Writing a Thrilling Scene, Take 1, and Action!

The process server from the fly by night notary service beat me up. His name was Mike. We fought for a couple of minutes, throwing punches, hitting and kicking each other repeatedly when out of nowhere a Blue Chevy Truck with a chrome bumper and painted flames came barreling through the red brick wall. My friend from high school Bobby came out of the car and said to me: Hey, stop fighting you two and come help me move my pickup before the police come and we are all arrested for trespassing. At the same time Mike the process server punched me twenty six times in the face and I choked him until he was unconscious, just after he cried “Uncle”

Was that a good action scene, or was it as painful to read as the fight itself?” What went wrong? Why was it so bad?

A story needs conflict. What better way to demonstrate conflict than with an action scene. But what is an action scene? If you don’t know then I’ll guide you.

In this article we will reduce an action scene down to its core: its primordial state. We will then use time tested techniques to script a compelling action scene that will make your conflict exciting, dangerous and suspenseful.

Fight or Flight

A few weeks ago we learned about what makes a good antagonist. We learned in that workshop that to know your protagonist you must know what kind of conflict you are dealing with.

  • Person vs. Person
  • Person vs. Self
  • Person vs. God
  • Person vs. Nature
  • Person vs. Society

What does every one of these conflicts have in common? Duality. Every conflict encompasses duality. Every character will struggle with the push and pull of conflict, the to and fro, the action and reaction, the cause and effect.

The fight or flight response is a stress trigger in all animals that occurs when there is a harmful event that is a threat to survival. Basically, when an animal is threatened it instantly makes a decision to act based on two choices. It can either fight for its life, or it can run for its life. This is the primordial basis for all action in storytelling.

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The Fight Scene

A fight scene can be between two toddlers squabbling over a toy or it can be an epic battle between seven armies. Every character in a fight scene has something to lose and something to gain. Every fight scene should establish the risk and what is on the line for combatants. What is in jeopardy of being lost and what will be gained at the end of the fight.

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The Chase Scene

On the flip side of the coin is the chase scene, or the direct answer to the flight response. Whether it be a sheriff on horseback chasing a bank robber, or the hero spy that is trying to escape with the secret plans to bring back to headquarters and save the world. Just as in the fight scene, something needs to be on the line in a chase scene as well. There has to be a risk involved and both parities need to be in jeopardy of losing something if the other character succeeds.

6 Tips to Create a Compelling Action Scene

Ready, Set, Go!

1) Show don’t Tell

This is important to remember anytime your writing, but especially in action sequences. Use the 5 senses to give information: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

2) For Every Action, Show a Reaction

Cause and effect in a microscopic form. One punch=broken rib, flat tire=slow chase. Reveal your POV character’s emotions, brief thoughts, and physical reactions, starting with their visceral responses.

3) Make Sure the Stakes Justify the Action

Make sure your action scene furthers the story and is not just stuck in for a little excitement. It shouldn’t stop your plot from developing. Something must be at stake. Put something on the line. How will the character change for ever after this one catalyzing action scene? Give the character a deadline where there are real consequences if they fail. We call this the ticking time bomb technique.

4) Speed up the Pace

Make it happen in real-time. Use short sentences and paragraphs, for a tense, breathless, staccato effect. Write tight. Cut out any little unneeded words that clutter up sentences and slow down the pace. Avoid info dumps. Keep the readers right there in the scene with the characters. Don’t intrude as the author to clarify anything. If details need explaining, fit that in somehow before the tense scene starts.

5) Keep the Dialog to a Minimum

People don’t have long conversations in the middle of a fight or a chase. You can even avoid using dialog tags in some situations to keep the pace flowing.

6) Avoid using Adverbs and Adjectives whenever possible

Use dynamic action verbs instead. What sounds better? Tom ran swiftly and went right, then left, then right again, then left avoiding the rocks littering the dirt road. Or, Tom sprinted and juked to avoid the rocks in the road.

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Using these tips I rewrote the action scene from the beginning of the article.

He punched me in the gut. I returned with a kick to the groin. If I don’t get rid of this guy pronto, I am going to miss my ride. I head butt the man causing him to lose his footing and stumble back.

“Sign the papers!” the man said as blood gushed from his nose.

“Leave me alone, asshole,” I wiped the sweat from my brow. “I don’t even know you.”

“The name’s Mike.” He tagged me with a stinger that shut me up for a moment. “I am the process server your wife hired.”

I recovered and jumped to deliver a roundhouse kick to his abdomen. Mike stopped trying to talk and gathered his breath again.

An engine roared from outside getting closer by the second. Bricks smashed and crumbled as a truck drove through the wall. We continued to spar. Nothing would stop me from fighting for the right to see my daughter.

Bobby jumped out of the driver side of the truck and spotted us.”Hey, finish your business and lets go.” Bobby called out. “The police are coming.”

Mike swept my legs out from under me. I grappled his legs and brought him down to my level. He rabbit punched me repeatedly. I saw stars. I kicked Mike hard in the left knee and grabbed his neck. He whispered something unintelligible as hepassed out. I think he said, “Uncle.”

How was that for an action scene? Was it compelling? Were there risks? Was there something on the line?

Conclusion

Writing action scenes is essential to a good story. According to Joseph Campbell and his breakdown of mythologies in the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist’s inner journey will have a fight and/or flight episode after the call to adventure. The hero will fight with self doubt and often take flight from responsibility before overcoming inner demons and accepting the call to begin the outward journey.

Remember to put something on the line. Show don’t tell what is at stake and justify the means. Set the pace with quick dialog. Keep the pace fast with short sentences that avoid using adverbs and adjectives. Avoid the info dump along with any unnecessary words and details.

How do you write actions scenes? Do you have any tips that can be included on the list?

Ready, set, go—write an action scene right now!

If you enjoyed this article I recommend you check out these websites. You can find useful information here, some of which I took inspiration from.

Writing Tense Action Scenes by Joe Moore

12 Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Kathey Temean

How to Write a Fight Scene by Randy Ingerman

Thank you.

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How to Hack your Writing Method

Own your Writing Style

A writer writes, but how do you conceive an idea and make it come to life? Do you daydream for hours on end and develop scenes in your head before you ever write a word, or do you sit in front of your computer and wait for inspiration to strike?

Your writing can get carried away. By spending to much time plotting and outlining, you might find it hard to gather all of the information into one compelling narrative. On the other hand if you’re a pantser you might end up with a narrative that dances around beautifully sculpted details, convoluted to the point you lose track of the story arc.

In this article we will discuss how to keep track of creative ideas. We will cover how to organize ideas into a well scripted piece of writing. That way a story can be written effectively that readers will enjoy effortlessly.

Einstein’s desk photographed a day after his death

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

If you are a pantser then and you sit down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants. If you are a plotter then you craft detailed outlines before you put pen to page. Whatever style you write you should have a vague idea of where the story is headed before you begin.

For more information visit Cindi Myers Article: Plotter or Pantser: The Best of Both Worlds

Stephen King claims that his story ideas come form a “what if” question. What if a classic car hunts people down? (Christine) What if a man on death row has a gift to heal the sick? (The Green Mile) What if an outcast teenage girl develops telepathic powers during puberty and burns down her high school?(Carrie) Stephen King answers these questions by typing out a narrative scene by scene. He claims it is like digging for dinosaur bones. The story is there. He simply finds it and digs it up. Stephen King is a pantser style writer.

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For more information about Stephen King and his advice on writing I highly recommend his book: Amazon: Stephen King, On Writing

Avoid the Premise Novel

A lot of pantsers and first time novelists fall into the habit of writing a premise novel. A premise novel is a story built around an idea. Premise novels typically have no solid protagonist, no narrative drive, and no personal stakes. These stories are usually told from multiple points of view because the writer wants to show all aspects of the idea. The stakes feel high but none of the characters have anything at stake.

For more information visit Janice Hardy’s article: Look! It’s an Idea Going form Premise to Plot

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The Snowflake Method:

Fiction by Design

Whether you consider yourself a pantser or a plotter, it is a good idea to sit down and plan a few things in the beginning. If you don’t get somewhat of a grasp on your theme you might end up spending 500 or more hours on a rambling first draft. One method that seems to work well is the snowflake method.

This method is useful and necessary if you are writing a mystery or a historical narrative so you can keep your plot points accurate.

Step 1) Write a one sentence summary of your story. This is also good to remember for when you are sending out agent or publishing queries.

Step 2) Expand your sentence to a full paragraph that includes story setup, major conflicts, and the ending.

Step 3) Write a one page summary sheet about each of your characters. Include: names, one sentence summary of character’s storyline, the character’s motivation, the character’s goals, the character’s conflict, the character’s epiphany. After you do this for each character expand the one sentence summary or your character into a paragraph summary?

Step 4) Expand each sentence in your summary paragraph into a paragraph unto itself.

Step 5) Write a one page description about each major character and a half page description about each minor character.

Step 6) Expand your story synopsis. If you wrote one page then expand it to four.

Step 7) Expand your character descriptions into fully realized character charts.

Step 8) Make a list or a spread sheet of all the scenes you’ll need to turn into a novel.

Step 9) Take each line of the scene list and expand it into a paragraph summary.

Step 10) Start the first draft.

For more information visit: The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

Outlining and Brainstorming Tools

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Scrivener: a writing program designed for novelists and screenwriters. I use Scrivener software to help me outline and keep track of character notes and research. Learn more about Scrivener from my previous Scrivener Editorial

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Evernote: an organization tool for all aspects of your life. It is good for jotting down a plot point if you are in the supermarket. You can save voice messages, pictures, webpages and many types of information and organize it however you want using notebooks. I have lists of books to read, quotes, jokes, research topics and much more.

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Trello: a multi-tasking project managing platform. I use Trello to keep my unwritten story lines organized for when I do get around to writing them. With moveable cards it is easy to shift scenes and notes around to organize what you have written and what you need to work on.

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bubbl.us: a simple free brainstorming website you can use in your browser to let ideas branch out and take shape.

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xmind.net: another free website for more comprehensive brainstorming. (There is a premium package that comes with more tools for presentation and export capabilities). New features with xmind include an option to save to Evernote.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you should have a vague idea of the story’s theme and be able to write a one sentence summary of your story before you write a word of your first draft.

Find a method that works for you. Hone your skills and develop your own unique process so it comes natural. I am reminded of an inspirational message I once heard: amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

Use tools to help you organize your thoughts and develop your ideas into a working cohesive artfully crafted piece of writing. This will save time and headaches.

Are you a pantser, a plotter, or a little of both? Does your method work for you? Would you be willing to try a different method and test yourself to develop your creative process?

Try it out and see. That is why it is called the writing process.

Characters with Contradictions

It’s all about the but

This is a re-blog from my site at brianphilipsen.com

con·tra·dic·tion

ˌkäntrəˈdikSH(ə)n/

noun: contradiction; plural noun: contradictions

  1. A combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that are opposed to one another.
  2. A person, thing, or situation in which inconsistent elements are present.
  3. The statement of a position opposite to one already made.

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Search Google for the word contradiction. The definition that first appears on the web page isn’t a vague description; it is actually quite to the point—as it should be, after all the dictionary is meant to be clear and concise. So, how does contradiction apply to you the writer?

Simple: contradiction is complexity.

I have read and learned from many books about the craft of writing, (Stephen King’s On Writing is my stand out favorite) and countless writing blogs on character development. Some say: you don’t want to have a character that is a cardboard cutout; you want your characters to be three dimensional; you want your characters to be likable. The first two statements are merely complimentary. The latter of the three is just pandering, like the mother that sends her child off to school with cupcakes for the whole class, so the other children will overlook the kid’s snaggletooth smile and play with the poor tike.

In order to engage your reader, don’t make your characters likable, make them relatable. Advice I often hear from author blogs is: give your characters flaws; Give your characters weaknesses; give your characters motivation—even if it’s simply a glass of water; give your characters layers. Contradiction encompasses all of these themes.

Take for instance the debt collector that torments people over the phone for late payments, but can’t pay her own student loan bills and has to work a low income office job just to get by, or the politician with a tough pro-life stance, but is forced to pay for a mistress’s abortion to preserve his candidacy hopes. Think about the thrill seeker that base jumps off of tall bridges, but fears the sound of popping balloons. These are interesting characters because they are in a constant struggle to reconcile their own conscious contradictions.

Giving contradictions to a traditional character archetypes is a great way to freshen up a stale, overused hero, villain or sidekick. Personally, I love the challenge of reinventing an established, tried-and-true, character archetype, and twisting them into such a contradiction that the reader is forced to analyze every step of the narrative to figure out how the character came to being.

Nuns Lighting Cigarettes

There are many characters that drip contradictions in literature, television, movies, and video games that make them— not likable—but relatable. To name just a few:

  • Holden Caulfield, of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, wants to stop time. He wants to be a protector of innocence—a catcher in the rye, as the title would suggest—but also wants to stay innocent himself. Not wanting to grow old, Holden covers the patch of early onset grey hair with a cap which becomes his trademark. As a first person narrative Holden Caulfield is subjective to the environment around him, and it is easy to see the contradiction in his thoughts and actions.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the portrait of the American dream: fame, fortune, and recognition—but Jay Gatsby is reserved and mysterious during the lavish parties at his estate. Gatsby later reveals to, Nick Carraway (the narrator), that his ownership of such gaudy trappings is a ruse to gain the attention of Daisy Buchanan: the object of great obsession to Gatsby; the one thing he can never have.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduces us to a strong female character that defies the stereotypical cheerleader archetype. Buffy is a ditsy high school teenager—but also happens to slay demons when she’s not engaging the football fans in a rousing call to arms.
  • John Haught, a character from my new book The Prick of Time, is a man that works as a CPA for an accounting firm, but has no control over his own finances, and embezzles money to further his own reckless spending. Also, John cheats on his fiancé, but when he admits his own transgressions to her, John is taken aback, and plays the wounded victim when John’s fiancé reveals that she vengefully cheated on John when she became aware of his philandering nature.

Contradictions don’t make a character likable; they make the character real—and therefore relatable. In my personal life, the people that I have the strongest emotions toward (good, or bad) are the people that are so similar to me that it makes me feel uncomfortable as if I will be held liable by their actions—guilty by association if you will. If your reader finds similarities in your characters to themselves it will create an emotional response that is engaging and memorable.

People say this, but do that. People are this, but act like that. Well written characters are no different. Contradictions are everywhere; they make the world interesting and keep you guessing.

It’s about the but

More than just a Bad Guy

Antagonists, and Antagonistic Forces

What is an antagonist? In grade school it was simple enough. The protagonist was the good guy, and therefore, by default, the antagonist was the bad guy. Good vs. Evil. Good triumphs over evil. End of story—right? Boring. So, to create a greater range of drama storytellers went and muddled up the idea of what an antagonist to broaden the range of conflict in narrative.

“Know your enemy,” is a saying derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The proverb extends beyond a statement as simple as, “know your enemy,” but for the sake of discussion I will concentrate on this aspect of the expression. Know your enemy and know your antagonist. How do you expect to win over the heart of your readers if you don’t establish a strong enough conflict? If you want your reader to care about the protagonist overcoming adversity and resolving the conflict, than show a character, an anti-hero, who cares as much as the protagonist, if not more so, to achieve a goal in stark contrast to that of the hero.

A+B=C, Protagonist+Antagonist=Conflict.

During this discussion we will define what an antagonist or an antagonistic force is and deconstruct the motivations of the opposition. We will be able to approach the root of the conflict in each category. We will learn how to not only overcome adversity, but how to sustain a reader’s attention beyond the common story setup and repeated narrative themes.

The 5 ultimate conflict types

To reflect modern gender neutral terminology, the traditional man vs. man descriptions and the like have been replaced.

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Person vs. Person

This is the most common conflict. Cowboys vs. Indians, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, Lt. Ellen Ripley vs. the zenomorph (notice how I didn’t use a Disney princess and instead chose the most bad-ass female protagonist in all of Sci-fi action movies Alien—at least in my opinion)

Person vs. Self

This type of conflict is an internal one. Joseph Campbell has written many works about the role of heroes in myths and religions by comparing stories from around the world. Joseph Campbell concluded that one of the hero’s first steps to finding herself or himself and becoming the hero is to face, and overcome an existential crisis before gathering the strength to defeat the larger external conflict of the main protagonist. But, many stories do deal with the core theme of person vs. self. As an example, in my own book, The Prick of Time, John, the central character is wrestling with his own demons of addiction, morality, ego and mortality.

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Person vs. Nature

This is a story of survival, whether it be a blizzard in the woods, a volcano in Pompeii or, just plain weather. Apocalyptic tales about earthquakes and climate change have become a staple of summer movie blockbusters in the last forty years. No doubt the trend will continue as long as CGI, 3-D and surround sound supplement the story. Audiences continue watching millions of desperate computer generated humans being destroyed with a sick sense of pseudo-sadism to escape the mundane.

Person vs. God

Sometimes the hero will be encountering fate or even God himself. These stories aren’t so much about defeating the antagonistic—I mean, how could they—but more about coming to terms with certain unalienable truths and surrendering to the idea.

Person vs. Society

These stories are about a conflict with the status quo. It’s not any one antagonist causing trouble, it’s just how things are done. Stories like these typically take place in an urban environment. Whether the society is dystopian or utopian, the common elements are a societal structure that is oppressive or perceived to be by the protagonist. Everyone stands in the way of the protagonist, but not everyone is at fault.

There are several subdivisions of the five conflict archetypes that fall into several categories like person vs. animal, person vs. technology, and person vs. supernatural.

Of the five major conflict types we are going to delve into the more common of the types: person vs. person. This is a good starting point because these enemies are human and easier to define than say a snow storm or the grandeur of God. Also, by dissecting the themes of person vs. person, you can relate some points of contention to the other main conflict types. You can find parallel themes by anthropomorphizing the conflicts of mere mortals using metaphors and similes.

First I’ll start by saying that we are all judgmental. We are human; it’s what we do. Recognize that you—as a writer—are blinded by your own judgements, and tend to discriminate because of your previous conceptions of persons, places, things and ideas. If you envision your antagonist as a bad guy, then you’ve already put the character in a box that they can never escape. You will write that character insincerely from a place of your own judgement.

These are some tips that I use on occasion to help me when writing an antagonistic character. So what makes a strong antagonist?

  • A strong antagonist is motivated to act. They are trying to accomplish something. Whether it be an evil plan or upholding the status quo, a strong antagonist wants to gain something, has a goal to achieve, and has a plan meet their needs.
  • A strong antagonist has a strong personal desire. Greed, personal demons or an affinity to violence or maintaining power, they posses a plan to meet their goals.
  • A strong antagonist is compelling. They have a soul. They are flawed and have something to hide. They are avoiding something. By making an antagonist likable you make them relatable. An antagonist you love to hate because you can relate is the best antagonist. We as humans tend to dislike viewing our own flaws mirrored by another.
  • A strong antagonist is adaptable. A strong antagonist is cunning and learns from the protagonists actions. As the antagonist continues to create conflict by always being one step ahead, the protagonist will be forced to overcome their own certain limitations and grow beyond them.
  • A strong antagonist is in the path of the protagonist’s goal. Without the dynamic of two characters with personal goals is direct opposition to each other, than you have a weak conflict, an insufficient plot, and a reader lost after forty pages.
  • A strong antagonist is not over excessively capable. If your character is indestructible or impossibly intelligent it overshadows the protagonist and eliminates hope.
  • A strong antagonist is not dumb or incapable. An easily defeated antagonist is boring. There has to be thought before action; action before reaction; conflict before antagonism.
  • A strong antagonist thinks like a protagonist. The best antagonist doesn’t know they are the bad guy. In fact they imagine they are a good guy, but like the old adage goes: the road to hell is paved in good intentions. I don’t agree with a man like Hitler in any way, but I sometimes wonder how well he slept at night. Hitler probably assumed he was doing a good thing. Hitler saw himself as a world changer. He considered himself a power for good to rid society of “disease.” Yes, Hitler was bad, but he didn’t think so.

Hitler 2

  • A strong antagonist is not evil for evil sake. A strong antagonist doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “hey, I feel like doing some damage today.” A simply evil character is boring and one dimensional. The world is complex. What is good and bad is almost never clear. Even the greatest good is bad on some level and vice versa. Your antagonist should be forced to make emotional decisions and be defined by their choices.

Vader kitten

Conclusion

Understand what type of conflict you are writing: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. God, or person vs. society. Once you figure out the points of contention then you gain a foundation on which to build a strong antagonist.

If an antagonist reminds the reader of someone they know or of themselves and a situation they were in, you have a strong protagonist. If the reader is trying to guess the next move of the antagonist because the antagonist is clever and capable of a well played rouse, you have a strong antagonist. If you have an antagonist whose goals are so grandiose that the protagonist views the journey as an insurmountable task, you are on your way to a compelling antagonist.

What makes your antagonist gripping and jump off the page? What makes your antagonistic force give your reader a lump in their throat? What makes your antagonist just like you?

If you liked this article I suggest you check out Fiction University at JaniceHardy.com. The blog contains many articles on the craft of writing, the toils of publishing, and the lifestyle of an author.

References:

Enemy Mine, by Janice Hardy

Traits of Strong Antagonists by Janice Hardy

There is no Bad Guy: What to do when your Antagonist isn’t a Villain by Janice Hardy

The Faceless Villain: What to do when your Bad Guy isn’t a Person by Janice Hardy

I’m not Evil: Writing from the Antagonist’s Point of View by Janice Hardy

Another good article to check out for the Authors Nook

7 Ways To Create an Antagonist Readers Hate To Love by BD Schmitt

Oh, I Remember Now! How to use Flashbacks

Flashbacks Done Right

Flashbacks can play pivotal roles in any story, whether it be fiction, nonfiction or a script. So what is flashback in a story? Some folks confuse it with backstory, but the time constraints of a flashback don’t allow us to share too many details. They just allow us to reveal tidbits.

A flashback is a sudden, brief relocation to a previous time and then, just as suddenly, a return to the present story. Flashbacks can hint at backstories, but they aren’t backstories themselves.

Flashbacks are quick. Backstories, because they drag in the baggage of a character or a situation, are longer.

Backstory refers to the characters’ history and other story elements that underlie the situation at the start of the book. Backstory helps to establish the setting and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.

But be careful: Backstory by definition takes the story backward. Whether you employ flashbacks, character musings and recollections, or passages of exposition to reveal what came before, every instance of backstory stops the novel’s forward momentum, and risks leaving the story dead in the water.

Backstory, when layered effectively, can be a good way to establish setting and provide description. Diverting the readers’ attention away from the here and now allows you to focus on times and places that give deeper insight into a character or a situation.

Do time travel right. A flashback should follow a strong scene. This means that the flashback is never the first scene. It’s not even the second scene following a brief, sketchy, introductory “scene”

Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space.

Conventions have evolved about using verb tenses to signal both the start and end of flashbacks. “Now we’ve moved back in time” and “Now we’ve left the flashback to rejoin story time,” is the best way to keep your reader from flashback confusion.

Use verb tense conventions to guide your reader in and out of the flashback.

If the story is being told in the past tense, then write the first few verbs of the flashback in the past perfect and the rest in simple past.

If you tell the story-time events in the past tense you’d say “he came back,” “he knew,” “he scanned.” To signal the start of the flashback, you can put the first few verbs in past perfect like “had done,” “had dressed,” “had bought,” “had come. After that tell the rest of the flashback in past tense (“eyes were shut,” “they passed,” etc.). The reason for this is that an entire flashback in past perfect would be cumbersome, especially if it’s very long. When you’re ready to end the flashback, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs. Then use past tense to resume story time.

Framing the Story

A “frame story,” which may be any length from a few thousand words to a long novel, is one which begins after all the action is over. Someone, announces that he is going to tell a story. He may even give the entire outcome of the story ahead of time.

Romeo and Juliet: Prologue

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Consider this structure carefully before using it for a story. Is there an interesting contrast between a young narrator and their later self? Interesting enough to sacrifice having your reader feel she is experiencing the story as it happens, instead of being told about it after it’s over? If so, try a frame. If not, save your flashbacks for use in the body of the work

Flashbacks Done Wrong

Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback isn’t happening in story time. It happened sometime earlier, and so we are being given old information. Like old bread, old information is never as fresh or tasty as new bread. The flashback lacks immediacy.

But offsetting this inherent disadvantage are the several advantages a good flashback can bring to a story. It can make plausible a character’s motives, by showing what events in his past compel him to act the way he is now. It can fill in events that show how the story situation reached the exciting state it’s in now. And it can present crucial information that happened so long ago,—years, or even decades, earlier—that there is simply no other way to include it.

Too much, too soon: the line between flashbacks and backstory in the opening pages

Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”

Timing is everything

Managing backstory in a novel is a matter of control. If backstory in a novel’s opening pages is a problem, why do you need to include it? You might not realize that as you begin your novel, you’re not actually writing the story—not yet. Those early pages might look like a novel, but they’re really prep work.

Writing backstory might feel like storytelling, but it isn’t. It’s regurgitating facts, or dolling up aspects of world-building and plugging in what that you already know, in the hopes that it will entertain and enlighten the reader but instead it might have the opposite effect. Less is more. Backstory is like creating a ‘connect-the-dots’ picture—you just need the dots. The reader will draw the lines.”

Ask: does the reader really need to know this fact about the character? Or is this detail something that you find interesting, but isn’t crucial to the story? Will the story fall apart if you withhold this information?

A good opening sets the scene, introduces the characters, and sets the story in motion. What it never does is answer the question, “Why?” Why the characters behave and think as they do, and how they came to this point in the opening are questions that will be answered throughout the book.

If you’ve inadvertently loaded the beginning of your novel with backstory, cut it from the beginning and weave it into the narrative. Fight those backstory battles and use flashbacks like a dash of salt and pepper for flavor— not a dicey chopped onion.

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Contents of this article were pulled directly from some of the best writers advice columns to be found at http://www.writersdigest.com/. If you would like to read the articles in their entirety please follow the links and enjoy.

How to Weave Backstory Into Your Novel Seamlessly, by Brian Klems of, The Writers Dig

3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks, by Nancy Kress

Mistake 24: Misusing Flashbacks and Memories, by Scott Francis

Also, special thanks to dearphotograph.com for the beautiful pictures featured in this article.