Monday, November 30, 2015

Flashback Issues

My Works in Process do not usually unfold in a straightforward manner where one scene follows another  in a lock-step, chronological  manner.   Instead a character sometimes reflects on something that happened in his or her past, recalls a characteristic they have struggled with, or notes the resemblance of a new acquaintance to another. These are a type of flashback that briefly flashes into being and can be handled by a single phrase or sentence.

A few stories ago I had a long scene flashback that actually depicted a recollection in detail. I injected this to highlight an aspect of the story and illuminate the plot point.  I debated putting this reflective discourse at the beginning, along with all the other flashbacks in an orderly time sequence but decided that this approach would make no sense to the reader,since it would be a hodge-podge with little immediate relevance.

The problem I've always had with this latter type of flashback is that they can go on for too long or become non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the main plot.  Sometimes theses take on a life of their own, such as details about the workings of a fictional gadget that does little to illuminate the motivations of the principal characters. Yet, when the reader needs to understand said gadget, it is necessary to supply sufficient context complete enough to prepare the reader for the scene.

A worse case is where my flashback requires yet another flashback and I find myself pursuing matryoshka dolls of exposition that draws the reader further and further from the progression of revelations.

One way I could have avoided flashbacks was to inject reams of explanatory exposition rather than take the viewpoint to an earlier time to do this. Exposition is great, but IMHO, too much of it bores the hell out of readers.  I've always thought that it is better to take the viewpoint character to that earlier time so the reader can experience the unfolding event itself rather than be lectured on it.

So the question facing me now is the question of when to use a fuller flashback as opposed to a long exposition. My first drafts usually contain lots of flashbacks, most of which are edited into other scenes that appear elsewhere in the later drafts.  I always fear that using too many may be my subconscious telling me to start earlier instead of where I've chosen to begin.

This might not be a big problem for other writers but it is one that bothers me a lot in writing a short story where there isn't much room for either digression or reflection.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Plotland's False Promise

Sad to say but believing I had achieved the Plotland peak turned out to be a misinterpretation for, when I looked around, I found there was more of a climb than I ever knew.

In the last two weeks I've managed to add another fifteen thousand words to the novel I thought was "finished" just a short while ago.  I still haven't reached the "end" of my Plotland journey, which is where I can have some certainty that all the threads have finally been tied off, although my life seldom has any threads that can be knotted; many come unraveled and push that narrative further.

I didn't set out to resolve all the plot lines, nor did I anticipate how many there would be. Neither did I imagine that a single, small detail would loom so large at what i thought was the end and require addressing explicitly.

Honestly, I set out to write a short story, that turned into a novella, and then into a small (unfinished) novel, each agonizing step of the Plotland saga described earlier on these pages.

Now I am at a stage where resolving that tiny detail will require going back and "adjusting" the preceding eighteen chapters, changing some events, and introducing new pieces to explain the explanation that seems to have developed.  I seem to have fallen into an iterative loop where alteration of any detail is like stepping on a God-damned Jurassic butterfly.

This is not a new phenomenon for me; I often fiddle with short stories, moving the furniture around to get the right effect, or even introducing bits where  needed.  But doing with with something as long as a novel feels different: there are so many moving parts, so many actions and results, and too many characters mucking about instead of behaving properly.   If I hadn't written another short story this month I probably would have gone insane. But then, being alone in a dark room with only your imagination and muse as company does sort of put me in that category

Do all novelists go through this agony?

Sunday, November 8, 2015


And I'm not talking about well-formed sentences, grammer, speling. What I want to discuss is composing a story - how the draft scenes are rearranged to make the finished piece as powerful as it can be.

Certainly the first step in writing is establishing a theory of the story you wish to tell - the message, theme, or whatever. It is what the story will be about. Will it be a metaphor or an analogy?  Is its intent to amuse, befuddle, or inform?  Those might not be uppermost when trying to spell out the tale, but even if you aren't conscious of it, it will be sitting at the wheelhouse as the writing progresses to craft, often wth difficulty, plot, characters, and settings.

Eventually you will have a completed first draft on your hands - messy, rife with errors, poorly written in part, and probably confusing as characters' names change, settings become chaotic, and parts wander off into territory you hadn't intended, but were dictated by events or are the product of your inattention to the theme.

The second draft (at least for me) is where the composing the story comes in to play. Suppose your draft is chronologically sequential with each scene following a preceding one.  Where is the most powerful scene?  I doubt it will be at the beginning - that's where the sequential origin would logically be.  Should that be at the end?  What is the second most powerful scene - maybe you could begin there and move that origin scene(s) to be used to better effect as a flashback later in the story? Is the high point of the story buried at mid point?  Maybe that would work better as the epiphany, which means other parts can become flashbacks or forewarnings, it's up to you.

Those are just examples of what I go through on every damn draft, moving the virtual index cards around until the story has the shape and 'feel' that looks right. Sure, it's subjective, but then, isn't the entire story a matter of personal choice.