creative writing

Flashbacks

Keeping a story’s timeline accurate is important for many reasons to include controlling flashbacks.

I have read flashbacks that were to be one year ago, but were several years based on events. Or a twenty-year-old who five years ago was eighteen. The seasons seem to confuse writers. Going back one season from spring is winter, not summer. Also, flashing back to fall can be confusing when the present is also fall. What fall is what?

I think the biggest issue is too many flashbacks. The reader can get lost between the present and the past and lose the story in the confusion. Flashbacks should be like seasoning. Too much and there is no taste. I try to limit my flashbacks like I limit my adjectives and adverbs.

Flashbacks are good when they present a backstory that reveals a climax in current time.

I think flashbacks should provide the reason “why” actions are done and give more depth to the characters. They are not to provide another story that has no conclusion and belongs in a separate work. Also, flashbacks should be limited to only the basic information. The writer does not need to include everything.

Some writers try to avoid flashbacks by using prologues. But do readers read them? Another way writers avoid flashbacks is to start at the beginning. But that could be too far in the past and include too much telling to bring the story to the present.

I recently listened to a podcast where the speaker did not like flashbacks. I think stories can include flashbacks, just treat them like any modifier. They enhance the story and can be useful when not overused.

So, use flashbacks, but sparingly. Think of looking behind yourself while walking. The glance back can’t be too long or you’ll walk into something.

Naming or not a Fictional Character

There are two kinds of characters in a story. One who has a name and one who does not.*

Characters who have an impact to the plot and appear in more than one scene should be named. They are a significant part of events and move the story along. Characters who perform a function, without significantly changing how the story unfolds, should not be named.

Unnamed characters are important and could be people in a crowd, a store clerk, a bus driver, or someone sitting on a park bench. They are identified by their function and add depth and description to the story. They may or may not interact with the named characters.

Looking at it another way: characters with names are like a team. They influence each other and carry the story along. Characters without names support the team like a cheering section.

Some authors think it is cruel to leave characters nameless, so they name everyone. There are other authors who create characters just to name them. Then, there are authors who have multiple names for the same character. With so many names, I get confused trying to find out who is important and who is not. I want to enjoy the story and not have to work at remembering names.

Also, I find that too many names drag the author into using unneeded words to create unneeded characters in unneeded scenes. The story becomes more about naming characters and not about telling the story.

How many named characters should there be? There is no specific number. But keeping the number of names low helps the author focus on the story and the reader not to be confused.

* There are other types, but this fits my blog’s theme.

Keeping Track of Time

When I’m writing a story, I try to maintain a consistent timeline. Even in science fiction, time progresses in a logical direction. The story can jump around, but the orderly passing of time should be maintained.

This may seem obvious, yet I have read novels where the author confused the passage of time in the story. Some things happened too soon and other events took too long or happened out of sequence. Also, when using flashbacks, there should be one central timeline that the flashback always comes back to. In some novels, I get confused as to what is a flashback and what is current time in the story.

Even minor scenes such as eating a meal or traveling between two places, the time it takes to eat is a set amount of time. And it takes a traveler a certain amount of time to travel between two places, even in science fiction. The author needs to fill in for the passage of time consistently. If not, there is no story. Just a series of unconnected scenes.

To help keep my timeline organized while writing a novel, at the beginning of each chapter I put the day of the week, month, and season when the chapter scenes occur. Keeping track of a story’s timeline this way helps me keep the timeline straight in my head while I write the next chapter.

There are probably other methods. Whichever is used, I think it is important for an author to maintain a consistent timeline, whether the story is over a few days or many years. It is easy to overlook this important step.

The world and the universe keep track of time. An author should, too

Heroes Need Friends

Recently I listened to a podcast* where the guest speaker talked about characters. One thing the guest speaker said was that a hero** should not be a hero alone. Every hero needs others to help them do heroic stuff.

I’ve read stories or watched shows where the hero took on the villain alone with maybe a few bystanders thrown in for atmosphere. To me the story or show had action, but no character and certainly no dialogue except for the occasional one-liners or grunt. The hero had no personality.

I didn’t realize until the podcast about the importance of the hero to have others around to help. These people give the hero personality and depth of character. They make the hero stronger when he/she must rely on others to achieve their goal. The hero is even stronger when they ask for help.

The same can be true for the villain. The hero has more of a challenge when the villain has help.

These helpers are not subservient to the hero or villain (well, maybe the villain). Instead, they fill in for the flaws the hero or villain may have, giving the writer opportunities for a more developed hero or villain through added conflict.

A team who supports the hero in achieving the goal provides the writer with lots of material to make the story more meaningful. The team is what makes a “hero’s journey” type of story a better story. Aren’t we all better as a team?

 

* Sorry, I listen to several podcasts almost each day on my walk and I could not find which one this played on or who was the speaker. I should take better notes.

** I use “hero” in the generic sense that includes hero (male) and heroine (female) and herowhere (extraterrestrial).