Memorable moments

We’re in primrose and rhododendron heaven at our house. The primroses are like flower fireworks: one tier of flowers opens, then the next above it. If you’d like to see, just click on David’s website on the right.

And there seems to be a new promotional thing in the publishing world: the cover reveal. I had never heard of it, but now I’m involved. Writing Magic is getting a new cover to go with the forthcoming Writer to Writer, and I will reveal both–ta da!–the next time I post, and you will be among the first to see Eliza’s great subtitle as it will appear.

Now for this week’s topic. On March 23, 2014, Eliza wrote, My heroine has to find and save her lost boyfriend, who disappears at the beginning. I’m doing flashbacks so the reader can care whether or not he’s rescued. I don’t want the flashbacks to overwhelm the real story, so I’m doing important moments, like their first meeting, first kiss, etc. I know I need more but I’m not sure what to include. Ideas?

And Bug offered this: Have you read “Persuasion: A Latter Day Tale”? It’s a retelling of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”. In it, Anne keeps meeting her old boyfriend, which is pretty hard for her, and every chapter starts out with an old journal entry of a date with Neil or some random memory. Maybe if you read that it could give you some idea? I think that you should just add whatever memories you can think of right now, and then, when you are editing your book, cut the unnecessary stuff out.

I like the suggestion that Eliza write more than she may need. Pruning is easier than padding. And it’s a wealthy feeling when we have lots of material. I also like the chapter beginning idea. The advantage is that the reader comes to expect it, so we don’t need to create an entry into the flashback and an exit from it, as I wrote about in a post on the subject. If we do this a few times but irregularly, we won’t need one for every chapter, which could be burdensome.

As for choice of flashback moments, I don’t remember when my husband and I first met. We went to the same college, and he was just there in my background as I was in his. My most vivid memory was an early date when he set his hair on fire.

We were both smokers back then (and now we’re long-time non-smokers), as most everyone was. He decided it would be romantic to look at me through the flame of his lighter. He had curly, bushy hair, and it went up, but because it was so thick he didn’t feel it immediately. My jaw dropped. I didn’t know him well, and in my mind he could have been crazy enough to light his hair on purpose.

That was memorable.

What did I learn about David from that mini-conflagration? That he’s a romantic. After he realized and put the fire out, he thought it was funny, and he wasn’t so embarrassed he never spoke to me again. He wasn’t angry, either, because I’d been there when he looked a little silly. What do we have? Romanticism, sense of humor, willingness to be vulnerable. What a guy! (And he tolerates me retelling the story many times over.)

So, the important flashback scene may be the fifth kiss rather than the first. Or, it can be the first, but we want it to be the moment that means the most to our MC, and it’s nice if it can be a little surprising to the reader, like flaming hair was to me and David.

I assume that Eliza’s MC is trying to rescue her boyfriend because she loves him. If that’s the case and if the reader identifies with her, he will care about whatever she cares about. We need her to think about the boyfriend and miss him, but we may not need a lot of flashbacks.

In this example let’s call her Lena and him Luke. Suppose she’s thinking about when he was last seen and what she should do next. It might go like this: The terrible thing was, she wanted his ideas. They always puzzled problems out together. When Luke brainstormed with her, lines of inquiry never petered out. She’d reach a dead end, or he would, and the other one would see a glimmer further on. Over a cheeseburger or on a walk in the nature preserve, they’d solved the world’s problems–and Luke’s problems with his boss and her difficulties with her packrat of a roommate. Lena pressed her fingertips into her temples. Luke, Luke, how would you find you? What would you suggest? How did you become such a part of me? (Along with worries about his suffering and even–eek!–possible death.)

For this, the reader doesn’t even have to think well of him, only of her. Our reader may even come to understand that he’s horrible. She (the reader) may want Luke to never be found, but she wants Lena to be happy.

Or Lena may be rescuing Luke for some other reason than that she loves him. Their relationship may have run its course. They’re not that close anymore, but she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to him. She may have another motive as well. Maybe someone, who could be Luke or another character, has accused her of being incapable of finding her way out of a paper bag. Now she has something to prove. Or maybe their last moment before his disappearance was an argument. She needs to make up or explain herself or get in the last word.

If there isn’t quite as much at stake emotionally, the reader will still want Lena to succeed and will still be engaged by her investigation. So long as we make that interesting, we’re home free.

Back to the flashbacks. Another way to use them is to work clues into them, too. Suppose the seeds of Luke’s disappearance were sown long ago, and clues lurk in the flashbacks, then we have a second reason for introducing them. For instance, Lena thinks back to the party where she met Luke. He came with a friend named Otis whom Lena never saw again. We flash back to the party. Lena sees Luke writing in a small notebook. At the end of the evening, Luke walks Lena home, and Otis drives away. His car has a vanity plate: OBLIT. Lena thinks the meaning has something to do with literature, since Luke is an English Lit major. Flashback ends at Lena’s door. Now, back in the present, she wonders if OBLIT stood for obliterate.

Here are prompts from the post:

• Imagine a memorable early event in the romance between Lena and Luke. Doesn’t have to involve a small fire, but it can. Write the scene. If you’re writing from omniscient third person, include the thoughts of each about the other. If from just one POV, write the thoughts of the POV character.

• Write another scene from early days in their relationship and drop in hints that there is something mysterious about Luke.

• Write the scene in which Luke disappears. If Lena isn’t present, write the scene when she finds out about his disappearance.

• Write Lena’s speculations about what may have happened to Luke. Write the first scene in which she tries to find out what happened to him.

• Write a flashback of Luke and make the reader mistrust him and fear for Lena.

Have fun, and save what you write!

In the rearview mirror

On August 4, 2012, MNM wrote, I’ve been working on a story that is written in first person and I’m having issues with putting in the background or writing flashbacks. I can bring them into the story easily enough, but I am having trouble getting back on track without a choppy transition. Any tips?

Here’s a confession: I’ve started to put together a second writing book, this one based on the blog, and I’m about to write a chapter on flashbacks and back story, so this question is exactly on time. Thank you, MNM!

The first consideration with back story (background) and flashbacks is whether they’re needed. If not, I say leave ‘em out. No matter how smooth our transition, the reader has to quit the forward movement of our tale to journey to an earlier time and, often, a different place. When he returns he has to get immersed all over again.

Let’s go back to last week’s post about Queenie, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, who specializes in shouting, “Off with his head!” Suppose Queenie’s love of execution comes from a childhood tragedy. Her father, Daddy Card, the late King of Hearts, was assassinated, stabbed in the neck, eek! The assassin was never found, but the Chief Constable and Queenie are convinced he or she is still at court. We want the reader to understand Queenie, maybe have some sympathy for her, so we decide to show what happened. There are lots of choices.

One way is a flashback. We want a smooth transition so we plan it ahead of time. Let’s say Daddy Card liked to write lengthy letters to family and friends on pale purple stationery in his distinctive spidery handwriting. In present time, Queenie is in her study when a Nine of Clubs, a servant, brings in her mail, among which is a letter in a pale purple envelope, not the exact tint Daddy Card favored, but close. Hands trembling, she picks up the tiny silver dagger she uses as a letter opener, and thinks, Ten years in a month.

That day she’d been in this room, too, opening replies to her birthday party invitations. She’d issued eighty-nine invitations, and eighty-nine children had accepted. As she was mounding the responses in a triumphant pile, feet had thudded in the corridor outside. She hardly heeded – the servants were always rushing about. Then came a soft knock, her lady-in-waiting’s shy tap, but an instant later the woman opened without permission.

We’re in. Notice that I started with had been and had dispatched, but switched to simple past in the sentence, The servants were always rushing about. That sentence marks the complete shift to the earlier time.

The flashback continues. We see the shaken maid delivering the terrible news. Whatever follows follows: weeping, rushing out of the room, going to Mommy Card, could be anything. Finally we bring Queenie back to the study and start the return transition:

She sat dully at her desk and stared without comprehension at the party replies. Oh, she’d finally remembered, the girl she used to be was going to have a celebration. For the first time, on that sad, long-ago day, she’d collected her hair in a bun at the back of her neck. Then she’d picked up another letter and had slit it open.

The mauve envelope in her hand now had nothing to do with a party. There was no party. She hated parties. Who would be stupid enough to choose this color?

And we’re back. Did you see that I repeated the tense switch on the return? Two devices make the transition smooth: the tense shift and an action that bridges the gap in time, in this case opening the mail.

But if we don’t want to interrupt the story, what are our other choices?

Suppose Queenie always touches her throat before calling for an execution. If Kingie, who thoroughly understands his wife, manages to put his arm around her quickly enough, she relaxes and doesn’t give the order. A newcomer to court can observe this and ask her uncle to explain. In a short bit of dialogue the father’s assassination can be revealed.

If we’re writing in Queenie’s POV, the revelation can come in thoughts, something like, Ten years in a month. I was nicer before the assassin. Then we go back to the action. Five pages later, she might think something else, like, Dr. Two of Spades says I lost my father at a girl’s most formative moment, no matter how he died. What a Two he is! She makes a weighing gesture with her hands. Heart attack – assassination. Heart attack – assassination. Not the same. More action. Later on she can finish the back story by thinking, I probably killed the assassin long ago, but as long as he could still be playing croquet, I’ll keep the executions coming.

If we’re writing from another character’s POV, he can be present for one of Queenie’s execution orders and think about the past in a sentence or two.

Or the reader can do without. Everyone knows Queenie orders people’s heads off. It’s one of the facts of her rule. People avoid playing croquet with her and are terrified when they have to. The history doesn’t have to come to the fore. If she’s an important character, we can show her touching her throat, loving Kingie, seeming relieved when her husband pardons people. She’ll come off as a complex character. Excellent.

I would ask the same questions about a back story as about a flashback, and if I can, I would do without.

But suppose you need to put it in and the back story is the history of this card kingdom. Let’s imagine that Alice has a mission in Wonderland and in order to have a chance she has to understand the place. She can find a tome about it in her parents’ library, and we can put a page of the book right in the story. We can have her stop in the middle to gasp or to get a glass of water, whatever. For suspense, we can have her leave the room for the water and find the book gone when she comes back. She knows part of the story and she has to find out the rest, which moves the back story into the front. She can ask the university historian, and we can include their conversation. If we break up the back story, again we haven’t suspended the forward story for very long. In the first instance, we leave the back story to get the glass of water. In the second, the historian can look at his watch and say he has to teach, and we’re out. The trick, I think, is to plant the seeds for the return from the back story in the way it begins, for example, with an action that the character can return to.

Here are four prompts:

∙ The White Rabbit is hopping ahead of Alice. From his POV write a flashback that explains his urgency. In Lewis Carroll’s story, he and Alice separate and the story follows her. Stick with him and invent what happens.

∙ Write the back story  that explains the history of the card monarchy.

∙ Let’s use a modern weather event, Hurricane Sandy or a tornado or a blizzard, and have Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz show up in it. Provide a back story to explain how she got there.

∙ After an election I always wonder how it feels to be the winner or the loser, but a prompt on the actual election seems too close to home, so let’s imagine one in the republic of Tulipe, where Mistress Prunette of the Globule Party ousted Master Rosto of the Concavities. Each has asked to be alone for a few minutes to reflect on the contest. Write a flashback for each that gives personal meaning to the outcome.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Flashing back

On February 25, 2010, Jill wrote, My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about.  I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn’t happen in one event. It happened over many years.  I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it.  I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but it’s hard to get out all the information with out making it seem like two books in one.  Any suggestions?

The kingdom of Bamarre in my The Two Princesses of Bamarre is plagued by monsters and by a terrible disease called the Gray Death.  Events in the story are connected to events during the founding of the kingdom centuries ago.  I brought the back story into the current one with an epic poem that winds through the book.  The poem, which was written in the earlier time, is known by everyone.  People quote from it, perform scenes from it, refer to it.  My main character often thinks about it.

The Blind Assassin (high school level and above) by Margaret Atwood alternates in sections between the past and the present.  In the course of the book, the back story catches up.  The past is told in third person, the present in first.  The reader quickly adjusts to the shifts, cued by the change in point of view.  The story is a sort of mystery, and the time jumps contribute to the puzzle.  It’s a brilliant accomplishment.

Margaret Atwood introduces her chapters in the past with old newspaper clippings.  You too can come up with devices not merely to start the switch, but to reveal the events themselves.  For example, you can alternate the current story with old diary entries or old letters, or you can invent fictionalized newspaper articles too.

Or you can think up other ways to bring the past into the present .  Suppose, for instance, that your main character is haunted by a memory of being cruel to her brother only a few hours before he was killed in a car accident or abducted by aliens or morphed into an alien himself, and suppose she discusses what she did with a counselor or her new college roommate, someone who doesn’t know her past.  This can become a boring recitation, however, unless you do something to bring in tension, like maybe the confidant has a hidden connection to the brother.

If the back actions were performed by your main character (not carried out before her birth or beyond her knowledge), you can start with the first act and keep going, no need for flashbacks or anything else.  I’ve begun several of my books with the birth of my main character–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, to name a few.  The story then jumps forward through selected episodes, sometimes years apart, to the present where most of the action takes place.  This is a straightforward way to do it and the least likely to cause reader confusion.  My favorite writing teacher, years ago, disliked flashbacks.  I have nothing against them, but if there is no reason not to write in sequence from past to present, this is the way I would go.

If you use them, flashbacks can be hard to pull off because you’re wrenching the reader away from the ongoing story.  Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present.  Quick flashback scenes often succeed, since the reader comes to understand that the digression will be short.

The television series Lost – High school level?  Middle school?  I’m not sure, so check with an adult – is wild with its scene switches.  The story jumps in and out of flashbacks, and then, to further complicate matters, characters become unglued in time.   The viewer learns to expect this madness and adapts.  I don’t always admire the show, but I enjoy the craziness, and it’s worth studying how the endless complications are handled.

Of course television is a different medium.  Information can be conveyed instantly.  The viewer has only to see a telephone with a cord to know that she’s in the past.  We writers have to reveal the switch in words, which takes longer.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (high school and up) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along tell their stories backwards.  The novel starts with a marriage that has fallen painfully apart and progresses  back in time to the first meeting of the couple and their early love.  The musical begins with the misery of a man who has misused his artistic gifts and ends with his hopeful college graduation.  Both are tragic.  I don’t know if it’s possible to tell a happy story this way.

Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), which I think I’ve mentioned before, by my friend Joan Abelove, moves effortlessly through time.  Joan uses flashbacks a lot, so you may want to read the book to see how she does it.

Many actors develop back stories for their roles.  They may flesh out a childhood, adolescence, family, school that never come into the actual play or movie.  But the back story adds depth to the performance.  The audience picks up on the complexity.  So it’s a good thing to have earlier events influencing the current story. 
Whatever method you use, sympathetic or fascinating characters in a difficult situation will lure your reader in and keep him in.  If he is hooked, cares about your main character, roots for her, he will keep reading and may love the all the track switches you conduct him through.

You can try any of the techniques I mentioned: flashbacks, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, backward telling, an epic poem, dialogue in a counseling session.  And here are three specific prompts:

•    Make up a back story for a character in a book you love.  If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), for example, make up a back story for Wickham or Mr. Collins or Charlotte beyond what Jane Austen provides.

•    Make up a back story for one of your own minor characters.  Figure out a way to introduce a bit of it into your story.

•    Develop a flashback scene in a story you’re working on now or an old story.  Keep it in if you like it.  Otherwise take it out.

Have fun and save what you write!