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Narrative Time
J Boone Dryden
Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 2:35 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42

I am working on an overhaul of a work I've had in various iterations for 12 years now. I think that I've finally hit the crux of the previous issues and developed a clearer, more direct plot. I'm having a bit of a debate (more internal than anything) about how to delve into the character's past, given some of the other structure for the piece, though.

Traditionally I have worked with flashbacks with a lot of my plotting in larger works, and I don't that larger flashbacks will work in this piece, as it'll slow it down. (Not to say that it is a fast-paced piece; I just want it to flow smoothly, and flashbacks might be cumbersome).

I am curious to hear how folks deal with narrative time in their works. Do you use flashbacks, just paragraphs of history, dialog history? 
Michelle Mills
Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 5:14 AM
Joined: 7/21/2011
Posts: 41

I struggle with this too Some of the methods that come to mind:

~ Dreams
~ Conversations - have another character probe about the past
~ Prologue/Preface where applicable
~ Break your flashbacks up. Sometimes an object will spur a memory and a little can be reflected on a time. It can be intriguing if you master the timing.

Good luck!

J Boone Dryden
Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 1:49 PM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42


Thanks for the input. I currently have an "introduction" to be book-ended with an "exit" written by the MC's brother. Then a prologue to create a frame story, so technically the whole work proper is a flashback, which means that flashbacks within that might make it even more convoluted.

I like the conversations idea, and I'm contemplating some internal monologue, but I haven't pinned down whether or not I like that idea. Dreams I'm always a little hesitant with only because I don't write them well at all. Which I suppose is strange considering the amount of magic realism and surrealism I've written

Thanks much for the well-wishes.
Michelle Mills
Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 2:10 PM
Joined: 7/21/2011
Posts: 41

You're welcome - good luck!!
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 2:36 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103

To fully understand our stories, we spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out backstory, so of course we want to get it all in there. What I've learned, with my own stories is that 80-90% of the stuff doesn't actually need to go into the story, the reader can figure it out.

I'm not a fan of flashbacks or large chunks of backstory (like prologues). As a reader, I skim over them, if I read them at all. As a writer, I put necessary backstory into short paragraphs where needed, or I use dialogue, walk-on characters, newspaper articles, etc. Ask yourself if that piece of information is integral to furthering the plot. If not, take it out.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 3:07 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

J Boone -

If you can, try to avoid dream sequences, info dumps or an overly long prologue. All of these will interrupt the narrative flow you've been working so hard to fix. Realistic dialogue is a good way to handle things sometimes (note use of the word "realistic" - to often infodumps end up in dialogue, where they're even more annoying!)

One tactic I've seen some writers do successfully is to do a mini-prologue at the beginning of each chapter, with a snippet of flashback. But I'd be curious to see what my colleague Danielle has to say, as she comes from an editorial background.
Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 8:13 PM
This is a great topic to discuss, J--and a difficult one! Writers always know much more about their characters than the reader, and as Marcie says, often it's much, MUCH more than the reader NEEDS to know. Before you even start figuring out how to get the backstory across, I would suggest thinking about what parts of the backstory are actually essential to the story itself. You want to avoid giving the reader more information than they need--obviously adding tidbits here and there for color is a great way to make your story more vibrant but don't give your reader more than s/he can chew.

Once you've figured out what the most important parts are, I always recommend considering how those past experiences changed/affected your character. What qualities does s/he possess as a result? How might it have weakened or strengthened them? Then you can take those qualities--all the things that make up who your character is NOW--and express them through action, dialogue, and narrative. You can show the reader who your character is and then weave the past--the reasons and the motivations--in as you go.

I would not recommend relying on dream sequences or flashbacks to divulge this information. Occasionally that's a useful choice but too much of it and it becomes it's own kind of info-dump, which Colleen is correct in warning against. Many writers fall prey to the info-dump, which is exactly what it sounds like: dumping info on the reader in one fell swoop in such a way that it's clear you're just trying to give them the info somehow. Be clever about how you share info with the reader.

Dialogue is a great way to get the past across, like Michelle says. But to reiterate Colleen's point, you don't want to fall prey to dumping the info at the reader (and the other characters) in a huge avalanche. Dole it out slowly and naturally. Put yourself in the character's shoes when he/she is opening up--how much would someone really tell in that situation? Would they just spit it out or would they skirt around it? Would their body language give away more than their actual words? Use all of these things to give your reader the info s/he needs. Sometimes the best way to express someone's past is to make it affect them in the present. How they react to it, or to a situation that brings up the same kind of emotions, shows a reader more than a paragraph explaining what happened in the past. Not to say there is no place for narrative and/or internal monologue. There definitely is. But use the current story to your advantage first and foremost. Just like in life, it's the actions, behaviors, and emotions in t he moment that have the greatest effect.

I do have a question/food-for-though for you re: your story structure though. It's unique that you're considering writing the story as a a flashback, book-ended by
a present day prologue and epilogue. However, I'm curious as to WHY. If your story takes place in the past, if that's where the meat is, then that's your STORY. Make the past the present and transport your reader there and let your story unfold. In my opinion, a prologue and an epilogue aren't enough to frame an entire book in a way that's productive or satisfying. It would feel like purely a literary device to make the story style stand out. Let your story just be what it is I think it would be much more powerful that way.

J Boone Dryden
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 1:31 AM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42

Overall: Thanks for the feedback. I'm working diligently at creating a decent scene outline to help better plot the story, and I'm going to write each of the flashback scenes that I think are pertinent to the story and most likely pare them down from there, adding them into the story in others ways.

@Danielle: I'm created a frame story because the scene that sets off the prologue seems the most vital and most telling of the MC's character. But it happens late in the plot of the story, and I wanted to give the reader that, and then allow them to see the story that came before that. I wanted to show the MC's evolution over the course of the story that leads to the prologue.

It's not a terribly Victorian technique in story writing, I'm aware, but I think it works. If I find that it doesn't, however, I think that I can pretty easily rearrange the story. I'm trying to weave a constant theme of "breathing/dying/survival" into the story, though, and I think that the prologue establishes that very quickly and will then reiterate it when the scene comes back to its present time later in the story.

As a side note, infodumps are something I loathe. As a writer/reader/editor of genre fiction, I, too, have suffered through them on more than one occasion. I am definitely doing my very best to work history, backstory, and plot into the story without throwing it at the reader in an unseemly and cumbersome way. Which is why I'm struggling with the pacing and structure of this piece.

Thanks again for the thoughts.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 2:09 AM
• I'm having a bit of a debate (more internal than anything) about how to delve into the character's past

One of the hardest things I had to learn was the difference between interesting and necessary. We like our characters, and give them a lot of thought, so we want to share that knowledge with others. But… Is the reader interested in gossip, or are they focused on story? I ask because much of what we want to put in is actually gossip.

Look at your average film. How many of them have flashback scenes? Few do, but somehow, they make us know and become interested in the characters and their struggle.

And that, I think, is the key. It’s not the details, the history and the gossip that sells us, it’s the character’s struggle for success against their most pressing and immediate problem, be it to save the world or get a date for the prom.
Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 5:11 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I agree with everyone here who is saying to be careful about whether what you want to put in is really necessary.

But it is tricky to give a character depth without some delving into background. I'm a fan of action-inspired dialogue, in which something happens that requires explanation. Of course, there is still a fine line between a decently-paced, useful revelation and an info dump.

I also really despise it when people who already know information talk about it out loud. That almost never really happens and it makes me cringe in books.

J Boone Dryden
Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 11:49 PM
Joined: 5/7/2011
Posts: 42

This point became acutely relevant at a critique last night when I and my colleagues were discussing an author's work, which had a main character who could (but didn't) time travel in the piece.

One of the points that got brought up was the use of narrative time and structure. Works like "Slaughterhouse Five," "The Time-traveler's Wife," and "A Rose for Emily" (amongst others) were cited as some sources for both time travel and works that play with narrative time. Obviously all three pieces uses said device in a different way (theme, plot, and mechanic, respectively), but they all do play with it in some way.

That got me to thinking, and I think I've come up with a way to work in some of the history of the character (which I do think is integral in the telling and development of his person) without using flashbacks. Being that I am writing a somewhat Victorian-esque pastiche in the steampunk genre, I think I am going to use a similarly Victorian-esque authoritative narrator who can divulge bits of the character's past through the telling of some bits of his story.

Again, though, I'll ask how others work around it in their work. Is narrative time something that concerns most other people?
Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2011 12:01 AM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

Well, yes.

My most recently finished novel has the key relationship of the story develop in childhood, then the two people are separated for four years and the action resumes when they are teens. I have written the two different time periods three different ways in writing and revising. I ended with putting the middle at the beginning, flashing back and writing linear background up to that middle, then moving forward from there.
We'll see if it sells!

My second novel (which is currently on the shelf, but may get reworked someday) was originally meant to be a sequel to something I had written prior to it. But then I decided it should stand alone. How the heck to put what mattered from that first book into the second book such that the second book could stand alone? It was a challenge. Not sure I met it, hence, the shelf.

I am also a big fan of the prequel, for some reason (in my own writing tendencies, that is, not reading preferences). I seem to write characters and then get curious about their backgrounds and want to write that. Then my beta readers and crit partner say, "why isn't this just the beginning of the story instead of a stand-alone prequel?"

Good question.
Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 3:58 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I've used flashbacks. I've used dialogue to express history. I've used narrative to talk about it.

What matters in choosing which to use is knowing which works best for the story. I use flashbacks when it would be less natural to use dialogue. (i.e. I want to show more detail than the speaker would give in their oral recitation of the event.) I use narrative when a character is alone or isolated in some way and dialogue when answering a question from a character they've just met.

It's all a matter of which fits the story best and which is going to mess with my pacing less.
Kenley Tan
Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2011 11:24 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 27

I like knowing more about the past. I'm always curious about what lead to the events happening now, but I learned by watching one of the worst movies that too many flashbacks is bad.

There's always an exception though. Citizen Kane. It has been considered by most critics as the greatest film of all time and most of it was flashbacks.

The movie starts with Kane dead and it shows a news reel, then a journalist basically interviews people about the life of Kane for the rest of the movie.

All I could say is if the prologue works, use it. If it doesn't, then don't. Rules were made to prevent bad stuff from happening, but not every rule was meant to be timeless.

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