When and When NOT to Flashback

I recently read a best-selling novel that has been getting rave reviews. The author spent over a decade refining the story’s imagery. He made it all the better by setting the story in present tense, so everything was happening right now. Why then, was it such a chore for me to read it?

Where I thought this novel failed was in its layout. The story opens in what I assume is the present, but since all the chapters are in the present tense, there are a hell of a lot of nows to keep track of. After a brief intro to the two main characters, I am shuttled back in time several years, where I am introduced to the main characters again. As a frame story, this almost works, though it would have been better if I had been given a bit more present to digest first.

Rule Number One: I must care about Johnny Hero’s present dilemmas before I will care about his past difficulties. In the movie Kill Bill: Volume 2, the Bride (Uma Thurman) is sealed inside a coffin, where she will (presumably) soon die of asphyxiation. This is hardly the best time to cut away to a lengthy flashback, but it works in this instance because the delay in getting her out of her Wild Wild West predicament adds to the tension in the story. And the flashback has real impact on the present story. When the Bride makes her escape (spoiler, sorry!), we believe she can, because we saw for ourselves the grueling training program she endured. Not only does the flashback serve this particular scene, but it also serves later parts of the story as well, when the Bride uses a technique she was taught during her training to—you guessed it—kill Bill.

There is a right way to use flashback and a wrong way. A flashback should add to the story, not detract from it. It should be introduced at a time in the story when the present-time lull will be least felt. It should play a key role in the story. If it fails to serve in these three ways, you should leave it out.

One last word on flashbacks and odd arrangements of time in stories in general.

Supposedly, you can’t comprehend the shape of jigsaw puzzle pieces if they are lHPIM0563ying on a table print side up. It’s only when they are turned on their backs and showing their dun sides, that you comprehend the way they are cut. The more detail you add into a story, the less you can play around with its presentation. Story-writing flukes like Pulp Fiction are an exception to the rule, but, generally, the quickest way to get from point A to point B is a straight line.

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Four Key Ingredients to Good Writing

Charles Dickens offered the following list of key ingredients to a well-written letter. They apply equally well to a well-written novel.

1. Power of Language

Word choice greatly affects a reader’s takeaway from any given piece of writing.

The short stout man and the big hairy dog went for a walk in the large dark park behind the small purple house.

After supper, the tubby man and the massive Husky went for walk in the park behind the house.

The fact that the park was large and the house small is not key to this sentence, so they can be done away with or revealed in some other way in the story. What matters is a man and a dog went for a walk in a park. Since the darkness might play an important part, the author indicates the time of day for the walk (after supper), which implies evening and darkness.

2. Fervor of Thought

“Fervor” is defined in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged as “intensity of feeling or expression: passion.”

Most Americans have read the classic Dick and Jane books. While they are useful for teaching children to read, they are pretty bland pap.

Father said, “I see a big dog.
Who can find it?”
“I see three little dogs,” said Dick.
“But I cannot find the big one.”
“I want to see,” said Sally.
“I want to see the three little dogs.”

A Dick and Jane sentence merely states the facts–I see three little dogs.

After he had swallowed the leftovers from yesterday’s overcooked supper, the tubby mechanic leashed his wife’s massive Husky for a walk in the park behind the house.

Here, we get some impression of the tubby mechanic’s feelings, simply by considering our own, if we found ourselves eating a reheated meal that was poorly prepared the day before. We also ask ourselves why we are left walking a dog that doesn’t belong to us. Is our wife at work? Or merely too lazy to take the dog out herself? Is our wife a bad cook? Or are we to blame for this culinary disaster?

3. Happiness of Expression

“Expression” is defined in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged as “felicitous or vivid indication or depiction of mood or sentiment.”

After he had swallowed the leftovers from yesterday’s overcooked supper, the tubby mechanic leashed his wife’s massive Husky for a walk in the gloomy park behind his house.

With the addition of the word “gloomy”, we get the impression that the tubby mechanic doesn’t enjoy walks in the park behind his house. Perhaps he is only going into it because the Husky needs a walk. He would much prefer to stay in his comfy, cozy home.

4. Importance of subject matter

While every piece of writing can be improved by key ingredients 1-3, key ingredient 4 is essential to EVERY good piece of writing. What is the point of this? Why should we care about the tubby mechanic’s walk in the park?

After he had swallowed the leftovers from yesterday’s overcooked supper, the tubby mechanic leashed his wife’s massive Husky for a walk in the gloomy park behind his house. That’s where he found his girlfriend’s mangled body.

Now we have the reader’s attention. The tubby mechanic has stumbled across a body. And not just any body. The body of his girlfriend. Where is his wife? Is she the murderer? If she isn’t, will she discover the tubby mechanic’s infidelity in the ensuing police investigation?

Don’t add details to a story that are NOT important, simply to boost your story’s imagery. Unless the girlfriend’s body is under the mulberry bush, there may be no need to wax prosy about its beauty or odor.

Indiscriminate showing is as bad as telling.HPIM0675

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Sell Them What They Want to Buy

Picture 043“Sell them what they want to buy and in just the way they want to buy it.” – Samuel Crowther, The Romance and Rise of the American Tropics

Finding a market for your work is kind of like finding a man worthy of your love–a difficult, time-consuming and SOMETIMES a disappointing failure.

Popular tastes change. In a 1959 romance, our hero might be a gas station attendant with $5 dollars in his pocket and the big dream of putting a downpayment on a trailer once he’s finished helping his older brother through college. Today’s audience of rabid romance readers would kick this guy to the can–and how. They want someone a bit more–well, let’s be frank–rich. A wealthy man can provide your heroine (and theirs) with everything her acquisitive little heart desires.

Divorced/single women readers like second-chance novels, where the heroine reconnects with a long lost love from a dozen years ago, who heartily regrets her loss and wants to make up for it with mega hot sex and expensive dinner dates. Naturally, he’s started his own business and is making more money then he knows what to do with. All he needs in his life is the girl he loves (or the boy he loves, if you’re writing gay fiction) to achieve perfect happiness.

Curvy women readers have apparently developed a taste for muscle-bound hunks who shift, in their off hours, into lumbering grizzlies and a number of other interesting zoological specimens. The love of their heroine’s life is not hung up about body image, because his own body changes on a daily/monthly basis.

We could go on at some length about the needs of our readers. It is enough to say–satisfy them, and you have a market.

While no writer should ever chase a market, be aware of what market you are writing for. Check out other books in your genre. While your plot should be refreshingly different, it should have all of the basic elements necessary to the best stories that genre contains.

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Less is Less: the Unsophisticated Plot

Being a bad (maybe lazy) cook, I was tempted to pick up one of those cookbooks that contains recipes that require no more than three or four key ingredients to throw together a “meal”. Two slices of whole wheat bread, a piece of honey cured ham, and a slice of Swiss cheese. Voilà! Lunch!

Less preparation time equals less work. But it also gives you a product that is, sorry to say, less interesting to eat. Now, if we just squirt a little mustard onto that sandwich or add a pickle, maybe even a few slices of turkey, we instantly alter the taste of our lunch—and hopefully improve it.

The lesson is a great idea—like an ingredient—doesn’t make a meal. Your novel needs to have more than one idea to make it tasty. Improve its flavor by adding other ingredients into it.

If it’s a romance, add a hint of mystery. If it’s a mystery, add some drama. If it’s nonfiction, add a little light comedy. Obviously, TOO much of even a good thing can be bad. Imagine a chocolate-chip cookie recipe that calls for ten cups of sugar and you get the idea.

A chocolate-chip recipe is a judicious blending of several ingredients, including the all-important sugar. Flour, baking soda, salt, an egg, vanilla extract, butter, and those savory chocolate pieces that give the cookie its name. If any one of these ingredients were left out of the mix, you’d know it in a single bite, even if you couldn’t put your finger on exactly what was missing.

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The “Guiding Angel” Love Interest

Recently, I read two vastly different romances where the authors used “guiding angel” love interests to help the heroes overcome a tragic character flaw. The first of these books had two male leads; the second, a male and a female. One was a contemporary gay romance; the other, a Christian fiction romance written more than a century ago.

Before we compare these two books, we ought to talk about the pros and cons of doing this kind of “change for the better” story. The love interest obviously needs to be in some way better than the lead, but the question is in what way is he or she better and just how much better? If you make your love interest a veritable saint, there isn’t going to be a lot of room for him or her to grow in the story.

In the case of the contemporary gay romance, the lead was struggling with his sexuality. Once he embraced it, he had to overcome his fear of being openly gay. His love interest helped him to do this because his love interest had already conquered his own fear of being openly gay (or never had it to begin with because of a network of supportive family and friends).

In the case of the Christian fiction romance, the lead was struggling against a sinful nature, one that would appear, to modern eyes, grossly exaggerated in supposed blackness. Be that as it may, his love interest endeavored to bring him to the Lord—and he, in return, set out to rid her of a false-hearted suitor who was cleverly concealing his sins from her.

Both of these books had an HEA, but only one felt truly satisfying in its denouement. And here’s the reason why:

If your guiding angel is a flesh and blood person, he or she ought to have some flaws, even if he or she is helping a faltering fellow creature along the path to personal satisfaction or salvation, as the case may be. In the Christian fiction romance, the hero at first believes his angel is truly heaven-born. Then he sees her lose her cool, when her nephew loses an important letter. After this scene, the hero finds his love interest singing some hymns to soothe her spirit and realizes that she isn’t perfect—no one is—but she has found a way of correcting herself when she goes off the path. She turns to God for guidance.

Unfortunately, the love interest in the gay romance isn’t given an opportunity to show his feet of clay. He is so perfectly okay with himself, that his only fault may be loving someone who ISN’T.

For a romance to be exciting, the barriers that stand between the hero and his love interest must SEEM nearly insurmountable. In the contemporary gay romance, the lead’s own inadequacies were the only obstacles to his happiness. Nothing else stood in the way of his HEA, except possibly a subplot threat that never truly materialized. In the Christian romance, the man’s lack of faith obviously stood in the way of his happiness, but he also had to contend with the love interest’s own prejudice—she was looking for a guiding staff in a husband, not a broken reed—and her long-standing engagement to a man who once swindled the hero out of a fortune. Naturally, the love interest’s fiancé used every opportunity to make the hero look bad in the eyes of the love interest. The love interest was unwillingness to listen to the hero’s warnings about her fiancé because she had a blind faith in the one she loved—a character flaw that contemporary fiction writers ought to use more often in their stories, because it is sadly underdeveloped.

Think of all the romances that BEGIN with the discovery of a sinning spouse/lover. Far too few stories exploit the false-hearted lover as a villain. Perhaps because it would be awkward, to say the least, to have hot and heavy bed scenes between the leads if one of them is already engaged to someone else.

If you decide to put a guiding angel in your story, give him a blemish or two. It will not only make him real to life, but infinitely more interesting.

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The Short, Shocking Opener

Like the first line of a newspaper article, a short, shocking opener in a blurb can be a great way to draw readers in. Check out these examples that I found on book listings sites like Ereader News Today, SweetFreeBooks, and ebooks Grow on Trees:

“In the world of Allwyn, humans are almost extinct.” – The Cradle of the Gods
(Book 1) by Thomas Quinn Miller

“Adenine is blind and isolated in her small attic bedroom.” – The Healers of Meligna Series Box Set by K. J. Colt

“Cheyenne Elias has inherited a child.” – The Bequest by Hope Anika

“How far will a man go to protect his family?” – Over My Dead Body by Bruce A. Borders

Now, check out a blurb for an imaginary book that we’ll call Man of Sorrows, about a Civil-War-era charlatan who makes his way through the ravaged South, raising the spirits of deceased Confederate soldiers for grieving loved ones. To show the power of a short, striking lead, pay close attention only to how I open, because that is the only part of the blurb I will change the second example:

Man of Sorrows
by M.D. Wiselka
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction

Cyprien Fell can raise the dead. And he does so, nightly, for the grieving widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers that perished in battle. Provided, of course, that the said grieving widows and orphans are capable of paying his exorbitant fees for services rendered.
When an embittered young man who lost his father in the war offers Cyprien a strange family heirloom that he believes will “enliven” his parlor act, the charlatan medium readily accepts the gift, thinking the more bells and whistles the better. But he soon learns that not all magic is mere trickery, when he unwittingly summons a malevolent spirit bent on raising an army of undead that will conquer the world.
If this blurb were a newspaper headline or the first line of an advertisement, it would certainly draw attention—“MAN RAISES DEAD” or “MEDICINE CAN RAISE DEAD”. We may not be willing to believe such extravagant claims, but, curious, we read a little further.

Fairly quickly, we learn that Cyprien Fell is in fact a traveling showman, who only PRETENDS to raise the dead for shamefully large sums of money. Our hero is something of a creep, but he’s about to get a dose of his own snake oil, when one of his customers gives him the means of doing what he only claims to do. Without intending to do any harm, Pandora opens the box and let’s the bad things out. The question is, will Pandora find a means of luring the evil back into the box and tightly sealing the lid? We’ll have to read the book to find out.

I’ve shown you how a good lead sentence can capture the attention of potential readers. Now, I’ll show you what a bad one can do to my imaginary story.

Man of Sorrows
by M.D. Wiselka
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction

Reprobate and unrepentant rake, Cyprien Fell, loses his inheritance at a gambling table and is pitched out of his home by his angry wife, who can no longer bear the sight of him. To keep himself from starving to death, he begins hoodwinking naïve locals into believing that he’s a medium. Nightly, he comforts grieving widows and orphans by raising the spirits of Confederate soldiers that perished in battle. Provided, of course, that the said grieving widows and orphans are capable of paying his exorbitant fees for services rendered.
When an embittered young man who lost his father in the war offers Cyprien a strange family heirloom that he believes will “enliven” his parlor act, the charlatan medium readily accepts the gift, thinking the more bells and whistles the better. But he soon learns that not all magic is mere trickery, when he unwittingly summons a malevolent spirit bent on raising an army of undead that will conquer the world.

Cyprien Fell, clearly, is no civic leader, but this lengthy introduction to his character is largely unnecessary. We can guess, without being told, that he is greedy (he is overcharging for his services) and unprincipled (no GOOD person would sustain himself at the expense of his suffering neighbors). Does it really matter that Fell wasted an inheritance or spoilt his domestic happiness by infidelity? That’s character building best left for the book.

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Editing Your Work

If you’re an indie writer on a tight budget, you may also be acting as your book’s main (perhaps only) editor. Here are some useful tips for polishing your novel:

1. Carefully check the accuracy of any factual information you’ve used in your book. Not sure what year the Civil War ended? Check. Not certain if a particular word is used the way you are using it? Check.

2. Search for inconsistences and any unanswered questions. Did Uncle Conley die in the Chapter 2 of your book, only to reappear at an ice cream social in Chapter 3? Did Nancy Sleuth ever discover what happened to that missing classmate in Chapter 6?

3. Remove libelous or unobjective statements. This is especially true if you are writing a nonfiction book, but it can also be applicable when your fiction is populated with real persons, living or dead.

4. Use standard English and avoided unnecessary slang/offensive language.

5. Review your story to be sure it is logically arranged. Getting cute with order for the sake of style may confuse and estranged potential readers. NO ONE SHOULD EVER HAVE TO STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND YOU. BE CLEAR AND CONCISE.

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Self-Sufficiency in a Book Series

So, you’re on book three in your twelve-book series, Pasteboard Castles, which follows the lives of twelve friends after high school graduation. You’ve got Sibyl, the pint-sized scatterbrain, who marries a smooth-talking salesman with a closet overflowing with skeletons. Then there’s Rona, who draws boys like a porch lamp draws moths. If only she could get her BFF, Rikki, to take notice of her. Then there’s Felicie, who dreams of being a poet, while her parents insist she get a degree in something practical, like medicine or the law. Etc. Etc.

While each book in your series focuses on the life of one particular character, each book also features guest appearances from one or more of the other characters in the series. For example, Felicie may open her door to Sibyl, after Sibyl discovers one of her husband’s many indiscretions. Or a miserable Rona may go to Felicie for advice, after she learns that Rikki has started dating the man of her dreams.

Such crossovers are a great way to further build your characters, but they can also be confusing to readers, particularly if you don’t take the time (re)introduce them. Don’t assume that your readers have read ALL or even ANY of the other books in your series, even if you are on book twelve. Treat each book as if it were the ONLY one your readers will ever read in your series. If you pick up the strand of a plot line from one of the other books in your series, take the time to briefly outline it. Since Rona and Rikki began living together, etc… Since Sibyl left her husband, etc…

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Mistakes That Spoil Your Book’s Magic

Don’t let the following mistakes spoil your book’s magic.

1. Lead characters who are so much alike your readers can’t tell one from the other. Give your leads distinctive voices, so that readers can tell who’s speaking, even when you don’t use tags.

2. POVs shifts within the same chapter. Sometimes within the same paragraph. Make it clear to readers who is speaking/thinking, etc.
3. A story that is based largely on coincidence. The hero just happens to rescue the daughter of his prospective boss from drowning in a public pool the day before hero goes to the interview. The boss just happens to have a little cottage behind his house that the hero can rent, providing him easy access to his love interest.

4. A story problem that is solved with little fuss or muss. The villain dies in a car accident on the way to the hero’s house. The hero suddenly gets balls and stands up to the bully he’s been hiding from the whole of the book—and without the least difficulty or consequence.

5. An unwillingness to show full frontal evil, prejudice, etc. A fear of being called onto the carpet by the PC police may tempt you to avoid putting bad words in the mouths of your baddies. Or, worse, cigarettes. Unless you’re writing for a grade school audience, G-ing your book is robbing it of its ability to confront the very wrongs you are presumably attempting to expose.

6. A badly timed moment of intimacy. Some writers feel the need to insert frequent (often gratuitous) sex scenes into a story and often at places where these scenes have the least capacity to titillate. Think of the scene in the movie, Gremlins (1984) when the lead and his girlfriend try to make out in a Montgomery Ward store while a maddened Stripe is lurking somewhere in the shadows. Who would think of getting busy at a time like that? Worse yet—a striptease sort of intimacy, where the leads progress through a variety of heated petting sessions before going ALL THE WAY. I will spare you the details of that scenario. Suffice it to say, unless you are writing pornography, you shouldn’t toy with your readers like that.

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“It’s-good-enough” attitude

Writing is hard work. You may be tempted at times to throw in the towel and say “it’s good enough”. But good enough isn’t great–and that’s what you need your novel to be if you want it to fire your readers. Of course, a time will come when your novel will be the BPP (best possible product) you can produce, but don’t let it out of your hands until you feel that deep down IN YOUR GUT. Two key pillars to ensure that your book is truly the best it can be are (1) accuracy and (2) completeness.

Accuracy: have you checked the facts in your fiction to be sure you haven’t made any embarrassing blunders?
Completeness: have you tied up all the loose ends? Does the boy get his girl? Is the villain sent packing, with a swift and satisfying kick in the arse?

Read your book through as a writer, an editor, and a reader. If it’s a mixed genre (dark fantasy/romance) story, review it once to make sure all the dark fantasy elements tie up nicely, then look at it strictly as a romance.

Your attention to detail will make a good story a great one!

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