanced technology that can put her into that world. The dreams are part of the story and there is no story without the dream world.

In the beginning we get these fantastical scenes when social worker Catherine Deane is in the dreams of traumatized children. Eventually she enters the dream world of deranged killer Carl Stargher to locate a girl he abducted before he fell into a coma. The goal is to hunt for clues in the dream world to help the FBI find the girl in the real world before the victim dies.

Yet, I will say that from Act II on, this would not be a dream sequence because the actual STORY is taking place in the mind of the killer.

If I were to recreate such a story in a novel, I would not italicize but I might add a chapter heading that denotes real world from dream world and then structure accordingly. The reason this can work in a novel (and a story) is that there are life and death consequences for Deane in this dream world. If she falls too deeply into this twisted reality, fear can kill her.

Anyone else thinking about Freddy right now? And we wonder why every kid of the 80s suffered insomnia O_o .

Dreams to Propel Plot

The movie Cake with Jennifer Aniston did a pretty good job of using dreams (and there is a tad of a spoiler so you were warned). Aniston plays Claire Bennett, a woman who is suffering from severe chronic pain. The movie opens with Claire in a support group for those who suffer chronic pain and they are trying to cope with the suicide of a fellow member of the group.

It is clear from the beginning that Claire is very bitter and extremely angry. She doesn’t handle death well at ALL.

Then she dreams of Nina Collins, the woman who committed suicide and left her husband and young son behind.

Nina actually serves as another character who propels Claire along the plot and character arc. Claire has never grieved her son who was killed in the accident that has left her crippled. Claire has pushed away everyone she loves and numbs the pain with drugs. She is a woman trapped. She is too angry and frightened to move forward which means she is neither living or dying.

Nina (dream/hallucination) doesn’t conveniently supply answers, but she does shove Claire out of her comfort zone. Claire is propelled to understand why she is dreaming/hallucinating about a woman she barely knew and the answer is that Nina is a manifestation of her own internal desire to end her own life. Nina challenges her to make a choice and get out of limbo.

Live or die.

But, if she is going to choose life, it will be painful emotionally (grieving her son, letting go of guilt, repairing her wrecked marriage) and physically (painful rehabilitation and drug withdrawal).

There is nothing “convenient” about Dream Nina and there is no story without her.

Delivering Dreams

First of all, if you do have a dream sequence, make it clear it is a dream. Often dream sequences will be clearly sectioned off and in italics. Also, work to keep them SHORT.

If the dream world is part of a setting, make sure there are consequences. If I am just going through some harrowing adventure and I know the characters aren’t actually in any real danger? Snoozefest.

In the end, make sure the dreams are necessary because they are risky. Yes, we can envision these fantastical worlds because we built them. For someone who isn’t creating this dream world, it could just be jarring and confusing. Make sure the dream isn’t there to simply supply backstory and convenient plot clues. Make the characters work.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of books that used dream sequences well? I really couldn’t which was why I used movies. Most of the dream sequences I’ve seen that used dreams either were Eh writing or if the dream worked it was because it was another world with real consequences and thus not what I would call a “dream sequence” (since it is simply a shift in setting and bad things CAN happen).

Announcements:

Before we go, my log-line class will be Wednesday Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line . This class will include me gutting your log-line in class (or via e-mail if you’re shy) to make it agent ready. We should be able to tell others what our story is about in one sentence or odds are we have a big problem. Class is recorded and the recording and shredding are included.

Also, due to popular demand, I am rerunning my Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages at the end of the month and I am doing something different. Gold Level includes me looking (and shredding your first five) but I have added in some higher levels and will look at up to 20 pages. This can be really useful if you’re stuck. I can help you diagnose the problems. It’s also a great deal if you have to submit to an agent and want to make your work the best it can be.

June’s Winner Christine Ardigo. Please submit your 5000 words via a WORD docx attachment to kristen at wana intl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS!

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). 

 

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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24 Comments

Time as a Literary Device: Unpacking the Parallel Timeline

Image from "True Detective"

Image from HBO’s “True Detective”

One reason we might be tempted to use a flashback is to explain or to expound to artificially prop up weak characterization or a weak plot (the training wheel flashback). This is what good editors will cut. Then there is the other way to use time and that is time as a literary device. This is when our going back in time is used intelligently to serve the forward momentum of the story.

Last time, we delved into the idea of a loop around (one form of flashback as a literary device). Sometimes we see a story that is smack in the action and then after the inciting incident the story shifts back in time until it catches up where we began then continues real-time.

I used the example of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Live Nun. This is looping back in time as a literary device and I explained how this was done. So go HERE if you’d like to explore this method of storytelling.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.37.49 PM

Today we are going to look at parallel timelines.

What happens with a lot of new writers is that they simply see the surface. “Well, in X BOOK the author went back in time quite a lot, therefore flashbacks are AWESOME.” This is true on the surface, but if we dig down and look at WHY and HOW we see a bigger picture emerge. Some of our favorite books or TV shows or movies might appear to be just flipping back and forth in time, but if we can get an aerial shot, we see something more.

Often what the author is doing is running two timelines parallel. The present-day story is the superlative of the two and the reason is that the past has already happened. And when I say “present-day” I mean the most contemporary of the two timelines.

If a woman in The Great Depression is struggling to rebuild her life after losing the farm in the Dust Bowl and she does so by reading letters written by her grandmother during the Civil War, then the gal in the Great Depression’s decisions and thus the RESOLUTION to her struggle will be fed by the secondary timeline.

Unless she has a time-machine and THAT is a WHOLE ‘notha blog :D .

We will have the A Plot and the B Plot and the B Plot eventually merges and A finishes us out with a resolution.

An excellent example of this is the HBO series, True Detective. There is a tad bit of spoiler in this lesson, but not enough to ruin anything. I recommend watching and studying this series.

And I like using TV series because if we look at the TIME it takes to watch a full season and then cross-compare that with the TIME it takes to read a novel, the two are far more comparable than a movie and a book. Thus, I do recommend studying series to help with writing a novel because the intimacy with the characters and intricacy of the plot is much more relevant.

Image via HBO's "True Detective"

Image via HBO’s “True Detective”

Anyway, Season One of True Detective has two timelines. The episode The Long Bright Dark starts us off and it involves two detectives (Rust Cohle and Martin Hart) being interviewed separately regarding a serial killer case they worked together back in 1995.

One might first be tempted to claim, “See! Look at all those flashbacks!” but hold up. WHY are we going back in time? We don’t have two detectives just talking about the Not So Good Old Days. If there was nothing important about the contemporary timeline, then our story would actually be SET in 1995.

The “present day” interview sessions would be contrived filler and likely meet a cutting room floor and for good reason. There is no POINT to them being there throughout unless we have a parallel timeline.

If there was nothing relevant in the present, we’d interview the cops and they’d tell an “I Remember When” story and not a very good one because that would actually KILL most of our suspense because we’d know, no matter what happened they LIVED to tell the tale. So I do recommend that if it is an I Remember When Story, try to maintain suspense.

***BTW, this is a MAJOR reason that prequels are a nightmare to write. We knew Obi Wan had to live to be in the New Hope so we weren’t ever worried.

For a parallel timeline story told in an I Remember When fashion, I recommend both the book and the movie The Green Mile.

Young Paul Edgecombe

Young Paul Edgecombe

Old Paul Edgecombe.

Old Paul Edgecombe

In Stephen King’s The Green Mile there are TWO stories running in tandem. The contemporary story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home who is being bullied intwined with the tale of a prison guard working death row. It isn’t until the end that we see HOW these stories fit together and WHY. The past takes up a lot of storytelling time, but it still is subordinate to the present. Eventually both timelines merge for the conclusion of the contemporary timeline (story) taking place in the nursing home.

What happened to John Coffee cannot be changed, but John Coffee changed Paul Edgecome and so the future is still mutable.

Back to True Detective

True Detective is NOT an I Remember When story, it is a straightforward parallel timeline. There is a reason these men are being asked about the serial killer they hunted and caught back in the 90s. And the reason is, they didn’t get the right guy. They only stopped ONE bad dude in a nest of vipers and they failed to cut off the monster’s head. Women and children are still disappearing and being murdered (this is actually a turning point in the overall plot of the series).

Remember our litmus for going back in the past.

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In the case of Cohle and Hart, the past is the reason they are in the interrogation room. A case they believed had been solved actually wasn’t and they nailed some low-level dirtbag and not the Big Kahuna. Being in that interrogation room eventually thrusts these two partners back to working together to finish what they started.

Image via HBO's "True Detective"

Image via HBO’s “True Detective”

The reason we (the audience) are given a tour through the 90s is because all of this story is essential for uncovering the identity of the murderer and exposing a vast coverup (resolving the plot problem). It is also vital to see how these men were as young men, how they interacted, how they fought and why to fully appreciate the place they will eventually end up at the conclusion of the journey (resolving the character arc and story worthy problem).

We have to see the bitter, corrosive atheist Cohle and experience him to appreciate how this case eventually changes who he IS. We have to see the self-righteous and hypocritical (yet charming) Hart to appreciate the depth of character this case will create.

The parallel timelines are essential for us reconciling past and present both in story and character.

Thus, when you look at your favorite movies or shows or books, I recommend unpacking the WHY and the HOW so you can get a better glimpse of the magic this writer created.

A Quick Announcement: I ran into the first technical problem I’ve had in three years of running classes with my Log-Line Class (probably because my tech person went on vacation for the first time and wasn’t there to babysit me). We had class and an AWESOME time, but something went sideways with the recording. So I am holding it AGAIN July 8th to be able to get attendees that free recording.

The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.

Now that I’ve announced that, what are your thoughts? Does the flashback seem clearer now that we are unpacking the various ways it is employed? Do you maybe see some of your favorite stories in a new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). 

I will announce JUNE’S WINNER next post!

 

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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33 Comments

Using Backstory Effectively

 

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Zoetnet.

All righty. So we have been discussing “flashbacks” and I have been working hard to pull this blanket term apart because not everything that shifts back in time is the dreaded “training wheel flashback” that make us editors break out in hives. New writers love to shift back and forth in time because they are weak at plotting and characterization and “flashbacks” often serve to prop up these weak spots.

Um, like training wheels.

Before we get into non-linear plotting, I would like to talk about backstory. Often we feel the need to include a lot of backstory right in the beginning because we just simply don’t trust that the reader will “get it.” Sometimes this will be delivered through going back in time so we need to talk about it.

 

Our goal in fiction is to hook early and hook deep. GUT HOOK. Get as close to the inciting incident as possible. Yes, backstory has its place, but we must be careful about how we deliver it. Think of garlic mashed potatoes. I LOVE them. But what happens if the garlic isn’t blended in just right? No one wants a mouthful of garlic. It is an unpleasant experience that probably discourages taking another bite.

There is nothing per se wrong with backstory in the beginning, but we live in an age where attention spans are very short. The longer we take to get to the point, the likelier it is that a reader will lose interest.

New writers particularly believe that readers need more setup than they really do. They don’t trust the reader. But not only are readers actually very clever, giving that backstory often will fizzle the very tension that turns pages.

I have made up two examples to illustrate what I am talking aboutI’m going to show not tell ;). This first selection is not necessarily “bad” writing. But I would like you to contrast it with the second sample and see the difference it makes when we learn to be “secret-keepers” and save that backstory for later.

Kristen’s Made-Up Example A:

Fifi’s mom had been abusive all her life. She remembered staring through the bars of the toddler bed, tensing at the sound of footsteps in the hall knowing, even at that young of an age, that pain would follow. For years, the whole family balanced on eggshells, waiting to sense what to say or what to do that might delay Doris’s wrath. Fifi never could figure out just how to please her mother.

When she was in third grade, she had to explain the bruises on her back from the Play-Doh cans lobbed at her that morning, the cans she forgot to pick up after Elizabeth came over to play. Then, when she was in sixth grade, there was that teacher who called CPS when Fifi showed up with a black eye. But her mom was always the charmer and was practically best friends with the social worker by the time the interview was finished. CPS did nothing and Fifi got the beating of her life as soon as the social worker was out of the drive. But that time her Mom made sure to only hit places where no one could see the marks.

Now Fifi was thirty and somehow had never escaped the pull of her Doris’s power. The power of Alzheimer’s. It figured her mother would be blessed with forgetting, when that was all Fifi had ever wanted. Just tonight, her mother had set the kitchen on fire and when Fifi tried to extinguish the flames, her mother had pummeled her. She snapped. After all this time, all this pain, she just picked up a pot and fought back and this time it had gone terribly wrong.

Example B:

Fifi pressed a scorched towel to her face to stem the bleeding. Her mother, Doris, lay facedown in a broken heap, her head an odd shape from where the pot had cracked her skull. After all the years, all the beatings it had come to this. It figured the one time Fifi stood up for herself, it would end with trying to hide Doris’s body.

***

There is nothing particularly wrong with Example A. But, I do run the risk of sounding melodramatic and the reader wonders if I have a point to all this and might lose interest before Fifi whollops mom with a pot. The first example does a lot of explaining and answers a lot of questions. We are told about the long history of abuse with all this setup and so we feel comfortable in the situation because we are grounded.

Now, Example B does something vastly different. It starts right at the trouble and poses more questions than it answers. Because of this, I compel the reader to move forward because the reader is NOT grounded.

In the second example, we wonder what the heck happened? We glean there was some kind of a fire because of the scorched towel. We also “get” there was some kind of an altercation because Fifi is bleeding. I don’t need to detail the history of abuse because a few words take care of this. After all the years, all the beatings. 

I don’t need to detail Fifi being a doormat, because it is clear this is the first time she has fought back. But notice the hidden questions. Not only do we want to know what the heck happened, we also get a sense that Fifi has never had anyone believe her because her instinct is NOT to call the police, rather it is to dispose of her mother’s body.

We are compelled to sympathize with Fifi because it is clear she is a victim and not simply a murderer. We know there is a history of suffering because of the language. Mom is referred to as Doris (not “Mom”), suggesting psychological distancing.

Backstory has its place, but often we are tempted to glom it on in the beginning to make the reader “comfortable.” Making readers comfortable is bad. Make them uncomfortable because that means they will want to turn pages.

Let’s say our story continues on. Fifi is trying to think of how to hide her mother’s body, but remember there was a kitchen fire. What if a neighbor has called 911? Fifi is pondering the rug in the living room and wondering if she can lift Dear Old Mom into the trunk of her Honda on her own, when firetrucks arrive. Now, I have a bad situation I have made worse.

Effectively, the reader is hooked.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mike Licht

I can go any number of ways with this, but let’s say the firemen come in, find the body and Fifi is hauled away. It is later that I could go into maybe a more detailed description of the years of abuse. Say, in an interview with a homicide detective.

Or maybe she stuffs mom into a closet, no one is the wiser and Fifi calls a shady guy from her past to help get rid of mom. She will have some explaining to do to get Shady Guy’s help. Backstory can be relayed, but notice this is done later after the reader is vested.

Backstory as a Time-Loop

So this is our simple example. But what if I want to put Fifi into some situation that no one would have anticipated? What if the story problem is not about getting away with murdering her mother and is about something else?

What if the murder is simply what led to the actual plot problem?

For instance, Fifi is in Venezuela awaiting to hear from the American Embassy to help her get out of jail. She was caught running drugs.

This is when we can use backstory in a sort of time-loop. We start with the inciting incident to get the reader hooked and then smoothly loop around. We go back to when everything went sideways until we catch up to real-time.

If the book is really about Fifi bringing down drug lords who framed her, then we start with her in a Venezuelan prison (inciting incident) then smoothly transition back to the murder and how it began a series of events that now brings us up to real-time story and the problem of taking down the people who framed her. We have a surface problem (get out of jail and take down drug lords) as well as a story-worthy problem (learning not to be a victim).

For instance, Fifi killed mom and asked Shady Guy for help getting rid of the body and this decision led to her being framed for running cocaine. Now she is in a real pickle, but note that we needed the loop around of backstory to properly get to the real-time problem. We also do NOT go back in time until the reader is hooked with the inciting incident for the real-time plot problem. If we dump backstory too soon? The tension evaporates.

Les Edgerton uses a fabulous example to illustrate this technique and I am going to include it here because, yes, I have read this novel and it is the best example I can think of so I am stealing :D . Les said it was okay. His book Hooked will change your life.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.37.49 PM

Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun does such a loop-around. The story begins with Tucker Case hanging upside down from a coconut tree about to be eaten by cannibals. Without so much as a space break, Moore shifts seamlessly from Tucker awaiting being made into an entree back in time with the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

We effortlessly go back to the bar where Tucker meets the prostitute who talks him into taking her up in a plane so she can join the Mile High Club (even though he is drunk and shouldn’t be flying). Tucker ends up crashing the plane and seriously damaging his man parts. To make matters worse, he was the pilot for a cosmetics company that has a pink plane ;) …and the owner is livid over the avalanche of disastrous PR.

Tucker not only is losing his license, he is probably going to go to jail and this leads him to taking a somewhat shady job flying medical supplies in Micronesia. This backstory is how he ended up suspended in the tree about to be eaten and it is necessary because the story is about Tucker growing up and realizing that it isn’t bad luck or karma that is making his life suck, it’s that he makes bad decisions.

But remember, we began this story with Tucker hanging in a tree about to be eaten. The inciting incident has already occurred, so readers will indulge this loop around because they want to know how Tucker gets out of the tree and what happens from there.

If the story had simply been about Tucker trying to rebuild his life after the world’s most embarrassing plane crash, we would start in the bar. But even then, if we simply start in the bar, we are not at an inciting incident—Tucker doesn’t realize he might be responsible for his own misfortunes until that defining moment in the tree.

We know he has reached this self-awareness because of the line, “Like most missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar.”

If we simply start in the bar and Tucker lacks this self-awareness, the flight, the crash, the injury, the threat of jail just becomes a string of bad event after bad event happening to this character.

Ask the Hard Questions

When you are tempted to include backstory (particularly at the beginning) just ask the hard questions.

Is it necessary to give backstory at all?

In Thelma and Louise we never get Louise’s full story. We (the audience) are left to fill in the blanks and infer Louise was likely raped in Texas.

Can I just add a small amount of backstory for set-up?

For instance, in our Fifi B example, there is a tad bit of setup that Fifi was abused by her mom.

Does this story, by nature, require a loop-around? Without the loop back in time, is the story we want to tell completely altered?

Look at Island of the Sequined Love Nun.

No matter which path we choose, backstory IS vital. Callie Khouri had to know Louise’s backstory to write Thelma & Louise but she was not required to spell it out. We (Author God) need to know our characters, but how we then spell it out depends a lot on the story we wish to write.

What are your thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Is it becoming clearer how to use going back in time as a literary device? Do you see where it behooves us to be secret-keepers?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Classes COMING SOON:

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses :P .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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46 Comments

More than Just a Flashback—Introducing the Easter Egg

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

So we have spent a couple posts talking about “flashbacks” and I need to take a moment to expound on something. I was a naturally good editor. It’s how I got my start. But I would cut things out or change things because in my gut they didn’t work. And, I was pretty much always correct because I did have solid story instincts.

But I also have a passion for teaching. In my mind, it did NO good to cut something or change something for a writer (even if it made the story BETTER) if I had no way of articulating my instincts, of explaining WHY it didn’t work and HOW to do it better.

I, personally, found our “writing vocabulary” too broad. I mentioned the term antagonist last time. There was no such word as Big Boss Troublemaker until I coined it. I had to find a way of explaining the concept to a new writer who might not naturally be good at plotting. I had to be able to explain that there would be ONE antagonist responsible for creating the story problem, and this antagonist was not necessarily “bad.” I made up a term so the writer could keep that particular and necessary antagonist separate from all the other “types” of antagonists in the story.

For instance, in Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT, yet she has only several minutes of screen time. She is responsible for the entire story problem because had she wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never have been taken. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict is actually ALLY, Dori. Dori wears the “antagonist” hat most of the movie, but she is NOT the BBT.

Image via Pixar's movie "Finding Nemo"

Image via Pixar’s movie “Finding Nemo”

I have found the same phenomena in this notion of “flashbacks”—ONE umbrella term to include every single instance of shifting back in time which we talked about last time. And, since many of the prestigious writing instructors will say flashbacks are a no-no, I sought (through this series) to be more specific with the term training wheel flashback.

 The training wheel flashback is the flashback editors will cut because they are pieces that obviously detract from the story. They are used to prop up weak writing and they are very easy for a skilled editor to spot. Think training wheels. You look at a bike and training wheels are pretty hard to miss. They stick out like, like, like….TRAINING WHEELS.

The training wheel flashback is the one that writing teachers will seek to take away because, if we rely on them, our writing will remain weak. Again, training wheels. If we leave those suckers on, we never learn to truly ride a bike.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.35.31 AM

Then, there is simply bending time which can be done any number of ways and I will add some other invented vocabulary words because I can :D . Again, to my knowledge, the term “bending time” did not exist in this context until Monday of this week. This (in my mind) is when a flashback is used properly as a literary device.

For me, it helps to have semantics distinguish the flashback that will be cut and the bending time that will work.  

Of course we can go back in time and we will talk about ways this is done well.  

But maybe I am not all that bright or maybe I have the ego of God a writer and feel it is okay for me to create completely new teaching terms for literature as we know it. It helps me keep them straight because if we use the same terms for everything? It just gives me a brain cramp and it makes it tough for me to teach how time-shifting is done well and explain to a newbie writer why, on Page 3, she really didn’t need to go back and explain why the bride chose to do the wedding in Mexico and not Napa.

Things to Remember About “Flashbacks”

So in the comments and even on Facebook, I have had people mention books or movies that were great and won awards that shifted backwards in time. I agree! Some of my favorite movies shift in time. It’s why I have spent a year studying time shifting to articulate how Pulp Fiction differs from the stuff I have cut over the years (and I have seen thousands of pieces of writing in all genres).

But what I want to point out is that these books or movies aren’t using training wheel flashbacks. The works that DID use training wheel flashbacks met with a slush pile or were rejected or were self-published and buried in bad reviews from confused readers.

If we are seeing a novel on the NYTBS list and it goes back in time? The author did it WELL. But what can happen is we see all these finished stories and popular stories and then use those successes as a basis for why “flashbacks” are fine. Unless you have worked as an editor, it is unlikely you’ve experienced the thousands of training wheel flashbacks that were AWFUL and derailed the story.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.37.04 AM

Another thing to remember about “bending time” in a movie versus a novel is in a movie, the experience is far more passive when we watch film. We see different actors so it is easier to keep up. In a book, when we only have black letters on a white page, this is much harder mental work for the audience. Again, it CAN be done. We simply need to be aware that the mediums are different and take that into account.

Also, and I will reiterate, anything CAN be done. My goal is not to hammer rules into your heads so you never break them. My goal is to hammer rules into your heads so that if and when you break them it is with intent and it is to support strong writing not prop up weak writing.

We must learn the rules to break the rules. Yes, Jimi Hendrix reinvented music as audiences knew it, but he kind of had to learn how to play the guitar first ;) .

For the sake of brevity, today we are only going to look at a type of standalone flashback I am going to call the Easter Egg Flashback. In gaming, designers will insert a hidden video game feature or a surprise that will be unlocked by completing certain game tasks or techniques and that is called an Easter Egg. Thus, I am pilfering this idea and creating my own definition.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.43.44 AM

In fiction, we see these when we encounter only one flashback or maybe just a few flashbacks. Easter Egg Flashbacks aren’t part of a true parallel timeline. They are short and sweet and intriguing. Usually, we have been in the story a while and the story will go back to another time and place and it will offer some kind of information we don’t yet understand but intrigues us. It isn’t until we complete the story that we unlock the Easter Egg Flashback.

This is used in all genres, but pretty common in thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.

For instance, I am writing a scientific thriller that incorporates voodoo. In Act One I shift back in time for a handful of pages. A main character (who is NOT my protagonist) is remembering when he was a boy trekking through the bayous of Louisiana with his father who was a missionary and a bible salesman.

On one of their journeys to bring supplies to a remote area, they run across a girl who was buried alive and clawed her way out of a shallow grave and is out of her mind and dangerous. She is screaming bible versus in Latin…backwards. Nature is also affected by this girl. Millions of coffin flies follow them as they carry this strange girl to a nearby Mambo (Voodoo Priestess) for help.

Then I go back to real time for the rest of the book.

This is the only time I ever shift from the present timeline. In isolation, this is an interesting scene. What does it have to do with a White Hat hacker (my main character)? Why would a Christian missionary seek help from a Mambo? Who are these people in the bayou? Was the girl affected by voodoo or something else?

It is only toward the end of the story that the reader finds out why that girl was so vital and understands the story problem was actually created by HER.

It is (hopefully) an Easter Egg that is unlocked. That only by unraveling the entire mystery do we finally know why it was essential to travel back in time to the swamps of Louisiana.

This was information that was essential to the story. In my mind, it wouldn’t work as a prologue. It also would have lost power if told in narrative or dialogue. But, why (I hope) it works is it is deep enough in the story that it doesn’t ruin the hook. Secondly, it is short. Thirdly, it is clearly set apart. I am not in the middle of a scene where the character has a goal and then WHAMMO…we shift backwards.

It also poses far more questions and answers none.

Easter Egg Flashbacks work great for adding mystery. The best example I can think of off-hand is Dean Koontz’s What The Night Knows. Throughout the story, we have small snippets of another time and place relayed through the Journal of Alton Turner Blackwood.

***Ya’ll get a twofer here, a flashback and a journal done well :D .

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 10.49.27 AM

But the journal flashbacks don’t explain anything, they add information, intrigue and mystery to the current timeline. The reader does not and cannot understand the significance of these entries until almost the end of the story where the Easter Eggs are “unlocked.”

Training wheel flashbacks would actually make the story clearer whereas the Easter Egg Flashbacks do exactly the opposite. They actually pose more questions, questions that must eventually be answered.

Remember the litmus test I gave last time about how to tell a good “flashback” from a needless training wheel? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In stories by Dean Koontz, or John Stanford or Lee Child we might see snippets of the past. But using a blanket term flashback is inadequate. These authors are going back in time so yes *rolls eyes* it is technically a flashback. But WHY are they going back in time and what are they doing there?

They are hiding Easter Eggs.

There is some THING about the character or the plot or both that will eventually be unlocked once the story reaches fruition.

And THIS is why I laugh at people who think writing is easy. What we do is vastly complex and I hope y’all are enjoying the discussion and that it is becoming clearer why some “flashbacks” are awesome and others fizzle.

Also, when someone on-line says, “Kristen Lamb hates all flashbacks and says you should never use them under penalty of death,” y’all can say, “No, Kristen Lamb hates training wheel flashbacks.” Huge difference.

Next time, now that we have removed training wheels, we are going to discuss how to clip playing cards to the wheel of your bicycle so it sounds like a MOTORCYCLE (non-linear plotting) :D .

What are your thoughts? Questions? Does this new definition of an Easter Egg Flashback help? Can you now see the difference I am referring to, how the scenes form another time actually were being hidden in the prose waiting to be opened?

Classes:

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses :P .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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26 Comments

Understanding the Flashback—Bending Time as a Literary Device

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Image vis Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Yuya Sekiguchi.

Last time we talked about flashbacks and why they ruin fiction. But, because this is a blog and I don’t want it to be 20,000 words long, I can’t address everything in one post. Today, we’re going to further unpack “the flashback.” I think we tend to use broad literary terms to encompass a lot of things that aren’t precisely the same things, and in doing this, we get confused.

In my POV, the term “flashback” is far too broad.

We can mistakenly believe that any time an author shifts time, that THIS is the dreaded “flashback” I am referring to and the one I (as an editor) will cut.

Not necessarily.

We need to broaden our understanding of the “flashback” because lumping every backwards shift in time under one umbrella won’t work.

My favorite example is the term “antagonist.” I’ve even been to conferences where experts used the terms “antagonist” and “villain” interchangeably as if they were synonyms, which is not the case. A villain is only one type of antagonist. It creates a false syllogism. Yes, all oranges villains are fruits antagonists, but not all fruits antagonists are oranges villains.

Ergo, why I coined the term, Big Boss Troublemaker.

By being specific in the language, plotting becomes far simpler because we aren’t struggling to have a “villain” in every scene. This also helps us understand the structure of stories where there is no cut-and-dry “bad guy.” I.e. Jane Eyre, Joy Luck Club, The Road.

Back to “flashbacks.” Let’s try to do the same thing so we have some clarity.

I will modify what I said on Friday, since I was a tad unclear (but it was okay for the purposes of that lesson). I believe in NO flashbacks EVER…in the first pages of the book. Since the example I used was from a previous First Five Pages class, it fell under this “rule” of mine.

My reason is this. The first pages of our book are some of the most critical. We need to stick to ONE timeline long enough to hook a potential reader into the story and allow them to get grounded and care. If we bounce forward and backward, with a new time and new cast members and a new setting? Readers will get confused and likely put the book down.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.54.49 PM

So, the NO FLASHBACKS EVER still applies for the first pages. As writers, we have the task of being magicians. We spin a fictive dream out of black letters on a white page. Once we have readers hooked, our job is to maintain that fictive dream.

Every shift in time is an opportunity to shatter that magic.

Think of writing a novel like being a figure skater in a performance. Sure, figure skating is already hard. The skater might stumble in a spin or meet a wall, but usually those aren’t the high danger spots. We can tell the trickiest parts of any ice skating performance by how they are scored. What is the make or break? Jumps. The more complicated (and dangerous) the jump, the more points.

We can add “lifts” in couples skating, but the idea the same.

But jumps are a gamble. Nail the jump and WIN! Botch the jump and maybe it costs more points than it could have gained. Or, worst-case-scenario, the jump was so dangerous, the resulting injury is a career-ender.

Um…OUCH!

Um…OUCH!

Every time those skates leave the ice is dangerous, because one tiny mistake can ruin the magic. When we decide to shift time (jump), our literary skates are leaving the ice, so execution becomes paramount to keep the performance seamless.

Also, what new skater is doing a routine filled with ten quadruple Lutz jumps? Probably won’t find many Olympians doing that either ;) .

Now you see why I want you to use jumps sparingly. Also, if we are going to jump, we better know how to execute it lest we destroy a knee our story. Jumps are also blended into a fabric of a larger performance and serve the whole or we would be left with ice-jumping as a sport.

To continue with our ice skating analogy, all jumps are jumps, but they each are different types of jump and each has a varying degree of difficulty worth a corresponding amount of points. A Salchow Jump and a Flip-Jump are both jumps, but with very different execution. Within each category of jump, there are differences as well. A single-axel jump is obviously different from a quadruple-axel jump.

The same idea applies to “flashbacks.” Yes, broadly speaking, all “going back in time” is a flashback. But there are different ways of going back in time. And, within each “way” of going back in time, there is a corresponding level of difficulty (and possible payoff).

Also, some of you may have more than one time-line and more than one “protagonist” and that can and has been done, but remember that jumps now reach a new height of difficulty. Because we are balancing partners, timing must be perfect and if one partner stumbles, it brings down everyone.

Before we talk about time as a device…

The Training Wheel Flashback

The training-wheel flashbacks are the ones we should learn to nix right away. It is weak writing. This type of flashback does what training wheels do. They artificially “prop” up the weak plot and weak characterization.

Most of us start with training wheels. It is OKAY to be new. But eventually, we look rather silly.

When I wrote my first “novel”, I had two protagonists with parallel plots. Okay. More than a tad difficult for a first-timer, but all righty. But THEN, I kept feeling the need to go back and explain. How did they become friends? How did the one character develop such bad OCD she became agoraphobic? Etc.

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Thing is, I had no plot. But, even if I did have a plot, these were elements I didn’t need to go back in time and explain. They were friends. I am Author God and if I say they are friends, the reader accepts that.

The one character was OCD. That was all I needed. She was just OCD. That’s all. There was nothing in those flashbacks that couldn’t have been related current-time in narrative or dialogue. I didn’t need to hop in a Literary DeLorean and explain by detailing her abusive childhood.

In fact, had I not explained why she was OCD and agoraphobic, I might have maintained/increased tension because the reader would have hoped I might reveal WHY.

Flipping back and forth in time added way too many characters, places and problems that had nothing to do with the current story problem in need of resolution.

When I took hostages asked friends and family to read my novel, the largest complaint was I confused everyone. They had no clue what my story was about (namely because I didn’t know either). I’d strung together a bunch of beautifully written vignettes all across time, propped up with training wheels flashbacks.

Ah, but pretty prose does not a story make.

Yes, flashbacks are a real literary device. I will add a caveat that deus ex machina is also legitimate literary device that was used by the great Greek writers. Today? Readers would rightfully toss our book across the room, because deus ex machina is viewed as a cheap trick to get out of a plot problem where we the writer have painted ourselves in a corner. So, just because something is a real literary device doesn’t mean it will work in modern commercial fiction.

But, YES, shifting in time is something that can be and is done. It might be a parallel timeline (Fried Green Tomatoes, The NotebookTrue Detective).

It can be non-linear structure (Memento, Vanilla Skies).

It can even be a true flashback that is critical to the current story problem. For instance, an event that happened earlier that directly relates to solving/conquering the real-time story problem that won’t work in a prologue.

We’ll explore all of these and ways they’ve been done well.

But, before we talk about bending time, let’s look at the inherent pitfalls to time travel (even when we do it well).

Bending Time

Back to the future, then past then future...

Back to the future, then past then future…

There are a lot of ways to bend time. But, like the quadruple axel, there are risks. Bending time is part of our author toolbox. There is nothing saying all stories MUST go from Point A to Point B in a linear, chronological fashion.

This said, we need to be careful how much we bend time and why we are bending time. Remember that every time we shift time, we can lose members of our audience. Yes, a handful of film geeks loved Memento. 

But, Memento is one of those movies that can probably only be done ONCE.

Pulp Fiction did a fabulous job of hopping all over time, but just as many people who loved the movie hated the movie and couldn’t finish. Same with The English Patient and The Hours.

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, "The Hours"

From the Oscar Award Winning Film, “The Hours”

We have to remember that, ultimately, stories are for the audience not for us (unless we are happy selling a book to ourselves). What experience are we giving them? Are we killing our tension and momentum because we keep jerking the reader back into a past that has no purpose other than exposition?

One of the reasons I play the Flashback Dictator, is that if I pull the training wheels away and help you learn to NOT rely on them, your writing will improve. THEN, if you do decide you must shift in time, you will be careful to do it with intention and will execute it WELL.

Instead of wobbling all over, any time shift has purpose.

A good litmus? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

Some questions we might ask when tempted to go back in time.

Is this something that can be explained real-time?

For instance, in the series True Detective (which we will use later), the story follows two detectives who do NOT get along. The more amiable detective is trying to get to know his tortured and gloomy partner.

Detective Marty Hart: Your mom alive?

Detective Rust Cohle: Maybe.

Just this line of dialogue speaks VOLUMES. Of course later, Cohle explains in a few lines of dialogue that his father returned from fighting in Vietnam when he was two. Mom couldn’t take it and left and he hadn’t seen her since. We didn’t need to go BACK there because Cohle’s family problems, him being abandoned as a toddler and resulting relationship with his dad, has nothing to do with the current PLOT problem…finding a brutal killer.

If I cut the flashback, does it really harm the story?

If you have beta readers, critique partners or an editor, try removing any scenes that “go back” and often they aren’t as critical as we believe. Maybe one or two we need to keep, but I guarantee most can be weeded out (unless this is non-linear plotting).

Have I started in the wrong spot? Am I telling the “right” story?

Sometimes when we get writing, our subconscious knows that the more interesting story actually happened earlier, which is why we keep going back. Often, changing WHEN the story begins helps.

Have I unintentionally smooshed TWO separate stories together?

IF we keep flipping back and forth, we might also be muddying two separate stories together. It might be we need to separate the timelines and give each story a separate stage.

Remember, the PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).  From Pulp Fiction to The English Patient to The Hours past and present are tethered and eventually the timelines converge and empty into the same gulf.

If we look and realize one timeline is going one way and another is going a different way and end in different places? A good time to cut in half and have two books ;) .

I hope this helps you guys understand the difference between the “bad” flashback and simply using time as a literary device. We will explore the ways we can bend time some more and I will work to give you tips for how to land that quadruple-axel without taking out a small village.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with movies or novels that bounce all over time? Have you struggled with shifting in time and maybe you were telling the wrong story or beginning in the wrong spot? Have any questions?

Classes:

Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses :P .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

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