Saturday, November 26, 2016

Looking Back to Go Forward

When it comes to flashbacks, there are two trains of thought. Some writers say no, no, no, don't ever use flashbacks, they distract. There are others who simply shrug and say go for it. Both types write excellent novels.

Flashbacks are used to convey valuable plot information and insight into character motivation, to build tension or create mystery before the current story action. A flashback can be almost like the author is whispering a secret into the ear of the reader, revealing something of importance about a previous event, or hinting at something yet to occur. Flashbacks are perfect for foreshadowing what is to come.

 Flashbacks are often introduced by a character's memory trigger, such as a smell, sight, sound, an event, a person. Triggers aren't always necessary, but the flashback must always be relevant in some way to the current story scene.

Just as with any other literary device, there are rules for using flashbacks.

A flashback must seem necessary and relevant -- it must propel the story forward while looking into the past. The placement of a flashback should follow a strong scene of the current story, you should never just drift into a flashback.

Reader confusion seems to be the number one complaint about the sudden intrusion of a flashback. Always orient the reader as to time, space, and characters' ages if necessary. If your character is 42-years-old today and your flashback takes him back to childhood, get the information across quickly.

(I've just finished re-reading It, and was amazed at how easily and clearly Mr. King continually moved the children of 1958 into the adults of 1985 without any confusion whatsoever. Early events meshed smoothly with current happenings and yet stood out as individual scenes without a bump. Of course, he is Stephen King.)

The mechanics of opening a flashback scene are the same as any opening literary hook -- the first sentence should be strategic. Whether smooth or jarring, that first sentence must be intentional, and used to full advantage.

If the story is being told in past tense, begin the flashback in past perfect (had said, had dressed, hadn't seen), and continue using past perfect for about the first five sentences, then move into past tense. When the flashback is coming to a close, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs to signal the end. If the story is being told in present tense, then the flashback should be told in straight past tense to differentiate between past and present. 

Very short flashbacks, a paragraph or two, can be written into the current story as a quick memory. Many writers who use flashbacks use italics as a way of setting it apart from real-time story. But if you are including a long flashback passage, whether you use italics or not, it is always best to give it its own section, separated from the body of the current story.

Just as a person often considers his past in order to understand his present, so, too, can literary flashbacks shine light on a current situation. It's just a matter of looking back in order to go forward.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Theme as Glue

Theme is the glue that holds the plot together throughout the story from beginning to end. Plot is what happens, theme is why it happens. A story without a theme is just a list of what happened.

Without a theme, your reader will quickly get bored. If your boring, theme-less story even gets past an editor and that round file on the floor beside her desk. (Or if she hands it off to a first reader who, after plowing through your manuscript-without-theme until midnight, rubs her bleeding eyes and decides that she really must find a new profession, maybe something janitorial.)

Readers read in order to relate to others on an emotional level. They look for personal validation and justification. Of course, sometimes they want to be entertained, too, in a more complex way than just watching kittens play on Facebook. They want to dig into the lives of others and find that their circumstances are just as weird or hilarious as their own. Or just as sorrowful. But whatever they read, they want a point of personal reference. A fascinating plot is great, but even a fascinating plot falls apart without the underlying glue of one or more themes.

Humans entertain all kinds of psychological motivations for their behavior, some simple, some complex and intertwined with others. Story themes are the same way, some simple to define, some convoluted and difficult to pinpoint.

Here are a few possible themes.

     Alienation, loneliness                                                      Love, lust
     Betrayal                                                                           Escape
     Power                                                                              Addiction
     Loss of innocence, coming of age                                  Madness
     Fear                                                                                 Black humor, satire
     Loss                                                                                 Ignorance
     Prejudice, racism, bigotry, snobbery                               Patriotism
     Despair, desperation                                                        Survival
     Poverty                                                                             Courage
     Death                                                                                Freedom
Although it's important to have a theme your reader can relate to, your theme must appeal to you, the writer, too. It's something you love, you hate, you desire, you fear, something you believe in, something that astounds or repulses you.

Otherwise, the glue won't hold.