Flashbacks: better in fiction than in life

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Let’s get the jackhammers working, boys!

Have you ever ducked for cover when you heard a jackhammer? If you’re like me, one of the lucky ones, you haven’t. Combat veterans may not be so lucky. Traumatic situations such as those faced by soldiers in battle leave indelible memories.

In extreme cases, certain sounds or sights can trigger a flashback. The memories of the trauma surface with such strength that the victim literally relives the experience. Ready for fight or flight, the victim becomes disoriented and cannot tell memory from reality. and can inflict harm on others who are perceived as aggressors,

No one wants to live through traumatic situations, and those who have experienced trauma didn’t like it the first time (or it wouldn’t have been traumatic), and the last thing they want to do is live the experience again. Flashbacks are not good things in real life. Fiction is a totally different animal.

A flashback is a part of a story that moves the reader out of the main timeline of the story to experience something in “real time” that happened previous to the “now” of the story. Sound confusing? Yes, if the author does not handle the transitions well, the reader can be left behind, disoriented and disappointed. The flashback must be separated from the preceeding narrative by a scene break or chapter break. The new setting must be established immediately so the reader knows the where and when of the new timeline. Lost readers do not leave good reviews, nor do they come back to read your next book.

3d person running with USB flash drive

We all carry memories around with us, and our actions are influenced by the past experiences that formed those memories. Well-written fictional characters have a past, even if it is known only to the author. The character is often shaped by things that happened in their past. For example, an abusive father can color a girl’s view of men in general. Childhood poverty can lead to unusual attitudes about money in later life regardless of the wealth the character may have gained later. A bitter divorce can leave a person reluctant to form another relationship.

The ways past experiences influence present attitudes and actions are limited only by the imagination of the author. However, even if a past experience is relevant to the current story, it does not have to be included as a flashback. For a flashback to be effective, three things are necessary: 1) the scene from the story past must be traumatic enough to influence the way the character is acting in the story present, 2) the results of that influence must be vital to the plot of the current story, and 3) the event itself must be dramatic enough to grip the reader and make up for the effort involved in switching timelines.

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It’s not too late to register for the May workshop, Backstory & Flashbacks with Maureen Milliken

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You Can’t Run All The Way

 

Winner Of Race 3d Character Showing VictoryMy grandson recently called to tell me he completed a ten kilometer race. Suitably impressed, I asked how he managed to run that far. I knew long distance runners trained for months to get in shape for a race. He had a very full schedule, and his running was confined to an occasional outing on the weekends.

“Oh, you can’t run all the way. You have to walk when you get tired, then you can run some more.” He went on to explain that he managed the run-walk-run sequence so he would be running when he hit the finish line. He knew his parents would be waiting at the finish line with a camera. “You have to make the finish line memorable.”

I am always and forever a writer, and my first thought was: of course, that’s exactly how all the best stories are written. I once picked up an action-adventure book that was recommended to me. “Every page is exciting!” was the recommendation. I abandoned the book somewhere in the second chapter and made a cup of tea. I was mentally exhausted. She was right. Every page was packed with action. It suited her style of reading because she read in small moments throughout the day. I like to sit down and devour a book in a few large gulps. I need the quiet, slower passages to get me ready for the next crisis.

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Stop to take a breath after a crisis

However, the slower passages must be well written and keep the story moving steadily toward the finish line. This doesn’t mean the hero must be brandishing his sword on every page. The slower passages can deepen the characters, give snippets of backstory, show the unique settings, give a sense of the larger stakes involved, or any of the many facets of a story. Pause to smell the roses, but don’t give a lecture on the care and feeding of rose bushes. Pluck a rose for m’lady and it’s off for the next battle of good against evil. Vary the pace throughout, but remember to make the finish line picture perfect because that is the image that will remain with the reader.

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It’s not too late to register for the April workshop, Conflict & Pacing by Anna Castle.

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Active Beginnings

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Our post today comes from Tahlia Newland, author, editor, and artist. She writes a blog at TahliaNewland.com and hosts the Happiness Hints podcast. She joins us to share her insights.

Tahlia says:  All aspects of a novel are important, but the beginning is the most important because no matter how wonderful the story is or how scintillating further chapters are, if the first pages aren’t riveting, the rest will rarely be read.  The beginning is where active writing is vital.

Active Writing

By “active” writing I don’t mean action in terms of plot—though a bit of action is a good way to start—I mean active in terms of prose; it’s using words in such a way that they paint a vibrant picture. You can have everything else in place for a great beginning, but if the prose is passive, it will still not have the punch it could have.

The terms passive writing and passive prose are not synonymous with “telling”. However, they do contribute to it and active prose is less likely to have a “told” feel even when you are telling. The important distinction is that the terms passive writing and passive prose do not refer to passive voice. Passive voice is only one example of passive prose.

Prose is particularly passive where the author does not specify the subject that does the begin picaction, or they place it after the action. Passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but when used in fiction, it isn’t very exciting. Prose peppered with it soon becomes dull.

Passive writing is more than just the use of passive voice. Your writing can be free of passive voice as defined above and still be passive writing. The trouble with passive writing is that it doesn’t engage the reader. It isn’t immediate, it doesn’t seem to happen now, and it doesn’t draw the reader into the action. The scene itself may be dramatic, but the writing leaves the reader outside the characters and the events. Such writing is uninviting, or rather cold, like a blind date with nothing to say. If you’re reading something that, despite feeling as if it should, just isn’t holding you, it may be because the writing is passive.

Once you know what to look for, passive writing is easy to spot. Here are some things to watch for.

The verb “To be”.

The verb “to be” and all its variations (be, am, are, is, being, was, were, been) are known as passive verbs. Prose with a lot of such bland verbs lacks immediacy and is less engaging than prose that uses more active verbs. “Was” and “were” get the most overuse. Your prose will improve if you replace them with a specific, active verb, or restructure the sentence to avoid them.

Examples:

He was after her like a shot. (Passive.)

He raced after her like a shot. (Active.)

She was at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Passive.)

She stood at the lookout, staring over the railing. (Active.)

When I’m self-editing, I search for all those “was”es and “were”s and see if I can write the sentences better without them. I usually can. This one tip made a huge difference to the quality of my prose.

The More Evil “was … ing”.

Using “was” or “were” or “is” or any other version of the verb “to be” along with a participle ending in “ing” is very passive. There are better alternatives. Replace these forms with a more active verb, or see how your sentence reads if you restructure the sentence to avoid it. Often it’s just a matter of replacing the “ing” ending participle with an “ed” ending one. The “ed” verb forms are more immediate than the “ing” ending forms.

Examples:

She was running along the road.

She ran along the road.

He was skipping towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.

He skipped towards the car with Jacob’s hand in his.

These examples of how to identify and fix passive prose are taken from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine. In this book you’ll find more tips on how to write actively.

Join Tahlia in the Short and Helpful Helpful Beginnings and Endings workshop for more insight on writing beginnings that will make readers want to read on, and endings that will make them want to leave a great review and read more of your work.signature-terry-small

Award-winning author Tahlia Newland has written seven novels, one book of short storiesTahlia-SM and a book of writing tips—The Elements of Active Prose. She writes fantasy and magical realism with a touch of romance, and her writing, in its emphasis on the power of the mind, reflects her extensive experience in meditation. Three of her novels have won a BRAG Medallion and an Awesome Indies Seal of Excellence.

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Where is the next page?

Has this ever happened to you? You get dragon-boyreadinginterested in a book; you bond with a character, hanging on every twist and turn as you approach the end. Then you turn the page, or swipe for the next screen…and nothing. It’s over.

 

As a reader, you sometimes need another page, or just a paragraph, to get closure. You have been living the story, taking the next step alongside the protagonist, rooting for the triumph of good over evil, and when evil finally collapses, there needs to be the moment of victory. You want to see Saint George with his foot on the slain dragon, or St. George and the dragon going off together to fight greater evils. You want to see the criminal pronounced guilty, the scheming villain publicly exposed… the calamity overcome.

 

Sometimes by the time an author writes the last page of the novel, his or her eye (and attention) is already on the next book and this final moment is skipped in favor of a cliff-hanger, an attempt to motivate the reader to buy the next book. Don’t be that author. If your book has no satisfaction for the reader, why would he want another book by the same author?

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The moment of triumph does not necessarily mean having all problems solved. A series must have an over-arching problem that winds its way through the entire series. That problem can be unrelated to the main plot, as with a series of crime novels with a love interest that progresses slowly through multiple books. Sometimes the multi-book problem is the main focus, as with a fantasy series with a quest that is solved in stages, but each book has one major goal accomplished with its accompanying moment of triumph. Time to take a deep breath before beginning the next stage of the adventure.

Join Tahlia Newland in the Short & Helpful Beginnings and Endings workshop for tips on writing beginnings that will make readers want to read on, and endings that will make them want to read more of your work.sh-logodh-logo

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Dialogue: Keep up the Pace!

Two persons catches another one

More tips from Christine M. Fairchild, author of The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, Top Tips & Tricks for Fiction and presenter for Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue.  Christine writes a regular blog at Editor Devil Blog Spot  and joins us to share her knowledge in this, the second installment, of her two-part post regarding questions in dialogue.  Take it away, Christine:

Don’t Ask, Tell

Questions in internal dialogue reveal the character’s doubts and confusion, while helping the reader understand the character’s struggle and motivation. They also feel unnatural and slow the pace. You really want to avoid them or keep them at a minimum. One way to reduce the questions in your dialogue is to turn those questions into statements.

“His chest armor was bulletproof, so which would he go for? The blade to the throat? Or a club to the head?”

You could change the wording to:

 “His chest armor was bulletproof, so only two options remained: a blade to the throat, or a club to the head.”

This statement keeps the story moving forward, thus keeps pacing high. In an action scene every heartbeat counts, so minimizing the slowdowns is always my first choice.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s use a story about a young boy. He gets on his bike and rolls down the driveway, turns into a lane, and races toward a stop sign. WhicRunning Up Arrow Man Shows determination And Eagerh way will he turn? Worse, can he stop in time? And did dad fix his brakes?

The minute the questions began, the bike stopped moving. Often writers believe it creates more suspense or tension, but only rarely is this effective or necessary. Sure, when a character experiences his life flashing before his eyes, the slowdown would be purposeful. But here the slowdown lasts too long and sounds melodramatic. Besides, the reader naturally would’ve asked those questions. Using one question would have been enough, and it’s the only one that wouldn’t have been obvious to the reader: did his dad fix the brakes?

There are other, better ways to achieve tension in such a situation. Have the boy daydreaming. Show another vehicle approaching the intersection. The driver spills coffee. Then we will be asking the questions on behalf of the character. You want the reader, not the manuscript, to ask the questions.

Keep Your Character Strong

Questions in dialogue can also affect your character development on subtle levels. Asking is weak energy. Statements are strong energy.

Why? Because knowledge is power in psychology and it’s associated with adults and education. Lack of knowledge is more associated with children and low-education. So when there is only one person in the room with the answers, guess who has more power?

A hero who is still “in the making” will tend to be learning and thus will need to ask questions, but try to minimize this. He or she can still learn without sounding dumb.

If you have an alpha character, only allow them ask questions when they are revealing their weakness or vulnerability (even if they are faking vulnerability to catch the villain off-guard). Then a question can be wildly effective, and the reader will really lean in to hear the answer.

So hunt and destroy, dear writers. Search for every “?” in your manuscript and see if you can change multiple questions into one or change singular questions into statements. This is a big challenge, but the quality of your dialogue will jump up a few notches.

Terry says: Thank you, Christine. Be sure to read Christine’s first post, Dialogue: Dead Stop?  I’m off on a quest to hunt down question marks! Any one interested in joining me?

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photo-from-webAbout Christine M. Fairchild: writer/editor with thirty years experience.  She teaches writing and editing and is a regular guest lecturer at Univ. Washington, Seattle, as well as, speaking at writer conferences across the country. She’s published two books to help authors improve their craft, The Editor Devil’s Guide to Characters and The Editor Devil’s Guide to Dialogue, as well as a contemporary Romantic Suspense series set in New York, An Eye for Danger.  She presents the Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops’, Intriguing Dialogue in February.

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