Archive for category Writing Tips

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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9 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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45 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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 11.15.49 AM

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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54 Comments

Why Flashbacks Ruin Fiction

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

We have been discussing Deep POV, and yesterday I mentioned hating flashbacks with the power of a thousand suns and promised to explain why next post.

Yay! Here we are.

So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places.

Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Last time I held my First Five Pages class (which there is a NEW ONE open *wink, wink*), I could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.”

But, I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

One of my students sent her pages and they were the best example I have seen about WHY I hate flashbacks. Fabulous story and the flashbacks absolutely killed it.

***And, so you know the student was cool with me using this example and later fixed the story per my suggestions and it was successfully published.

:D

HOOK

We’ve talked before about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.

ER????

NO, I WANT TO SEE A BRIDESMAID PUKE IN THE FLOWER ARRANGEMENTS!

This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems REAL-TIME. We do not need to go back in time to explain or tell what kind of person the protagonist is. She didn’t need to go back and tell me about the protagonist’s character when she could easily show me in the current timeline.

Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out…a spare.

She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).

Whatever.

So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…using a flashback.

When we feel the need to use a flashback and go back in time? Often we are reacting to tension we’ve successfully created and now y’all might see why I feel flashbacks are bad juju. Fiction is all about conflict. No conflict no story. No tension? Good place to stop reading.

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering is good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules ;) .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback information revealed real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all turns out for the better.

Most Backstory CAN Be Told Real-Time…I Promise

One major reason new writers rely on flashbacks (aside from a possibly weak/flawed/nonexistent plot OR as a tension release) is that there is something that happened earlier the writer wants to share. Backstory.

A lot of writers don’t give readers enough credit. We believe we need to travel back in time to explain the backstory or the reader won’t “get” what’s going on. They will.

Let’s take a quick look at one of yesterday’s hastily assembled examples of Deep POV.

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Look at ALL the stuff we learn without having to go back in time. We learn the time of year. That Mother’s Day was a week ago. That the family picked up Fifi from rehab. We learn she has an addiction to pills that is bad enough she has special drug-hiding containers. We later realize she has suffered a serious injury that crushed part of her spine.

You guys get the idea. We don’t need to go back to her being picked up from rehab. We don’t need to go back to the car accident or the fall or the ambush by ninjas wielding large sticks to see HOW Fifi was hurt. None of that is salient to the current story problem aside from fleshing out the character.

In fact, if I have my addict stranded with a broken down car and STOP and rewind to explain how she injured her back? Odds are it would just confuse you.

The story is about a family breaking down on the way to a vacation destination. Taking side trips back in time is distracting, redundant, confusing and makes the conflict fizzle.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

We will talk more about flashbacks in the coming posts because, as I mentioned yesterday, often what folks believe is a flashback is actually unorthodox plotting (I.e. parallel timelines).

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

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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73 Comments

Deep P.O.V. Part Two—Crawling Inside Your Characters

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

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

Last time we talked about the history and evolution of POV (Point of View) and why certain types of POV might not be the best choice for a modern reader. We also talked about what is often called “deep POV” which, until I looked it up one day? I thought was just tight writing. Who knew it had a name?

Today we’re going to dive deeper into deep POV.

Wow, deep.

Yes, there are style changes we can make, like removing as many tags as we can and ditching extraneous sensing and thinking words. But deep POV is strongly tethered to characterization. Good characterization. Before we get to that, let’s talk about what we often do when we’re new.

The Fishy Flashback

When we’re new writers, we often don’t understand plotting. We don’t yet have the skill set to structure a work spanning anywhere from 60,000 to 110,000 words (depending on genre). This is NOT a criticism. Yes, I had to write stories and essays, but the longest thing I ever wrote was 32 pages. And that was a term paper and not fiction.

Yet, I was dumb enough to believe that because I made As in English, that clearly I was NYTBSA material. Pshaw! I knew how to write *rolls eyes*.

Um, no. NO.

And if you won’t cop to this I will because I have no pride. New writers often get an image, a scene, a snatch of dialogue and then GO. Often the first hundred pages of a first-time novel is almost all flashbacks. Going back in TIME to know whyyyyyy. Why is this character the way he/she IS? What happened in childhood, young adulthood, that random college party back in ’03?

It’s also where we get brilliant ideas like journals and letters and coming to grips with “the past.”

Just so y’all know, no one cares about the past unless it impacts the future. Not in fiction and, bluntly, not in life. The past has already happened. In real life, we have to pay people by the hour to care about our past. They’re called psychiatrists.

Thus, the past (in a vacuum) is not interesting fiction. By definition, it has already happened. There is no pressing danger and so it becomes, as the famous late Blake Snyder would say, “Watch out for that iceberg! It is moving at an inch a year, but watch out!”

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 10.56.37 AM

Flashbacks are a BIG sign of weak writing. And, since this is NOT a blog about why most editors want to stab flashbacks in the face…we’ll go over that next time :D.

****And don’t argue in the comments that Such-And-Such uses loads of flashbacks and now is taking baths in diamonds and crisp Benjamins. Anything CAN be done and often what y’all might think is a flashback is actually an unorthodox plotting structure. Same with use of journals and letters. So hold the torches and pitchforks until next time. I love you *SMOOCH*

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)

Pirate Code=Writing Rules. Clearer now? :)

Anyway…

A lot of new writers go about a hundred pages with no clear story, a crap-ton of flashbacks and thus create what is called the “fish head.” Unless you are my weird Scandinavian family, what do we do with fish heads? We cut them off and throw away. We DO NOT INGEST THEM.

The fish head is not necessarily “bad”, it just doesn’t belong in the novel and good editors will cut it. Often the fish head is the writer getting to know the cast, which is actually VERY important, lest we have a book of talking heads who all sound like the author.

It is essential to know our cast if we hope to successfully write “Deep POV.”

KNOW Your Cast

There are all kinds of ways to get to know our characters. I often write detailed character backgrounds before starting a story so it doesn’t become a fish head.

Why we need to know our characters is that deep POV is a reflection of the inner self, how that character sees the world, responds, evades, processes, etc. It is also a reflection of personal history and relationship dynamics.

*cue brain cramp* *hands paper bag*

It’s okay. Breathe. We’re going to unpack this.

Reflection of the Character

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky's "Peaceful hearts Doctor" courtesy of Eva Blue.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons. Bansky’s “Peaceful hearts Doctor” courtesy of Eva Blue.

Back when I used to run a weekly workshop, I had writers do a little exercise to help them learn POV and also strengthen character-building skills. I gave this scenario:

We have a family of four—Mom, Dad, a grandparent (either gender) and a teen (either gender) who has spent a year saving for a family vacation. On the way to their destination, the vehicle breaks down. What happens and tell it from the perspective of EACH family member.

Every week, writers showed with the perspective of one of the four. We had ASTONISHING creativity. Some families were aliens on an interstellar vacation. Some had wandered into cartel territory. One family went back in time. But no matter where the story was set, the characters were recognizable in their roles. The perspective of a grandparent was markedly different than the teen.

The language was unique, the dialogue and what that character might notice or feel. What was upsetting?

While a mother might be thrilled to have the family together for a vacation, the teen might be sulking in the back upset that there is no wi-fi. The mom might be worried they will have to go home while the teen is happy because she doesn’t want to be trapped in a car with “old people.”

Who These Characters ARE Changes the Story AND Deep POV

When we layer in some background, the characters (and consequently the story, problems and conflict) all change drastically.

What if dad is finally home from his forth tour in Afghanistan and has terrible PTSD?

What if Mom is a closet alcoholic?

What if the teen is recently in remission from Leukemia?

What if Grandma is a tireless flirt who dresses in short skirts and hits on every man in a ten-mile radius?

What if the teen is an asthmatic and forgot his inhaler?

What if Granddad has early on-set Alzheimer’s?

What if the teen has been recruited for a mandatory deep space mission by the New Earth government and will never see the family again?

What if the teen was adopted and the purpose for the trip was to meet the child’s birth mother? How would this impact the emotions of those in the vehicle?

What if there used to be TWO children and one had died in an accident a year previously?

Do you see how by changing WHO these people are, this cannot HELP but affect everything else?

If Dad has PTSD, he might jump at every lump of roadkill because that’s how insurgents hide IEDs. If the family is stranded and Mom can’t get to a liquor stash, she might start getting belligerent or, left too long, start going through DTs. What would an addict notice? Likely nothing beyond how to get a fix.

While a kid in remission with a new lease on life might enjoy being broken down in the middle of nowhere (appreciating the little things in life) the addict would be hysterical.

All of this will impact Deep POV because we are in the HEAD and EMOTIONS of the character.

Let’s pick on Mom for an illustration. I’m riffing this, so the writing is just an illustration. Just roll with it.

Geiko Caveman.

Geiko Caveman.

Kidding! Lighten up. You seem tense.

Example One:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one she’d carried everywhere for fifteen years. She hated she was happy the old van had finally given out. Her husband stared, bewildered at the smoking engine. Other than car trouble, he seemed fine. Fine. How can he be fine?

She glanced back at her daughter, the living reflection her of all her dreams and failures. She’d wanted a baby more than life. Every night on a freezing floor. One miscarriage after another and then came a tiny bundle of everything she’d ever longed for.

That woman hadn’t wanted her. That woman had abandoned her. That woman was Gretchen’s real mother and now Gretchen wanted to meet her. Real mother, like hell. And I’m a real astronaut.

How had she failed? If she’d been a good mother, Gretchen would have forgotten that woman and they wouldn’t be here.

“You okay?” Her daughter bent between the seats and kissed her cheek. “You said this was okay, that we could do this. You’re sure, right?” A wary smile revealed new braces, the braces Fifi paid for with money she’d saved for a new van.

“I’m fine, Honey.” She crumpled the baby picture and opened the van door. She needed air.

***

Example Two:

Fifi clutched the baby picture, the one her daughter had given her a week ago for Mother’s Day when they picked her up from rehab. Ninety days clean. At least that was the lie she’d packed along with her swimsuit and the hairspray can with the secret compartment and the only pills they hadn’t found.

The pills that were now gone.

They should have already been at the resort, the one staffed with eager friends willing to help her out. Friends with first names only who took cash and asked no questions.

Fifi scratched at her arms. Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin, invaded her nerve endings and chewed them to bleeding bits. Pain like lightning struck her spine, the section crushed then reconstructed. Pain like lightning spidered her brain, frying her thoughts. She glanced again at the baby picture, then at the fine young woman in back. Her daughter Gretchen.

What am I doing?

Maybe she would be okay. Maybe she hadn’t had enough pills to completely undo her. Maybe she could ride this out. And maybe I’m the Queen of England.

Gretchen bent between the seats and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. You okay?”

Tears clotted her throat. She nodded. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey.”

“You mean it?”

She hesitated then smiled. “Yes. Yes I do.”

She tucked the baby picture in her shirt pocket, close to her heart and opened the van door. She needed air. She also needed to change their plans. Visit somewhere with no friends. With no one who took cash.

Do you see how changing WHO Fifi is changes everything? Everything she is sensing, feeling, thinking. Being in the emotions of a heartbroken mother who feels betrayed is a very different experience from being in the head of a sympathetic addict who’s struggling to get clean and stay clean.

***

Both women are impacted by the daughter. One Fifi is hurt by the daughter, the other Fifi finds hope in the daughter. Both women are conflicted. One is tormented with feelings of failure and betrayal and the other is tormented by failure, but very real physical problems of addiction that impact the story.

Deep POV has thrust us into the head and emotions of both women. We feel what they feel. The author is invisible because there are no tags. The sensations are raw and visceral because we have gotten rid of the coaching words.

Instead of:

Fifi felt millions of insects boiling beneath her skin….

We get right to it.

Millions of insects boiled beneath her skin…

The sensation is CLOSER. There is no psychic distance. She isn’t thinking she is going to lose it. She isn’t wondering if she can keep it together. She is experiencing everything real-time and up-close.

Instead of:

Fifi thought, What am I doing?

She just does. We KNOW Fifi is thinking because we are camped in her head.

Deep POV is Akin To Method Acting

When we know our characters, who they are, how they came to be, the formative experiences, we can then crawl in that skin and become that person. By us becoming that character, we then have the power to transport our reader into the skins we have fashioned.

I hope this helps you guys understand the magical, mystical Deep POV and now you’re all excited about writing stronger characters.

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.

Winner for May is Ugirid Haprasad and the Dojo Diva winner is Amy Kennedy. Please send 20 pages (5000 words) in a WORD document to kristen at wana intl.com. Congratulations!

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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