FoYoShiMo is over 50% complete and it’s my hope you’re feeling better equipped to go forward with your MSes. We’ve looked at storycraft basics, we’ve talked characters, and we’re nearly done with plot. We continue plot today with plot interruption.
As I said a few days ago, plot moves in one direction: forward. Just like time, relationships, armies over the Alps, and progress, plot gains momentum and mass over the course of story, and then gets resolved after a highest moment.
That’s the ideal, anyway.
It doesn’t always work out that way.
We have in our writing toolbox a lot of techniques we can apply to story to make the idea in our head come out as best it can on the page. The recipe for “good story” is far more open-ended than you think of, and therefore the ways to make a “good story” happen are far more numerous as well.
But just like you can’t do as good a job hanging a picture using a banana as you could a screw and some wire, there are certain times to deploy certain tools. Sure you can force the issue and use the technique, but using the technique just to say you’ve used it can rob the technique of its nuance and polish. And worse yet, it can gum up the story.
When I’m editing a manuscript, I don’t have a checklist to tick off when a story does or doesn’t use a flashback, for instance. Sometimes (like in children’s books), you just don’t see them, and they don’t really need to be there. Not having a flashback doesn’t send the book to the scrap heap, it’s just not the right tool for the job.
Today, let’s talk some tools that can hose your plot, even if you think they’re totally great to use. I’m not saying you should never use these, I’m urging that you use them when they do the best good, not just to be arbitrary about it.
A flashback is any interruption of the present to reveal or relay information about the past, usually through memory or recollection. Visually the screen gets all dissolve-y, and somewhere in the late 50s, people added harp sounds to it. The visual and audio cue is to indicate to us that the scene is changing.
In text, we accomplish this through dialogue, as in “I remember …” or some kind of hard break in text to indicated a significant change in the narrative, like an asterisk break or starting a new chapter, or italics (careful with the italics, it gets old fast).
When it works, you reference the past to bring information forward to the present, which you’ve had paused since you started the flashback.
When it doesn’t, you’ve tipped your hand and created a nearly too-perfect solution for the present moment. (See any 80s action movie where the hero flashes back to their mentor teaching them a fighting technique that they’ll use the second they come out of flashback to whoop the bad guy’s ass, or any mystery where the detective pauses and remembers the soon-to-be revealed murderer saying something critical).
The issue with time and information is that for characters, it’s memory while for readers, it’s discovery. We don’t know until the story tells us something, even if the characters already knew it but haven’t shared it.
I have a memory of being in a youth bible club and going on a hike. There was a chaperone there (F something, I think), who very patiently listened to me tell him about dinosaurs, as I had been to the museum recently, then he told me I was completely wrong, since they didn’t exist in the bible. I wasn’t wrong about going to the museum, he had a problem with my recollection of what I saw. This moment sticks out in my head because it was the first (of many times) adults would doubt things I’d say, until I just learned to not say anything that I was afraid would ruffle feathers. F was an asshole, and dinosaurs happened. Also, that museum is badass. Suck it F.
I tell you that because it’s a memory to me, but you didn’t know about it. I can summarize that memory thematically down to “I learned to stop speaking up so that I couldn’t be doubted”, and then draw a parallel between that moment and whatever moment I’m narrating in the present. Since Fred’s dead (I’m pretty sure anyway), this information gives you more context about me, rather than adding bells and whistles to my battling stupid Fred. I’m pretty sure that even with a bum heart, I could take Fred in a fight if he’s still alive. He’d be pushing 90.
Where a flashback works is in its detail. It can expand your world-building. It can make things seem more grounded, it can give a reader more to invest in or believe in. When applied poorly, the flashback can add nitrous to plot, speeding up things just for a moment, so that we can get ahead. We’re going to reach that same point eventually anyway, so why rush it by having the detective remember something that you take sentences (or paragraphs) to belabor?
The Dream Sequence
Oh boy, here’s one of those incredibly overdone tools in the toolbox. Let’s make one thing clear: dreams are not panacea. They’re not just for future divination, they’re not just for exploring alt-realities or worst case scenarios. They’re dreams, abstract depictions of the unconscious, the brain working shit out. Yeah, you can analyze them to the Nth degree, or you can just leave them alone.
I had a dream the other night where I was on one of those semester at sea cruises, and Clive Owen was teaching me history. He led me, after class to large gymnasium, where he shot me and I bled out in the dark. It was unsettling. I woke up scared and in a sweat, only to fall back asleep and have another dream where I talked about the first dream.
You could extrapolate from that a sense that I hate Clive Owen (I don’t), that I hate guns (I do), that I fear dying alone (I do), or that I have a problem with history teaches and gymnasiums (I don’t). You could also discover from that how earlier in the night I was watching a Clive Owen movie on cable, and how I remembered the Mtv show about a semester at sea because one of the girls was attractive, or how I had read an infographic about gun violence that day.
Now if we’re in the context of a manuscript, and I the protag end up on a cruise ship with Clive Owen teaching me history, then you could say that my dream sequence is actually a supernatural predictive ability. The amount of direct coincidence (how closely the dream matches real life) renders this parallel too on the nose, even if my story features my future-predicting abilities.
If the character’s prediction includes the death, then either they know how they die, which renders the rest of the story pointless to read, or they will act in ways to get them away from that situation. That could be interesting, but that assumes the protag would just need to have a new dream, which renders the first dream pointless too.
Like flashbacks, dream sequences interrupt plot to (when used poorly) give us future not-happened-yet plot, or (when used well) give us some character stuff to invest in.
According to my posting schedule, the new Star Wars movie comes out tomorrow. Presumably there are people already camped out for it. If this is my story we’re reading, then as protagonist, whatever I’m doing is the A-plot. Let’s assume that one of the people camping out is my sidekick, let’s call him Mike. We have to assume that Mike has shown up in my story already in order for this to work, so make up some good anecdotes about Mike before you agree with me that he’s totally the kind of guy who would camp out for Star Wars in full costume in December. Yeah, classic Mike.
When we digress from my story to whatever Mike’s doing, we don’t pause time, we pause story. No longer are you reading about me writing, me worrying about whatever I’m worrying about (hint: everything) or me wanting to do fun stuff, now you’re all on Mike and his adventures in a tent on a sidewalk dressed as man-sized Ewok.
Humorous as it may be, this isn’t Mike’s story, this is Mike’s part of my story. Mike isn’t getting top billing along with me, he’s the sidekick. Remember how we talked about character promotions a few days back? Giving Mike more story real estate than his giant Ewok story warrants sends the message that the protagonist (me, in this case) isn’t as critical as an individual.
Worse still, in talking about Mike, you run the risk of creating a story within a story, which doesn’t tie back to the main story line, even I pop in to drop some snark on Ewok-Mike.
If Mike’s having such a great time, and it seems to stand independent of my story, give Mike his own manuscript. Don’t cut Mike out entirely no matter what, because Mike is still a factor in other parts of my story, but the solo adventure of Mike likely doesn’t have a place here.
In all three of these cases (flashbacks, dreams, digressions), you’re pausing the central timeline, which halts the momentum of the story. Stopping that progress means you have to expend some energy to get it back, which can result in some sluggish words to get things back up and moving.
The later that jumpstart happens, the more out of place it feels, and the more jarring it can be to read. The nearer it is to your climax, the harder it will be to make the climax be that biggest point of storytelling, because you fussed with the buildup. Don’t throw the brakes on progress.
Tomorrow, we talk about Plot and something called plot-time. And since Star Wars will be out, you can bet I will be making lightsaber sounds while you read it.
See you then