Posts Tagged ‘flashbacks’

Before I give you the news I hope you’re all eager to hear–the latest on my novel Rose, which is to be published by Castrum Press–I want to first share something I was told recently. Now, I’m not sure if this is true and I haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence, but according to someone I talked to online, in the first draft of Carrie by Stephen King, Carrie actually grew horns and sent bolts of electricity from her eyes at some point in the story. This was later dropped during the revision process of the novel.

Okay first off, I kind of want to see that version of Carrie, not just in book form but in movie form as well (I still maintain that the 2013 film is the superior adaptation, and you know the horns and lightning bolts would’ve looked awesome in that film). Second, it shows that even King’s works, including one of his greatest, require extensive revisions. And that made me feel a whole lot better about the revisions I have to do for my own story.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Rose, it’s a novel I’ve been working on since my senior year of college, when I wrote it as my thesis project. It follows a young woman who finds herself turning into a plant creature (and that’s just the start of her problems).

I’ve mentioned before that my publisher asked me to do nix the many flashback sequences in Rose, essentially throwing out one-third of the book, and another third that was dependent on that first third. Although I was understandably more than a little disappointed about that, and it even brought my mood down quite a bit at times, I decided to try and find a new direction for the story that didn’t rely so heavily on flashbacks. Somehow, after a lot of head-scratching and extensive use of a method of brainstorming I’ve been wanting to try for a while (I’ll write an article about it for Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors soon enough), I managed to find a new direction and plot for Rose that I thought made for a good supernatural thriller.

I sent a new outline for the story to my publisher, and just today they got back to me. I was really worried that they might not like the new direction, but the tone of the email was really enthusiastic. They just asked me to keep in mind some things about chapter length and a few other things, and wished me luck.

I can’t tell you what reading that feedback did for my confidence. The closest I can get to is by saying that it felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.

And since I’m on vacation for the first third of June (not going anywhere, I’m just having a relaxing stay-cation at home), now is the perfect time for me to get back to work on Rose. I plan on getting through at least the first seven chapters of the novel, and then start on the new material for the novel. All that, along with more than a few blog posts I’ve been wanting/meaning to write for a while, and of course the normal stuff one does while on vacation (sleep, watch TV & movies, read, hang out with family and friends, run errands, have tea and scones with a succubus you’ve been seeing on another plane of reality, etc.), should keep me pleasantly occupied during my vacation.

So as you can see, Rose is still coming along. It may take some time, but I still think we can get the book out before it starts to turn chilly again (though in my state, that can happen even in summer). And I think when I get it done and on the shelves, it’ll surprise more than a few people. Especially those who’ve read earlier versions of the story.

That’s all until morning, my Followers of Fear (got another post I need to work on after I’ve gotten my much-needed sleep). Until then, pleasant nightmares. I’ll see you soon.

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In my last update on Rose, I mentioned that I was probably going to do a whole lot of revisions and possibly a ton of rewriting, owing to the fact that the flashbacks were deemed unnecessary to the story and I had to throw them out or modify them. Well, I am rewriting a good chunk of the novel. It’s not what I’d hoped for, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. And while I’m still trying to figure out the final third of the novel, I have figured out the second third for the most part, as well as other things that I plan to include in the story. And one of those things I plan to use is something I call mini-anecdotes.*

Mini-anecdotes are something I’ve noticed a lot in fiction, particularly fiction aimed for adults. They’re not like flashbacks or mini-flashbacks, but they’re related. A mini-anecdote is when a character briefly thinks of a past experience, usually something that can be associated with the current moment in the story. It’s not a flashback, as it’s not going into the character’s past in order to show them something. It’s more like a quick summary of a flashback. A good example would be in The Shining (which I’m rereading now), when Jack is doing handyman work around the hotel’s playground and park, and thinks back to the park he went to with his dad growing up. This not only gives us a bit more on Jack’s past and who he is as a person, but also gives us a brief illustration about his relationship with his dad, which we learn further about in the novel.

Other great examples of mini-anecdotes can be found throughout the Harry Potter books. In the first book, we learn how Harry’s life has been strange since he was small: ending up on the school roof, his hair growing back overnight, a sweater shrinking as his aunt is trying to force it on him. This isn’t a full flashback, but it gives us a very good idea of what Harry’s life has been like up until Dudley’s eleventh birthday, as well as what he’s like based on his reactions to the strange things around him. And in the third book, we get a brief glimpse of Harry’s relationship with his Aunt Marge, how she also mistreats him and spoils Dudley, and once let her dog chase Harry up a tree while laughing at his misfortune. It’s an illustrative moment on how awful Marge is and gives us an idea of what we can expect from her during her appearance in the story.

Now, I’ve only just started identifying mini-anecdotes in fiction, so I’m not an expert at using them yet. Just as you can”t really be a great writer even if you’ve read hundreds of novels, you can’t immediately use mini-anecdotes even if you’ve seen them in hundreds of books. However, I think I’ve identified a few things that might make using them in Rose a bit easier:

  • They’re brief. Seems rather self-explanatory, but it needs to be stated. Mini-anecdotes are usually only a couple of sentences or paragraphs at most. The longest may be only two pages at most, but they don’t go on for several pages. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a flashback, and as I stated in a previous post, flashbacks can be difficult to use effectively.
  • Little dialogue or details. Mini-anecdotes tend to be very bare bones. They may have a few lines of dialogue, but no long speeches. And certainly not enough detail like the shape of a building or all the thoughts going through a character’s head. It’s more summary, telling vs. showing, than anything else. Going into anything more would be going into flashback, most likely. And as I said, those have strings attached.
  • They’re connected to the present. Like Harry’s early experiences with magic or his aunt, these mini-anecdotes have to connect to the story’s present, either to illustrate a point, give us further insight into a character, or just to help us connect to them more. Having one for the sake of having one will do you no favors. After all, you wouldn’t want to have a romantic scene that suddenly goes into a character’s dislike of geese, do you?

While these won’t help a writer (let alone me) use mini-anecdotes well, they can be a starting point for their use. And if we as writers can learn to use them well, then we can use them to make our stories better and more memorable to readers. And in the end, isn’t that part of the reason we write in the first place?

Do you use mini-anecdotes in your stories? What tips do you have for writing them?

*At least that’s what I call them. I don’t know if there’s a technical term for them. If there is, please let me know in the comments below.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this, but Rose has a lot of flashback sequences and other dips into the past within the story, especially in the last two-thirds. I did this for a number of reasons: exploring the characters’s pasts; making them more complex; and just an opportunity to write some sequences to add to the horror element of the story. And there are a lot of horrifying things in those sequences, things that I can’t go into without revealing too many plot details, but they did make my beta readers gasp and stare at the page wide-eyed. They were horrifying moments in the story.

Not to mention, I think that flashbacks can be scary if done right. A good example of this is Gerald’s Game by Stephen King: while the protagonist’s current situation is scary enough, going into her past midway through the story and seeing how her father abused her as a kid was horrifying in its own right. Another good example would be the movie Oculus: that film flashes between the present and the past throughout its runtime, and it’s freaky no matter what year it is (see my Rewatch Review of that film).

Well, it looks like I didn’t do the flashbacks right for Rose. In the notes on the fourth draft from my publisher, they mentioned that all those flashbacks are just bad stuff happening to those characters, and while that stuff is horrifying, it’s not scary. I’ve had a lot of back and forth with them on this, and after a lot of thought, I can see where they’re coming from. After all, while in the real world “horrifying” can be a synonym for “scary,” especially in relation to current events, in fiction that’s not necessarily the case. Think about it this way: Harry Potter is horribly mistreated by his relatives, and what he goes through is horrifying. But if you ask any normal Potterhead what person or creature from the books they would be scared to face, the Dursleys wouldn’t rate very high on that list. The dementors, Voldemort and his Death Eaters, or the basilisk, sure. But the Dursleys? Considering most Potterheads are Muggle in biology and can’t perform magic, anyone who had to face them would probably be invited into Privet Drive and served tea and cookies in front of the TV!

So while showing how many terrible things happened in the characters’ pasts may be horrifying, it might not be scary. And considering how much experience my publisher has and how well-received their books are (have you checked out The Cronian Incident by Matthew Williams yet?), I’m taking this piece of feedback to heart.

I won’t lie, though, I’m a little disappointed, and I’ve been wondering where I went wrong. Or maybe to phrase it better, I’m wondering how I might have done the flashbacks better.

Well, in the case of Gerald’s Game, whose flashback is most similar to mine, they only do one big flashback sequence, not several. That way, it doesn’t become a repetitive cliche or trick. That, and its connection with the current events of the story: the protagonist’s abuse by her father is very much connected to her current predicament, on psychological and symbolic levels as well as literal levels. And with Oculus, the horror behind the story–a cursed/haunted mirror–is scary no matter when it happens. Spinning a tale of two siblings who experience the mirror both as children and adults, and then going back and forth between those two experiences, makes for some great psychological/supernatural horror.

And maybe that’s the thing: connection. In both those examples, the flashbacks, no matter how they’re staged, have very strong connections to what’s happening in the story’s present. Of the ones in Rose, while they do have connections to the characters’ pasts, only one of them has a direct correlation to the current events of the story. And that one’s told to us by the antagonist rather than shown in flashback. And that’s why the flashbacks in this story didn’t work as well as they could have.

So what’s next? Since so much of the novel is in flashback, I may have to do a whole lot more revising. Hell, I may even have to rewrite a good chunk of the novel. Which isn’t something I’m unfamiliar with: as many of you may recall, I had to go back and start over on the first draft back in college because the first attempt went in a direction that didn’t help the story.

Still, it’s a little annoying, and I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m going to do for these changes (though I have ideas). Hopefully, whatever I come up with, it’ll come out for the novel’s betterment, and bring it one step closer to publication.

Fingers crossed.

About three years ago, I wrote a post on in media res, a plot device often utilized across various media of fiction. I’d like to revisit the subject, because I’ve had some thoughts on this particular writing tool since then and I wanted to write about them. And since I’m running this blog, talk about it I shall!

So if you’re not familiar with in media res (Latin for “into the middle things”), it’s a plot device in literature where the story opens in the middle of the action, rather than beginning with exposition. Background information is usually filled in through dialogue, flashbacks, or having a nonlinear narrative. An example of a story that starts in media res is Raiders of the Lost Ark: you don’t get a Star Wars screen crawl, or an opening narration, but you just hop into Indy heading into a temple to get a famous statue. Another great example of the usage of the plot device is A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. No history on the Seven Kingdoms, just getting plopped into a patrol with three brothers of the Night’s Watch, and some Others attacking them.

I’v used this device in a lot of my works. Reborn City starts out with Zahara and her family going out to dinner, with backstory and world-building reserved for Chapter 2. Snake begins in a church, with information being dropped through exposition and flashbacks throughout the book. My short story Travelers of the Loneliest Roads literally starts on the road, and a lot of works that I’m working to get out to you, dear Followers, start out this way.

Overall, I feel it’s a good way to start a story. In fact, it might be my favorite way to start a story. Rather than doing a bunch of backstory, like “Forty years from now, the war on terror spirals into a chaotic Third World War that leads to a bunch of new countries and city-states. In one city-state, Reborn City, which is ruled by the Parthenon Company, there’s a powerful gang called the Hydras. Now onto the story of Zahara Bakur,” we start with Zahara and the events that lead her to becoming a Hydra.

However, in media res has to be done delicately. I realized this as I was editing a short story of mine last night.The story started out with the protagonist running for her life, then flashed back rather quickly to how she ended up running for her life, and then went back to her running her life. I was like, “Why did I think this was a good idea in the first draft?” I actually had to go back and rearrange the story so that everything goes into chronological order. The story moves much better now (though I may nix that beginning part and have it start in the meat of the story. We’ll see after the second draft’s done).

So with that in mind, I thought I’d list some tips to starting a story in media res and doing it well, with the hope other writers might avoid some of my mistakes with this plot device:

  • Make it easy to slide in for the reader. When I first read A Game of Thrones, I had to go over the first chapter twice just to make sure I understood what was happening. After a bit of examination, I understood what was happening a bit better, though I still was a bit confused. Not a good way to introduce me to Westeros, but the rest of the novel made up for that.
    Point is, when starting a story in media res, make sure that all readers, whether they’re expecting one thing or another thing or nothing at all, that they can dive into the story without wondering what the heck they’re reading or if they missed something. You don’t need to be overly-simplistic with your language or story, you just have to make it easy to follow so that readers have a good idea what is happening while they’re reading.
  • Don’t move too quickly into the information. Remember that short story I just mentioned? I had a quick beginning, and then I dived right into a flashback. Made no sense on a second look. Wait for a moment where it won’t throw people off, and then try and make the segue into the flashback make sense.
  • Whatever’s happening has to hook the reader. By definition, in media res starts a story in the middle of the action, so you want to make sure that the first line is catchy. It doesn’t have to start with running for your life, gunfights, or anything like that, but it has to be somewhat catchy. This could be something as ordinary as a girl walking into a classroom with soda in her hair (my own short story, Tigress Lizzy), as long as it’s interesting to read. How you do that depends on language and skill as much as what is happening in the story, though with practice you can get very good at it.

However you want to begin a story, the point is to hook your readers so that they’ll read the rest of the book. In media res is just one way to do that, but it’s a fun way to do it. And with time and experience, you can get better at it. You might even learn a thing or two in mid-edits.

How do you feel about in media res? What tips do you have for doing it well?