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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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Character Development – Nobody’s that perfect

Nothing bugs me more than when the hero or heroine in a novel is too perfect.  This is a common mistake for novice writers.  But it also plagues some writers who should know better.  I recently started reading a best-seller by a novelist who has had a bevy of best-sellers and I quit on page 34.  That was the point where it became evident that the two main characters were just too damn perfect.  Mind you, these are characters in a series of books, so I must assume this has been going on for some time now.  The man was handsome, smart, understanding and romantic, and yet he was a real tough guy who was an expert marksman and a martial arts black belt.  The woman was drop-dead gorgeous, in peak physical fitness with the body of a goddess, sexy, sophisticated, brilliant, tough as nails, and also an expert in self-defense.  Oh, yeah, and they both were the most ethical and moral people you’ve ever met.  It was like the old British TV show The Avengers with Steed and Mrs. Peel.  Only it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek like that show.  This was a serious novel with main characters that belonged in a comic book.

There are many reasons to avoid making your hero or heroine too perfect but I’ll only touch on a couple – one from the reader’s perspective and one from the writer’s perspective.  From the reader’s perspective…they’re boring!  A character who has some flaws, is struggling with a personal problem or problems, and has a few wrinkles (both in his psyche as well as his appearance) has more depth, is more realistic, and therefore is much more interesting.  We all know people who are “too good” or “too perfect” and, even though they may be someone you respect in some ways, they aren’t the people you gravitate toward at a cocktail party.  Why would you want to bore your reader with a whole novel about someone like that?

From the writer’s perspective, perfect characters are too restrictive.  Why limit yourself?  In Robert B. Parker’s series about Jesse Stone, he has a main character who is a recovering alcoholic with a checkered past and a co-dependent relationship with his ex-wife.  That gives Parker a couple of ready-made subplots for every novel in this series and a ton of material for character development.  You may or may not be a fan of Parker, but he is a master at character development.  He’s able to create interesting characters that can support a series of books without becoming caricatures of themselves.  That’s pretty remarkable when you consider he’s written 38 novels in the Spenser series alone.

Think about your favorite characters from the novels you’ve read, the movies you’ve seen, and even the TV shows you watch.  I’m quite sure they are not perfect.  We all have a tendency to make our main characters above average and someone we can look up to and perhaps even emulate.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t overdo it.  Too much of a good thing is just simply that…too much.  I love banana pudding.  But if I eat too much I don’t want to go near the stuff again for a while.  Don’t create characters that are too perfect or your readers will “pass on dessert” next time.

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Character Development – Whose story is it?

This article could go in the upcoming series on plot development.  But it also relates back to my previous article about what to do when a new character shows up.  So I’m putting it here in this series.

Have you ever read a story where there were so many strong characters, or the focus of the story shifted so much, it was hard to figure out who it was really about?  I’m not talking about soap operas – they’re all over the place when it comes to character development.  In fact, they break almost all of the rules without any qualms whatsoever.  I’m talking about a serious novel where the focus was fragmented, for lack of a better word.  That happened to me with Consequences.  I didn’t realize it until I had finished the first draft.  I gave it to my father to read and the first thing he said was, “Whose story is this?  It starts out with Dave.  Then Trevor takes over.  Then it kind of shifts back to Dave.  Only he’s become more of a secondary character at this point.  You need to figure out who the main character is and make it his story.”

In my first draft of Consequences the story began with Dave Simms.  We got to know him a little and learned about his computer consulting business.  Then we met Ron Maddox and learned a little about his relationship with Dave.  Then, after Ron was found dead in his office, we met FBI Agent Trevor Washington.  But Trevor was such a strong character he took over the story from that point forward.  When the story shifted back to Dave he was overshadowed.  He was still very important to the development of the plot, but it was no longer his story.  To be honest…it was a mess.  Of course, it was only a first draft, so it’s okay that it was a mess.

When I gave the focus to Trevor, made it his story, that also helped me to tighten up the plot and get rid of some things that didn’t need to be there.  As a matter of fact, all that stuff about Dave and his relationship with Ron got cut.  I literally whacked the first 52 pages and started where Trevor was introduced and where the real story began – with the death of Ron Maddox.

When you encounter a situation like this with your own writing you need to take a step back and look at your plot and your characters.  Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. You must identify who, or what, they are.  Sometimes the antagonist is not a person it’s a force of nature or some other factor that acts against the protagonist.  Initially in Consequences I thought Dave would be the protagonist and Carol the antagonist.  Instead, Trevor turned out to be the protagonist.  There was more conflict between Trevor and Carol and the conflict between them was more complex and more interesting.  Once I realized that it was obvious…it was Trevor’s story.

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Character Development – When a new character shows up

I was working on an early chapter in Bishop’s Move when a new character showed up.  I told my wife, “A new character showed up today.  I wasn’t expecting her.  But I’m glad she came along.  I like her.  It will be interesting to see what impact she has on the story.”  Well, what I learned was that she would be the catalyst for a whole new subplot.  That was good because I needed another thread to weave into the fabric of the story and it actually related to and provided contrast with the first subplot in some ways.  And, more importantly, she provided new insight into Harry’s personality.

When I write I try to plan ahead three or four chapters.  This gives me direction on what I need to be writing on a given day.  But my chapter outlines are not detailed enough to be restrictive or to dampen the creativity.  I’ll talk more about this in my articles on plot development.  But the point I want to make today is that sometimes when I actually start writing the chapter goes in a different direction than I had planned.  If it’s early in the story new characters are often the reason for the change.

The hard part is figuring out whether a new character adds to the story or is merely a distraction.  Most of the time you won’t know right away.  You have to give it time to incubate a little.  You have to take time to get to know the character before you can see the impact he (or she) will have.  If the new character adds to the story, then write him in.  But if he’s just a distraction then you must have the discipline to not let him get in the way.  This can be hard sometimes.  In Consequences I had a really fun character who was prominent at the beginning and the ending of the novel.  He was someone I got to know very well and I really liked him.  But as the story progressed I realized that he really didn’t add anything to the story.  As a result his part got trimmed down significantly and, eventually, cut out completely.  He’s still a great character and I’m sure he will show up in another novel.  He just wasn’t right for this one.

When you are in the creative process of writing, new characters will often show up.  Sometimes when you least expect them.  You don’t want to push them away without first getting to know them a little.  You need to see how they fit into your story.  If they do…great…go with it.  But if they don’t…you can’t let them be a distraction.  You have to be disciplined enough to cut them if they aren’t needed.

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Character Development – Don’t let your characters get “out of character”

Few things are more disruptive to your story than when one of your characters, especially the main character, slips “out of character.”  By that I mean when they do something or say something or react in a way that they wouldn’t based on what we know about them.  Your reader should never stop and say, “Wait a minute.  He wouldn’t do that.”  It not only breaks up the flow of the story but it makes your character less credible.  Readers like consistency and dependability and, to a degree, even predictability.  It’s disruptive when your characters don’t act as they’re supposed to.

This seems really basic, the kind of thing everyone should know, but it happens all the time.  You see this in best-selling novels by experienced authors as well as in first novels by novice writers.  Typically this occurs when the writer has an idea for a great scene or some really catchy dialogue that they just have to put in their novel.  Occasionally it happens when authors get on their soapbox about something that is important to them personally.  Sometimes it’s simply a result of undisciplined writing.  And sometimes it happens because the writer doesn’t know his character as well as he should (as I mentioned in my previous article).  But regardless of the reason, and no matter how good the scene may be, if your character wouldn’t do it or say it, then don’t make them.  Let another character do it, find another way to get the point across, or perhaps even leave it out entirely.

In the first draft of Consequences there were a couple of times where the main character, Trevor Washington, said things he wouldn’t say.  Trevor was an FBI agent investigating a couple of complex murders.  I wanted to make sure the reader understood that he hadn’t missed something important.  So in a couple of situations he told the people he was interviewing that he knew they were lying.  But, in reality, he wouldn’t do it.  He wouldn’t show his hand like that, especially not to a suspect.  As much as I wanted to see Trevor put the suspect in his place it was out of character.  So I took it out – and one of the scenes was really good, too.  I hated to cut it but I had to.  Then I had to come up with a different way to get the original point across to the reader.  What I came up with worked just fine and it didn’t allow my main character to get out of character.

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Character Development – Get to know your characters…intimately

How well do you know your characters?  Do you know what type of music they like?  What kind of foods they prefer?  Do they like sports?  Do they play sports?  Do they have a great sense of humor?  Do they have any unusual habits or routines they follow?  What is a typical day like?  These are the kinds of things you need to know about your characters – not necessarily in that detail for minor characters, but definitely for your primary characters.

Do you write out a detailed description of your characters?  If not, you should.  There’s something about writing it down that helps bring it into focus.  Write down everything you know about them.  Even though you won’t put most of this in your novel it’s important to know your characters that well.

Of course, this may take some time.  You have to be patient and let it develop.  For example, I got the idea for Bishop’s Move several years ago.  It stemmed from an experience my dad had which I found fascinating.  Starting with that event, I came up with an intriguing idea for a novel.  But the main character, Harry Bishop, remained a little fuzzy.  So I had to put off starting the manuscript until I got to know him better.

I began by writing a two page description about the various stages of his life as he grew up, taking note of everything that happened that made him who he is today.  Then I went back and added details about his personal likes and dislikes – his preferences for music, his interests in sports and literature, his hobbies, etc.  Eventually I learned why he’s so guarded in his relationships and came to understand why he tends to keep people at a distance.  Oddly enough, I didn’t know his age or write down details about his appearance until I was well into the process of “getting to know” him.  But when I finished I had a very detailed, intimate knowledge of the main character of my novel.  As a result, now I don’t have to think too much about what he will do or say or how he will react to a situation because I know him so well.

It’s always tempting when you get a great idea to jump right in and start writing.  What I do instead is make lots of notes on plot ideas and scenes and start sketching out the characters.  But I don’t write anything that will be part of the actual manuscript until I know my main character very, very well.  Then a funny thing happens…he sort of takes over and tells me the story.  I’ll get into this aspect of writing in the articles on plot development.  But for now my advice is simple.  Take the time to get to know your characters and write down everything you know about them.  I think you will find this very useful in your character development.

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Character Development – It’s all about the characters

Not long ago my cousin, Ellen, and I were talking (emailing, actually) about writing and she asked me why I write mysteries rather than “southern literature” since several of my favorite authors wrote in that genre – Walker Percy, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few.  I said that, first of all, I didn’t think I could write literature.  I’m better at writing books with lots of dialogue, a fast pace, and not a lot of fluff.  Or maybe I’m just not that perceptive.  Secondly, I said that “Southern literature” is grounded in complex character development and is about deep emotional or behavioral aspects of their personalities.  In this genre the emphasis is on how the characters react to what happens to them and how that reaction affects their families and, occasionally, the entire community in which they live.  The novels I write are more about what the characters do than how they feel about what they do.  Action, not emotion, drives the plot and controls the pace.  The interest in the story comes from what the characters do, not what revelations they experience.

Of course, in reality, that’s not entirely true.  Well, the part about me not being that perceptive may be true.  But not the part about what holds the reader’s interest in the story.  Regardless of the genre – mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. — it’s all about the characters.  This is obviously the case with romance novels.  But even a mystery with lots of surprises and twists and great sleuthing doesn’t keep you turning pages if the characters aren’t interesting.  Horror simply isn’t compelling if you don’t care what happens to the characters.  What makes a suspense thriller suspenseful is not the great scenes and fast-paced action.  It’s the characters.  As with horror, if you don’t care what happens to the characters then there is no suspense.  There’s nothing thrilling about anything if you aren’t worried about the health and welfare of the characters.

So, how do you develop compelling characters that capture the reader’s interest?  How much time do you spend on character development?  How complex, how deep, do your characters need to be to carry the story?  How do you ensure your characters “stay in character?”  These are some of the topics I’ll cover in the upcoming articles.

Don’t overlook the importance of character development.  That is the foundation, the key to writing a novel that captures and holds your reader’s interest.

We’ll build on that foundation in the next article on character development — “Get to know your characters…intimately.”

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