Monthly Archives: June 2009

Plot Development – Memories, flashbacks, and linear progression

Writers use a lot of literary devices to tell their stories.  Two of the most popular are memories and flashbacks.  Although similar, they are not the same.

A memory is simply that – a character remembering something that happened.  It’s simple and can be very effective in character development.  It’s brief, provides insight, and doesn’t break up the flow of the story.  It can also be a good way to create intrigue, build suspense, and bridge subplots to the main plot.  The key point here is that it’s just a quick trip inside the character’s head.  It only becomes distracting if there are too many of them.

A flashback, on the other hand, actually takes the reader back in time to another place.  This may be a quick detour or the plot may be reset, so to speak, at that point in time and move forward from there.  Flashbacks show us something about the character, explain why he behaves the way he does, or expose something important to the development of the plot that would otherwise not be known.

The problem for many writers who use flashbacks is that they overdo it.  They put in so many flashbacks it becomes distracting.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep up if the flashbacks aren’t sequential.  If the first flashback is a year ago, and the second six months ago, and the third two years ago it’s easy for the reader to get lost.  Especially when the flashbacks involve the same characters.  In movies it’s a little less confusing because the characters may look older or younger or dress in different styles.  But it’s still hard to keep up and trying to set the scene in a novel can be cumbersome.  You could do what they do in the movies and establish the time specifically…three months ago…  That works fine in movies but not so well in novels.

A much more common use of the flashback is to begin at a point very near the climax, then reset the story to a previous point in time and move forward from there, explaining how the character came to be in such a desperate predicament.  This allows you to “hook the reader” right off the bat.  Then the story resets and moves forward in a linear progression, building tension and suspense as it leads up to the point where the novel began.  In essence, the whole story is a flashback but I prefer this technique to the quick detour because of the linear progression.  It’s easier to follow, requires fewer “establishing shots,” and allows the story to flow without too many distractions.

In a story with numerous flashbacks it’s also helpful to have a linear progression with the flashbacks.  For example, let’s say you’re writing about a serial killer.  The main plot occurs in the present, but flashbacks can be used to explain how he became a serial killer.  The first flashback might be when he was six years old and something devastating happened in his life.  Then the second is when he’s ten and he first starts showing tendencies toward violence.  The third is when he’s seventeen and he assaults a young girl who lives in the neighborhood.  Then the fourth is when he’s twenty-two and he kills for the first time.  This type of linear progression within the flashbacks explains in a logical manner what transpired to create the psyche of the killer.  In this example, the use of flashbacks is critical to the story and more effective than if we simply started when the killer was six and moved to present day.

One interesting note about linear progression – it doesn’t have to be forward.  One of my favorite movies, Memento, progresses backwards.  It starts at the end and, instead of leading up to a climax, it works backward and explains how the main character got to where he was at the beginning.  It takes a few scenes before you realize what’s going on, but due to the really strange story line and a very unique flaw with the main character it works and it’s fascinating to see how everything is developed.

In summary…memories and flashbacks can be very useful tools in character and plot development.  But you should be careful to not overdo it.  Too many can disrupt the flow of the story and can be confusing.  Also consider using a linear progression, even with your flashbacks.  Life happens that way.  Time marches on, as they say.  Perhaps for that reason, it’s easier to follow a plot that has a linear progression.

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Plot Development – MP, SP1, and SP2

Have you ever considered how the plots were constructed in your favorite novels?  Do you look for formulas or plot structure in the novels you read?  If you’re a writer, do you diagram your plots so you know when to focus on the main plot, character development, or your subplots?

I think most authors say they don’t use a formula or plan their plots out in too much detail.  They say things like it’s too restrictive, limits creativity, even takes the fun out of writing.  If it becomes overly structured it’s too much like writing a term paper or a book report instead of a novel.

Well, this may or may not be true.  That probably depends on the writer’s personality, experience, talent, and so forth.  One thing is for sure – the authors who churn out one novel after another have a structure they follow.  It may be subconscious, but it’s there nonetheless.  You can prove this by diagramming their novels.  They follow a pattern that moves from main plot to subplots, back and forth, in such a way that you don’t get lost or forget what’s going on.  The experienced writers just kind of know to do this and don’t need to diagram it.  But the beginner or novice generally needs help keeping everything running smoothly.  The good news is that it’s really easy to do and if you keep it on a high level it won’t limit your creativity.  Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate the point.

By industry standards, a novel is 50,000 words or more.  The page count in popular fiction varies tremendously but most popular fiction runs about 250 pages in print.  That computes to roughly a 300 page manuscript.  With an average word count of 250 per page in manuscript format this computes to 75,000 words.  Obviously, these are rough estimates since these numbers can greatly vary depending on the amount of dialogue, descriptive content, paragraph length, etc.  But these are good averages to work with.  Plus, the math is easy.

Within all those words the writer has to develop his characters, throw them into some kind of situation or crisis, and add some additional material which will be one or more subplots.  A good rule of thumb for allocation is 65-25-10.  65% devoted to the main plot (MP).  25% devoted to subplot one (SP1).  10% devoted to subplot two (SP2).  If we continue with our math this breaks down to approximately 195 pages devoted to the MP, roughly 75 pages for SP1, and only about 30 pages for SP2.  Character development occurs throughout and is generally not included as a separate word/page count.

The key is to concentrate on the MP while working SP1 and SP2 into the storyline without getting too sidetracked.  You don’t want to be away from any of your plots so long that the reader forgets what’s going on.  In creating the structure you can actually map it out, chapter by chapter.  You want to loop back to your SPs every four or five chapters, depending on how long your chapters are.  For example:

Chapter 1 – MP
Chapter 2 – MP
Chapter 3 – MP, SP1
Chapter 4 – MP
Chapter 5 – MP, SP2
Chapter 6 – SP1
Chapter 7 – MP
Chapter 8 – MP
Chapter 9 – SP2
Chapter 10 – MP, SP1
…and so on.

This not only gives you some direction on what you need to be working on next, it also helps you keep the action connected.  In Consequences the MP was concerned with the mystery surrounding the death of Ron Maddox.  SP1 launched FBI Agents, Trevor Washington and Betty Logan, into a separate investigation that took them to South Florida.  However, while working on the case in Florida they uncovered evidence that pointed back to the Maddox case.  SP2 followed the actions of Ron’s widow, Carol.  This plot also provided information that tied back into the MP.  To make it all come together at the right time in the MP I had to chart out what happened where and when in both SPs because it was very time sensitive.  Without a detailed plot structure that would not have been possible.

One more point about structure.  You can work on each plot separately if that helps.  Then you simply go back and weave them all together.  This is a great option if you find yourself with writer’s block.  If you’re bogged down with the MP, write for a few days on SP1 or SP2.  This also helps you come up with twists and turns and allows for foreshadowing and red herrings and all that other literary junk writers like to talk about.

The next time you read a novel, or watch a movie for that matter, look for the MP and SPs.  The MP will be the major conflict that drives the story.  Very likely one SP will deal with a relationship, usually romantic, in which the main character is involved.  The other SP will be a device for character development, typically it involves a little humor and levity, and may not be directly tied into the MP.  It will be very evident if you look for it.

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Plot Development – There must be conflict (part 2)

When we left off last week Mary was in a bad situation.  She was concerned about the well-being of her family and their financial woes.  This was compounded by the possibility of losing her job which was their sole source of income.  But then the stakes got decidedly higher as three armed men entered the bank.  Concerns over long-term issues suddenly evaporated as one of the men stuck a gun in her face and started barking out instructions.

“Fill one bag with the money in the drawers,” the man said.  For a second Mary was immobilized by fear and just stood there staring at him.  “LET’S GO!” he shouted and she took one of the bags and hurried to the first teller window.

As she was doing this the other two robbers herded the patrons and bank personnel into a corner of the lobby.  One of the men began collecting cell phones and personal items while the other man grabbed the two remaining bags off the counter and went into the vault.

Mary set the bag on the floor and opened the first drawer.  As she removed the bills from the tray the man slammed his hand on the counter.  “Quit screwing around,” he said.  “Just dump everything in the bag.  Come on, move it.”

She took the till out of the drawer and bent over to put it in the bag.  In her haste a bundle of fifties fell into the trash can under the counter.  The man didn’t notice and she left it there.  As she moved to the second window she realized that her position was blocking the view of the cameras and the robber on the other side of the counter couldn’t see what she was doing as she bent to put the till in the bag.

Mary realized she had just discovered a way to stash away several thousand dollars.  If she could figure out a way to get the “trash” out of the bank later no one would know she had the money.  The bank would assume the robbers had it all and the robbers wouldn’t know the difference.

She moved to the next teller window and removed the till…

So, what’s your impression of Mary now?  Faced with an opportunity in the midst of a chaotic situation she made a decision to do something that she never would’ve considered otherwise – basically, rob the bank where she worked.  Did this decision change your opinion of her?  What about your interest in the story?  Are you more interested in what will happen next?  In ten paragraphs we expanded a single internal conflict into something much more complex.  If we had devoted those ten paragraphs to Mary standing at the teller’s window, worrying about her financial problems, would you still be reading?

By adding conflict we created a moral dilemma in addition to the threat of physical violence.  We added tension and suspense that will extend beyond the actual bank robbery itself.  We also greatly expanded Mary’s character.  What she decided and how she reacted to conflict added depth to her character.  What if she changed her mind about taking the money?  How would that affect your impression of her?

In my next article I’ll explain how to actually construct a plot by alternating between the main plot and subplots and how to use those subplots to create conflict that feeds back into the main plot.  But the keys to remember at this point are that you must have conflict and internal conflict provides depth to your characters and generates a more powerful response from your reader.

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Plot Development – There must be conflict (part 1)

The essence of storytelling is conflict, the struggle between opposing forces.  Conflict provides the motivation for your characters to act, to experience things they haven’t experienced before, to better understand who they are, and in some cases to evolve (or devolve) into someone different.  Basically, without conflict you have no story.

Types of conflict are internal (Man vs Self) and external (Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, Man vs Machine, etc.).  Most stories include several of these and the outcome is generally the resolution of the primary conflict.

Typically external conflict forces the characters to face some type of internal conflict with which the reader can empathize.  Disaster movies are classic examples of this.  Some great catastrophe occurs – a terrible storm, a devastating fire, a cruise ship flips upside down and begins to sink – which forces the characters to struggle with internal issues in order to survive.  They must find emotional strength they didn’t realize they had.  Or maybe they must face a phobia that has plagued them their entire lives.  They might have to deal with a problem affecting a relationship or come to terms with the loss of a loved one.  In some cases they may even have to resort to violence or act in a way that shakes their very moral fiber.  Can they do it?  Will they do it?  This is what draws the reader in and holds his attention, what builds suspense, and what elicits an emotional reaction to the story.

Let’s look at an example of how external and internal conflicts affect the characters and can change the tone of the story.

Mary was at her teller window at the bank counter but her mind was elsewhere.  Her husband had lost his job almost three months ago and her young son had been ill.  The bills were piling up and their only source of income was her job.  And then the rumors started that there would be layoffs at the bank, as well.

She spoke with the branch manager that morning and told him how much she needed this job.  He said he understood and he would do what he could but it was really out of his hands.  Of course, Mary knew that was BS. It may not be his decision on whether or not to lay off employees, but he would decide who was let go.  And the fact of the matter was that he liked the younger women who worked there more than he liked her.  He was always flirting with them and she had heard that he was “involved” with one of them.  Mary knew that if any tellers were laid off she would be the first to go.

The more she thought about it the angrier she got.  She despised her boss and was beginning to hate her job.  If she thought she could find work somewhere else she’d walk out of the bank today and never look back. Then the worries about her job vanished as three men suddenly burst through the front door.  They were wearing ski masks and dark overcoats.  Two of them carried shotguns and the third had a large pistol that he pointed directly at her as he walked across the bank lobby.

“Do exactly as we say and nobody gets hurt,” the man shouted.  He tossed several large bags on the counter and motioned at them with the gun.  “Fill ‘em up and be quick about it.  Anyone tries anything stupid, we start shooting.”

Okay, so Mary is definitely dealing with some internal conflict here – concern about the well-being of her family and, perhaps, some issues with self-esteem.  This is compounded by the external conflict of possible layoffs at the bank.  This is a tough situation and our hearts go out to her as we think about how we’d feel if we were in a situation like this.  Then another external conflict, the bank robbers, changes Mary’s focus.  It’s no longer about the job and what might happen in the future.  Now it’s about the very real, very immediate threat of violence.

Next week we’ll continue our story and see how changes in conflict can affect the reader’s perspective and the intensity of the story.  Will Mary’s internal conflict over her family’s issues affect her actions during the course of the robbery?  Will the threat of violence give her an epiphany about her job and what is really important in her life?  Will something happen during the robbery that will create even more conflict for poor Mary?  Stay tuned…

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