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Backstory From the Remote Past

In your novel, how do you include backstory from the remote past? Is that even legit? If so, how do you do it? And is that called a flashback or something else?

Eric posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, I’m trying to learn how to word flashbacks for a fiction, mystery and adventure novel I am writing. There is a woman that inherits a castle/estate in England which has a long history dating back to the 14th century. The story takes place in 2016. In chapter two she starts to explore the estate and one of the places she goes into is one of the remaining towers of the castle remains. I wrote a great chapter more than a year ago which describes a fictitious battle that takes place in a real place of a real battle between England and France.

I have been advised by writers not to use it as my first chapter but use it to show the reader flashbacks to indicate backstory and in the end of the book have the main character find an ancient document describing the battle.

So my question is: how to word it? How do I word transitioning the reader temporarily to talk about the 14th century of this place then bring them back to the present?

Can you provide an example? Once I get the hang of it I can proceed. Hard to find how to word these things online.

Randy sez: The immediate question is a “how-to” question, which I can answer pretty quickly. You want to show a scene from the remote past (before any of the characters in your main story were alive). You can easily do this using a “dateline”. This tells the year and possibly the calendar date of the story, and also might include the location. Typically, you put a dateline at the very beginning of a scene, usually centered or right-justified.

Here are some example datelines:

  • Oxford, September 16, 1325
  • June 21, 2035, 13:05 Mars Local Time
  • Friday, April 3, AD 33
  • Captain’s Log, Star Date 31.41.59
  • 18 years earlier

A dateline is simple and clear and quickly puts the reader exactly where and when you want. Some novels have a dateline for every single scene. Most novels don’t use any datelines at all. You get to decide which scenes, if any, need a dateline, and how you’ll format them. There aren’t a lot of rules here. I recommend you keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

It’s not uncommon for novels to begin with a prologue set much earlier than the main story. In this case, the chapter is explicitly labeled “Prologue” and the author may include a dateline.

Eric, if you really want your battle scene at the beginning of your book, a Prologue would be a simple and effective way to do it. Then Chapter 1 could use a dateline (which might be as simple as “Present day”), or you might choose to not use a dateline because the way your characters act and talk makes it clear that they’re in the present day. You really have a lot of latitude here.

There are a couple of other issues to discuss here.

About Flashbacks

First is the meaning of the word “flashback.” I don’t know if this has an official definition, but I’ve always understood this word to mean a scene or partial scene written in the point of view of one of your main characters but set in an earlier time.

Usually, the way you handle a flashback is that your character is in the middle of a scene in the main story. Then something triggers a memory from some earlier period. You show this trigger, then write a transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph that indicates that the character is about to experience a memory from the past. Then you show the flashback using all the immediate-scene techniques that you normally would—the flashback happens in real-time, and the reader lives it through the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the point-of-view character. At the end of the flashback, you write another transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph to show that the point-of-view character is coming back to the main story. Then you just continue on.

The Harry Potter series used a number of flashbacks with a slight modification of this technique. Professor Dumbledore had a “Pensieve” in his office that allowed Harry to experience a flashback using the memories of some other character.

Flashbacks are a valuable method of giving the reader essential backstory by “showing” rather than “telling.” It’s possible to misuse flashbacks or overuse them, but they’re a powerful technique that should be in every writer’s arsenal.

So for your example, I wouldn’t use the term “flashback” because it’s not experienced by any of your point-of-view characters in your main story. It’s just a scene written in an earlier time period.

Showing Versus Narrative Summary

The second issue is the advice you’re getting from other writers. I don’t have enough information to know if I agree with their advice. You’re proposing to show an exciting battle in real-time. They’re proposing that you tell this in narrative summary in an ancient document at the end of the book.

I don’t see the reason for this advice. It might be based on good reasons that I don’t know. I don’t have much information about your story. But let me spell out the issues for making a decision.

Narrative summary is boring. It has its place in your toolkit, because narrative summary is efficient. But it’s boring.

Showing a scene in real-time is exciting. It’s not an efficient way to give the reader information, but it’s still exciting.

So your decision of whether to show this battle as a scene or to tell it as narrative summary in a document comes down to questions like these:

  • How essential is that information to your readers?
  • How important is that ancient battle within the story?
  • In giving that information, is it more important to be efficient or to be entertaining?

I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know your story. But you do, so the decision is on you.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Creating 3-D Characters For Your Novel

What if the characters in your novel don’t want to do what you want them to do? How do you motivate them to do the right thing? How do you do that believably?

Kate posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy! I love the website and all the books, all the information I’ve read has been very helpful. But I need help. I’ve been reading a lot of books (maybe to many) in regards to characters. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I’m in need of a better understanding (more simplified) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn’t have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he’s regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.

But I can’t figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what’s the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.

I also can’t figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC’s wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?

As I’m sure you can imagine, since I’m missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can’t figure out the theme.

Can you help me Randy?

Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?

Randy sez: Good questions, Kate! It sounds like you’re well on your way to designing a strong novel. You’re very close, in fact.

The problem you’re facing is that your lieutenant really, really wants to get home to the woman he loves, so he can tell her (and hopefully something will come of that). So why in the world would he do anything to jeopardize that Goal? Why would he risk his life right at the end of the story, to save somebody he doesn’t know?

That doesn’t make sense. As a novelist, it’s your job to make it make sense.

Here’s how you do that.

The missing link in your explanation above is something I call “Values.” Values are the magic key to creating 3-D characters. What’s a Value? I’ll give you an example, and then the definition will be clear.

The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s classic novel about a Mafia kingpin, Vito Corleone. Vito is a complicated guy. He runs a small underworld kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Vito rules by helping people. If a poor widow comes to him in tears because she’s being evicted from her apartment, Corleone can make the evil landlord change his mind. All he asks is that the widow gives him honor. Why? Because honor is the currency of his kingdom. A man who has honor has everything. Money, power, happiness, all come from honor. Nothing is more important to Vito Corleone than his honor. He would kill to maintain it.

But Corleone is also a Sicilian, and therefore his family is supreme. He would do anything for his family. Vito has three sons, each with problems. The oldest, Sonny, is impetuous and quick-tempered and insolent. The second, Freddie, is a bit of a sissy. The third, Michael, is bright, intelligent, disciplined—but he scorns the family business and plans to make his own way in the world without his family and without being a criminal. Still, Vito Corleone loves all of his sons. Nothing is more important than family. He would give up his own life for any of his sons.

But that raises a terrible problem early in the novel. A seedy thug named Sollozzo comes to Corleone with a business proposition. Sollozzo wants help in getting police protection for his heroin operation. And long-term, he’ll also need help from the corrupt judges in Corleone’s pocket. Sollozzo offers a generous cut of his profits in exchange for the protection that only Vito Corleone can give him.

Corleone believes that this will endanger all of his other operations. Corleone’s consigliori and his oldest son (Sonny) are at the meeting, but Corleone doesn’t consult them in this decision. He simply refuses Sollozzo’s offer, explaining his reasons—that it would destroy all that he has worked to build.

But Sonny doesn’t like this, and he blurts out a question to Sollozzo that makes it clear that he’s interested. This is a huge mistake. Sonny has just dishonored his father by questioning his judgment.

What should Vito Corleone do? He loves his son. But his son has just violated his honor. His son should be banished from the organization—immediately. Corleone must make an instant decision. He chooses to make a joke of his son’s rash comment and then repeats his decision—no, he will have nothing to do with narcotics.

That decision drives the entire novel.

Three months later, Sollozzo’s henchmen shoot Vito Corleone in the street, nearly killing him. Their hope is to get Vito out of the way so they can do a deal with Sonny. But Vito survives, barely, and the rest of the novel tells how he claws his way back to power, pulling his youngest son Michael into the family business.

All because of one decision. One very difficult decision. Difficult because of Vito Corleone’s two clashing Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than honor.
  2. Nothing is more important than family.

Those can’t both be the most important thing. When they conflict, Corleone must choose between them. And nobody knows what that decision will be until he makes it.

Now let’s define a Value. A Value is anything that your character would put in the blank in this sentence:

“Nothing is more important than ____________.”

When your character has only one Value, then he’s boring and one-dimensional. When he has two or more Values that can conflict, then the character becomes vastly more interesting.

Kate, you’ve already given me enough information to define two of your lieutenant’s Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than avoiding abandonment.
  2. Nothing is more important than the woman I love.

To that, I’d add a Value that most people have:

  1. Nothing is more important than staying alive.

Note that #1 and #2 are in conflict, so that’s good. But it’s not enough. None of the Values above will explain why your lieutenant would endanger his life to rescue somebody he doesn’t know. If you’re going to explain that, you’ll need to give him a fourth Value that would drive his decision. And then you’ll need to show your reader that Value throughout the novel, giving enough reasons for the reader to believe it’s a strong Value. It’s your choice exactly what that Value should be, and it’s your choice why he should hold it so strongly. The art of fiction is the art of making those choices.

Once you do that, then at the end, when you have multiple conflicting Values, the reader can’t know how your character will decide, but a choice to be altruistic will be believable.

This issue is discussed at some length in my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, in chapter 6, “Nothing Is More Important Than Characters.”

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

How Should You Start Your Novel?

Do you really have to start your novel with “something happening?” What if your reader desperately needs to know some important backstory? Or some basic facts about your story world? What’s wrong with a little exposition?

Celine posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, you said a scene has to be either a Scene or a Sequel and that anything that isn’t an MRU must be thrown out; but what about opening scenes, set-ups? Don’t you need some plain old exposition for that? E.g.: I’m writing a story in which the opening scene is of my character riding into the woods to hunt a beast, an angry reaction to something nasty his wife said (which I’m only going to reveal at the end of the story and not in detail). As he rides I need to inform readers about the beast; that people have tried to hunt it before but failed, what it’s like, what it’s done, etc. How, if possible, can I get all this information out with MRUs?

Randy sez: This is a great time to answer this question, because National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has just started, and tens of thousands of writers around the world are writing a novel this November. I hope many of my Loyal Blog Readers are taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge, and I wish you great success.

A little context will be useful. A crucial part of my teaching on fiction writing has been about Scenes and Sequels. Here are a few places to read more about them, if you want to know much more than I can cover in this blog post:

As Celine noted, I strong recommend that every scene in your novel should be either a Proactive Scene or a Reactive Scene. (These are my terms. The famous writing teacher Dwight Swain called them “scenes” and “sequels”, but those have always seemed to me to be confusing terms.)

So what are these things? We need a couple of definitions:

A Proactive Scene is a scene with the following three parts, which serve as the beginning, middle, and end:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Setback

A Reactive Scene has the following structure:

  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision

Now let’s be one clear on one thing. You don’t HAVE to do anything. There aren’t any scene cops who will delete scenes that don’t fit one of these shapes. I’m told that Herman Melville has an entire chapter of exposition on the biology of whales in his book Moby Dick. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? That’s what you’d like to read first, isn’t it?

No?

Well then. I’d say you should treat your reader the way you want to be treated. Most readers want the story to start out with something interesting. And the result of the last hundred years of analysis by fiction teachers has shown that the two kinds of scenes that work REALLY well to get readers’ interest are Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes.

Your goal as an author is first to entertain your reader. Everything else has a lower priority. Proactive Scenes entertain. So do Reactive Scenes. Because they engage your reader’s emotions, not her intellect.

You entertain your reader by creating a movie in her mind.

Now Celine has a second part to her question, which has to do with MRUs. This is another term that Dwight Swain used. “MRU” stands for “Motivation-Reaction Unit” and you can read all about it in Chapter 3 of his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. I love this book. It’s the book that taught me how to write fiction. I also discuss this at length in Writing Fiction for Dummies.

It’s not easy to boil down Swain’s idea of the MRU, but let me take a stab. There are five basic tools you can use that will help create a movie in your reader’s mind:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Sensory Description

Dwight Swain’s MRUs just combine these five basic tools in a particular format that alternates between what’s inside the viewpoint character and what’s outside.

There are some other tools you can use: narrative summary, exposition, etc. These cut off the movie that was playing in your reader’s head. Instead of a movie, these things put a piece of an encyclopedia into your reader’s head.

You can do that if you want. But your reader may very well not like it.

One way you can give information to your reader is via dialogue or interior monologue. If you do so, then pass in the information in bits and pieces, and always make sure that they serve the conflict in the scene.

Because fiction is about conflict.

Celine, you might ask yourself the question, “How would James Patterson write this scene about the hunt?”

My guess is that James would start it out with the beast charging wildly at our hero. He’d have our hero fire twice and miss. Then his gun would jam, and he’d frantically try to clear the jam. Then the beast would be on him, and he’d whip out his knife and stab at the beast’s eyes. The beast would claw him, writhing in agony. A pitched battle would go on for a few pages. After a ferocious struggle, our hero would kill the beast–and then collapse because the beast nicked his artery. As the scene ends, our hero realizes he’s got about twenty seconds before he bleeds out. Then the next scene would be back at home, where the wife is still mad at our hero. Maybe she’s gossiping with her friends. Maybe she’s poisoning hubby’s underwear. Maybe she’s seducing the butler. Or whatever. You get to choose. Whatever she’s doing has CONFLICT in it. Meanwhile, the reader is dying to know what’s going on out in the woods where our hero is BLEEDING TO DEATH.

Celine, here’s one question to think hard about: Exactly how much information does your reader need to know before she can enjoy these two scenes? My advice, and the advice of most fiction teachers, is to give the reader just that information.

Now you might choose to be a bit more restrained than James Patterson and that’s fine. But there’s a reason James is the best-selling author in the world. Because he plays a movie in your mind.

The nice thing about being a writer is that you get to decide. Nobody can force you to not start your novel with exposition and backstory. But nobody can force the reader to read your work, either. The reader decides what to read based on what she likes. So it seems like good advice to write what readers like.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Four Act Structure Or Three?

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, thanks to a very long research trip to Israel this summer, where I worked on a couple of archaeological digs and generally ignored all my responsibilities. After getting home, I’ve been catching up for what seems like months. In fact, it HAS been months.

Kaitlyn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,
I’ve been struggling with a particular plot line for quite some time and I had a crazy idea about adding a fourth act to the structure to make things flow more smoothly. I have always been committed to the three act structure prior to this particular dilemma and I was interested to find a fairly significant number of writers who have shared articles about a four act structure and the idea of splitting the second act in two parts.
Naturally I wondered, what would Randy think about this?
Can you share some thoughts?
Thanks!
Kaitlyn

Randy sez: The second act of the Three Act Structure naturally splits into two halves. The dividing line between them comes at just about the exact midpoint of the story.

James Scott Bell calls this “the midpoint moment” in his recent book Write Your Novel From the Middle. It’s a good book, highly recommended.

Stan Williams has a book called The Moral Premise, in which the midpoint of the story is the point where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. This is also a good book, well worth reading.

In my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method I spend a whole chapter talking about this midpoint of the story. (Chapter 9, “Your Second Disaster and Your Moral Premise.”) And of course this chapter comes at the midpoint of the story of Goldilocks, who is trying to write a novel. And of course Goldilocks has a crisis that forces her to stop working from a false moral premise and start working from a true one. Very meta.

In my mind, it’s just a matter of convention whether you say your story has three acts or four. So far as I can tell, in the Three Act Structure, the second act is just Acts 2 and 3 of the Four Act Structure.

So to my way of thinking, it’s not all that important what you call these large pieces of your story. What matters is how well you execute them. Which means how well you give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.

Do that, and your reader won’t care what you called your story structure.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

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