Sunday, 27 February 2011

Flashbacks

What is a flashback?

Flashback is one of those useful tools that a writer can use to enhance a story. It enriches and, in a sense, nourishes a story with information that the reader would otherwise not have known.

Flashbacks bring information from the past into the present to help the reader better understand a character or part of the story. In particular, it can enlighten the reader of your character’s life story by showing the character in an earlier time – anything from early childhood to an hour ago – in order to move the story forward. It’s a way of conveying information that isn’t relayed through ordinary narrative means, usually because it involves a back story. And because flashbacks deal with the past, they also provide an insight into a character’s motives, the very essence of who they are and how he or she acts and interacts with the world around them.

An appropriately placed flashback can do several things:

• Provide past information
• Move the story forward
• Prevent a story from drifting off course
• Keep your reader interested

How to use flashbacks

Using flashbacks sounds easy, but they can be troublesome if not done properly. Knowing how to do them is one thing, knowing where to place them is another.

It’s important to remember that flashbacks slow the action down, so it is essential to know when to place a flashback without it interrupting the flow on the entire story. Avoid inserting a flashback during or just prior to action scenes because this will not only disrupt the story, it will confuse and frustrate your reader considerably. Try not to use long flashbacks near the end of the novel either, as this is where action and excitement usually mounts as you head towards the climax of the story, and flashbacks will either slow the narrative or kill it entirely. They are more effective towards the beginning and in the middle of your story.

The best way to distinguish flashback from the main story is with verb tenses, but also that you have indicated some future action or excitement, for example, Jane is waiting at the train station to meet her long lost sister, and she begins to recall her early memories of their childhood together:

The tannoy announced the next train about to arrive, but Jane wasn’t listening. Her mind drifted off, thinking of an earlier time in her life, somewhere in the past as she remembered her elder sister.

(Flashback begins in pluperfect tense)

They had played so many times in the apple orchard at the bottom of their parent’s garden, dashing in and out of the trees and shaking them to make the apples fall, and they had giggled beneath the large cherry blossom tree, protected by its pretty canopy, but the laughter soon ended when their parents split and they had become separated from each other.

(Now the narrative eases back into past perfect tense to signal the end of the flashback)

The screech of the brakes brought her from her thoughts and Jane looked up, saw the train had stopped at the platform. A sea of people alighted, and finally, through the mass of people, she caught a glimpse of a face she hadn’t seen for seventeen years…

The seamless way in which this example is done is how most flashbacks occur, as though they form part of the story. (They do, but the reader won’t notice this verb transition). Other flashbacks might occur as new chapters or separate scenes, or long pieces inserted into the narrative, as long as they are indicated prior to them happening, as in the example above. They might also consist of a few sentences strategically placed throughout the story, again as shown in the above example.

One thing to remember when you enter a flashback from an early period in your character’s life is that the character will be a very different from the character they are now, in your story. Characters, just like real people, will have different ideals, different aspirations and goals, different needs and different outlook in the past compared to the present.

If they are not done properly they have a tendency to confuse the reader because they won’t clearly know the difference between past and present in your story.

Things to try to avoid when writing flashbacks:

• Ty not to make the flashback more exciting than the main story.
• Indicate clear transitions to the reader, otherwise you may end up confusing them – they won’t be able to tell the difference between the actual story and the flashback.
• Try not to introduce the flashback as the first scene in the novel because this doesn’t always work. That’s not to say this isn’t possible or permissible, but you need to feel comfortable that it works and doesn’t hold up the story.
• Try not to make them overly long.
• Use flashbacks sparingly. Too many will confuse and irritate the reader and will make the story hard to understand. Your reader might also lose interest and become bored.
• Try to use the right tenses. If your story is told in past tense (he tried to talk, she pulled the handle etc) then you use pluperfect tense to signal flashback (he had talked, she had pulled the handle) etc.

If the story is told in present tense, (I try to talk, she pulls the handle), then the flashback is signalled using past tense (I tried to talk, she pulled the handle).

One caveat to the above list is that some new writers accidentally mix their verb transitions. Don’t make the mistake of writing a flashback in present tense. You cannot describe something in flash back if it has not yet happened! You are writing about something that has already happened, hence it must be past tense.  If you do the writing will be clunky, amateurish and impossible to read.

When you’ve completed your first draft, read it through to establish whether or not the flashbacks you’ve used work within the story, or whether your story needs a flashback at all, because not all stories do. You might even decide that the story could benefit from adding a few more flashbacks. The general rule of thumb for writing is simple: If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, take it out.

Done properly, flashbacks bring depth to your characters and story without infringing the ‘readability’ of the story. The reader won’t even notice well crafted flashbacks, but they will notice that the story is all the more enjoyable for them.

Next time: Using the three R’s – Reduce, re-use and re-cycle.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Transitions

Transitions are a useful tool for any writer. They are commonly sentences and paragraphs that you use to let the reader know that there will be a change in the story, usually a change in time, a change of location or a change of the character viewpoint.

Transitions can take the form of sentences within paragraphs, or they can be physical scene breaks or chapter breaks.

Transitions in creative fiction are used in order to bridge from one scene to another, one chapter to another or more importantly, one period of time to another. They’re the logical connections that the reader follows. They work to keep your reader from losing their way within your story, or becoming bored. They are an important strategic tool in letting your reader know what is happening, without having to launch into several paragraphs or even pages to explain the minutiae between scenes and time.

Every story needs them. Without them, you’ll find your writing isn’t as smooth as you think. Lack of transitions will confuse a reader and make it hard to follow exactly what is going on and ultimately it might bore your reader as they try to follow the story.

The most important function, however, is that transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks.

Types of transitions

• Transition of time – when you want to move forward (or backward) in time with your story.
• Transition of scenes – the start of a new scene or location
• Transition of character – the start of a new scene or chapter another character viewpoint.

Where they occur

• Transitions within paragraphs – these can bridge the gap from one timeframe to another by skipping through long periods of time, anything from hours to decades or even millennia.

• Transitions between scenes/chapters – these can bridge the gap in the same way as transitions between paragraphs, smoothing the jump from one point to another without startling the reader.

How they work
Transitional scenes help the reader follow the action through a given period of time. For instance if you had a character in a set period of time, say August, and you had to touch on his time from leaving one job and entering another, rather than bore your reader with unnecessary description covering those months, you could write something like “The rest of the time with the Daily Writer’s Newspaper passed without event and by October he’d found a better job...” This tells us that the character had an uneventful last few weeks in his job, for however long his notice was, and found something else two months later. It does two things: it briefly sums up what happened and moves the story forward.

You can employ the same strategy with time in almost any bridging scene that doesn’t require long passages of description, for instance, if your character has to catch a flight, or travel by boat, or a long car journey etc. This will cover the ‘boring’ time and move on swiftly to the next important scene or chapter or paragraph within the story.

There will be instances with your characters as you progress through your story that do not need to be recorded in every possible detail, like the preparation of going to bed and then sleep, or the daily routine in the bathroom each morning, driving to work and being stuck in a traffic jam, trips to the bathroom etc. Transitions help you leave the peripheral boring stuff out of the story and let you get on with what’s important, and that is moving the story forward. If you don’t include transitions, you are in danger of jarring the reader because you haven’t led the reader into the change of time or scene.

Poems are like short stories, but in verse…

Wait a minute… Poems? Confused? You’re wondering why the sentence above doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t quite belong to the article as a whole and it confused you for a moment. This is exactly what your reader might experience if you don’t bridge your writing correctly. It jars the reader, confuses them, and it interrupts the flow of the story.

Most scene transitions rely on a couple of double-spaces to indicate a break in time or place. This prepares the reader for a transition without confusing or irritating them, and more often than not a few carefully chosen words at the end of the scene should indicate what will happen in the following scene(s). For example:

Ending the scene: ‘It’s a fabulous surprise. I’ll see you in London.’

Beginning the new scene: ‘I can’t believe you’re going to leave for London,’ John said.

Or, alternatively, you can bridge the time by beginning the scene like this: Jane emerged from the jumbled chaos of the underground into the sunshine grazing across London…’

You can see how simple it can be. They are useful and easy for any writer, and done well they will ensure a seamless transition of time, characters, scenes and chapters without the reader even realising.

All fiction (rather like a movie) is life with all the boring stuff taken out.


Next week: Flashbacks – how to use them.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

How To Write A Novel - Part 4

The ending of your novel might prove more difficult than writing that middle section, because unlike the simple fairytale ‘they lived happily ever after’ scenario, endings involve much more than plain statements and happy ever after moments.

Unlike the hook of a first chapter, where you have to grab a reader’s attention, your last chapter might prove more troublesome because you have to hook the reader into buying your next book.

Getting the ending right is as important as getting the opening right, so think about the ending carefully. You might already have the ending in your head, which is fine, but you have to link it logically from your preceding chapters and ensure your ending fits properly with the overall story.

Endings rely on the preceding events in the novel to work effectively and therefore should develop naturally, rather than ploughing headlong into something that the reader might not be able to follow or even understand. Don’t engineer it so that the ending becomes contrived or forced. The ending must occur after the character has taken that final action, followed by a very brief winding down, or the resolution, which again should come in a natural way.

Ideally a good ending to a novel should leave the reader fully satisfied, that they’ve enjoyed a good read and it doesn’t leave them wanting or wondering. Moreover, it will entice them to read more of your work. An ending can be anything you want it to be, as long as the reader feels that it’s absolutely the right ending for the story.

The ending order is simple: the lead up from preceding chapters, the climax of the story and then finally the resolution. An ending should accomplish three things:

1. Resolve the problems that run through the story, particularly the character’s primary goal.
2. Resolve subplots.
3. Bring closure through a satisfactory climax, conclusion and resolution.

What do we mean by a satisfactory ending?

Well, as the above list indicates, by the end of your story you should have tied up the loose ends and made sure that those loose ends don’t confuse the reader in any way - also make sure you don’t cheat the reader, don’t make them feel as though they’ve been short-changed. They want to feel that everything is resolved by the dénouement of the story, and more importantly, that the ending is right for the story, otherwise they won’t forgive you for a badly written, terrible or contrived ending.

Make sure you resolve your subplots. There is nothing worse than having the hero fall in love with another character by chapter 7 and then that character vanishes in chapter 27, never to be seen again. You might have forgotten, but your reader won’t. It’s easy to forget subplots are still part of your main story, but they need resolution too. Again, don’t force them, they must occur naturally.

There are no set rules about how your novel should end. You can end it through narrative, through dialogue or a little bit of description, but remember to keep the ending brief. Many new authors have a tendency to let the ending drag on by over-explaining everything. This isn’t necessary and it will irritate and bore the reader because the original excitement and punch of the ending will have been lost.

Study your favourite authors to get a feel of how they have achieved an ending. Some use a dramatic last line, because dialogue can be a very effecting way of ending the novel. Some use an effective, punchy paragraph; others might leave the reader guessing if there might be a sequel by using a teasing bit of narrative.

One thing you shouldn’t do with your ending is over-do it. Here are some common problem endings:

• Anti-climax – the lack of surprise or a bang, the failure to raise the reader’s attention. The climax is more of a fizzle than a firework.
• Overstretched – this is where the writer drones on and on and tries to explain things after the initial climax, but goes on far too long, thus losing all the excitement.
• Contrived – these are forced endings because the writer hasn’t grasped the correct way of writing a satisfactory ending which brings all the elements of the story together in a natural progressive way.
• Contemplative – After the climax, the author contemplates the events of the novel through the eyes of the characters. Unless you want to send your reader into a coma, don’t even consider this type of ending.
• Epilogues – Keep them brief. Don’t use drawn out explanations that stretch into several pages, otherwise the reader will lose interest.

Things to remember:

• By the end of the story, your character must have changed because of his or her experience, or perhaps learned something about themselves through their journey.
• The ending must be right for the story.
• The subplots must be resolved.
• The ending must make sense and follow the preceding events of the story.
• Keep it brief and succinct.
• Try to hook your reader into buying your next book.

Next week: Transitions – What, how and when.

Friday, 4 February 2011

How To Write A Novel - Part 3

The dreaded middle section of the novel. The bit that sometimes makes would-be novelists give up entirely and take up gardening instead. The part after the amazing beginning and just before the satisfying ending has a habit of stalling many writers, because often they are not sure how to progress.

Once you’ve begun the novel, it’s daunting to sustain it for 25 chapters and this fear can cause problems later in the novel. The main thing to remember is that the novel will have a chronological flow. It’s your character’s journey from the beginning to the end.

The middle section is where most of the action will take place, slowly building up as you edge towards the climax of the story and it’s where the reader learns everything about the characters, the situation and what is driving the character to achieve his or her goal.

Motivation

The middle section of the novel is where the reader learns the motivation for your character’s struggle to solve his or her problems. The beginning of the novel is the set-up; the middle is the execution of the events that lead to the resolution – the end. Always keep this in mind – motivation is what will drive your story forward.

As with actions, motivation comes from the reactions of characters and events. There are always motivations: the motivation to save an individual, find the truth, discover something in the past, to kill someone, to avoid someone, to get something, to do something...all these kind of motivations might appear as you move the story forward.

Of course, the ultimate motivation is the goal of the main character, so don’t lose track of how important this is.

Pace

Pacing the novel is about giving balance to the story, of knowing when to go from a gentle, steady pace to an exciting action packed sequence before slowing the narrative again. Think of the story as a roller coaster ride – lots of highs and lows and dips and plenty of twists and turns. Most stories slowly build to a defining crescendo.

Varying the pace of the writing can heighten the tension and action within your story. Slowing the pace will allow the reader to momentarily relax before speeding up the action again. Writers can employ different strategies to do this - descriptive passages, or passages of explanation, or interjections of tight dialogue and action.

Remember action and reaction. In other words, for every action there is a reaction. A character might say something, and another character will react. Or your character might do something, and this always affects the outcome, there is a reaction. Everything happens for a reason, and this must also be true for your novel.

Description, Dialogue and Narrative

These three elements should be working together to create the story, but you should be looking for a balance of all three. Try not to have pages and pages of description – it’s likely to send the reader to sleep. Likewise, don’t have pages and pages of dialogue, otherwise this could irritate the reader. You can keep the reader interested by varying the balance.

Narrative works on different levels. Your job as narrator is to make the reader respond in a particular way. Clever narrative can make us sad, make us laugh; it can horrify or excite us. We write stories to entertain and inform and they help us understand human nature and the world around us.

Dialogue gives your character’s something to say, plus it moves the story forward. Characters always have lots to say!

Description is very important. If you don’t describe the scenes, how will your reader truly be involved or understand the story? Lack of description is a major flaw in many writers. They write the scene, put in some dialogue and a bit of narrative and think that is sufficient. It isn’t. This is the ‘telling’ rather than the ‘showing’. Description allows a writer to show what is happening. Again, balance is key, but don’t neglect to describe what’s happening not just to your character, but what is happening around them.

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

Flashback

This is something else that could prove useful for when the middle section of your novel slows down or begins to stutter. The use of the flashback has three functions: to involve the reader about past events that relate to the story in the present, to inform the reader and move the story forward.

What has happened to your characters in the past ultimately influences their actions in the present, so flashbacks are used to interrupt the narrative to show or explain past events. The most useful way to make flashback more effective is to introduce this device after you have hinted some future action in the story.

This will also help flesh out your chapters and help you on your way to the end of the novel.

Plot Twists and Turns


Think about the rollercoaster again. There a few straight sections of track. Instead you have something that rises and falls and bends in all directions. This is how you should think of the story – the middle section is perfect for building up tension, yanking away that comfortable carpet from the reader’s feet and keeping the excitement going.

You are the writer – add subplots or new events to shake things up (keep them in context with the story).

Problems

Many first time novelists give up completely while writing the middle section, or they move onto something else. This happens for several reasons:-

1. You run out of steam
2. Lack of planning – leads to writer’s block or giving up altogether
3. Lack of focus – tendency to start something else
4. Boredom – Lack of planning, can’t think of anything else to write

There is a temptation to leave the novel and start something new because the initial excitement of a new project is far more appealing than finishing something that is giving you problems, and so you give up. The novel, half finished, sits in a drawer to collect dust.

So why is the novel plodding? Why have you run out of steam? You’ve got a great beginning and introduced the characters, but you’re struggling by chapter 8 and scratching around for ideas to get the story moving again. Very often, this is down to a lack of planning. If you don’t have a chapter plan sketched out, it makes it difficult to ‘see’ the likely events to come within the story. It’s like travelling along the road in the dark, not knowing when the next turn might be. It would be so much easier with the headlights on to illuminate the way.

If you haven’t already done so, do a rudimentary chapter plan of possible events, situations, scenes and characters to explore.

Another reason why the novel tends to sag in the middle is that you’re looking at the writing from only one angle. This means you’re writing the story like a straight line: this event happens by chapter 8, and that scene happens by chapter 9, then something else by chapter 10, then the story dries up and then comes the sudden realisation that you have another ten chapters to fill before even contemplating an ending, and you have no idea how you can achieve that.

This often happens because a writer hasn’t involved the main character thoroughly.

Characters are like real people, they’ll always have something to say. Your novel will be no different. Your characters have so much to do and say throughout the story, you have to find ways of showing the reader. So make life difficult for your characters, construct conflicts and put barriers in their way, give them some subplots to play with. Most importantly, give them a voice. Give them thoughts that they can share with the reader. This creates immediacy; it involves the reader on a personal level with your character.

If something important is happening in a scene, don’t just write about the scene with your character in it, involve your character. Jump into your character’s head and find out what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking and why they are in this situation. Do that, and before you know it, you’ve fleshed out those chapters and now you’re edging towards chapter 20 and the end is in sight. Of course, if you have a multi-viewpoint novel, you can do this for other main characters, too. Remember, the reader wants to know everything, so involve them.

Whatever the character viewpoint, delve into your characters and let the reader know what everything that is going on. What are the characters thinking in that scene, how to do they feel about what’s happening, what could they do to make things different? How to they feel about the other characters? What’s important to them? What might happen? How can they resolve things?

Checklist

• Create action and reaction
• Create motivation and more conflict, add obstacles
• Flashbacks
• Move the story forward – dialogue, narrative, description
• Involve the character’s thoughts and feelings
• Pace – Keep it varied
• Keep up the plot twists and turns


Next week: The end is nigh. An effective, satisfying ending.