Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Show Me Where We're Going

This post is about beginnings, a sort of follow up to my post about starting stories in the middle of the action. Whether you jump directly into the central conflict or not, you still need to create drama for the reader. This means that you have to show things in action.


Put things into motion and keep them in motion. This does not mean that your characters must be running from aliens or leaping volcanoes constantly. It means that the story must move forward, that there must be momentum towards a fixed point (the climax). It means that your characters must be doing things.

What are your characters doing, then? Simply put: they are making decisions and then acting upon them, and then dealing with the consequences of those actions. Your characters want something, and your story is the movement through time of your characters toward that goal, whether they achieve it or not. If your characters don't want anything, then they are not dramatic characters and you should write a different story where people have desires. But I digress.

Put things into motion and keep them in motion. How does the reader know who your characters are? By watching them act. So show them acting. In Homer's Iliad, we know that Achilles is broody and prideful. Do we find this out by reading pages of Achilles brooding, alone in his tent? No; we find this out when he argues publically with Agamemnon or refuses Odysseus' plea to join the battle (both of which are dramatic scenes filled with conflict: a warrior versus his king, and a man versus his friends). In The Lord of the Rings, we don't read pages of Frodo's inner struggle against the evil influence of the One Ring; we see Frodo as he stops heeding Sam and places his trust in Gollum instead, eventually abandoning Sam in Mordor after verbally abusing him. These two examples are both fairly subtle and you might not consider them action at first, but they are: the characters are shown making decisions and acting upon those decisions.

To tie the title of this post into my ramblings, I'll say that in the beginning of a story, you need to let the reader know what the central conflict is, what the story is about: where the characters are going. And you need to show that through action. "Okay, Scott," you say. "We know that. Can you go beyond the basics of 'show don't tell?'" Well, maybe.

Conflict is character. Conflict, for our purposes, means people (or, yes, elves if you must) attempting to achieve specific goals and having to struggle for those achievements. In order for the reader to care about the outcome of this conflict, the reader has to care about the characters. In order to care about the characters, the reader has to know the characters. In order to know the characters, the reader has to see the characters in action. Yes, you can go on for sixty pages about your protagonist's inner thoughts and tell us the whole sad story of his estrangement from his father and his subsequent hatred of all men of a certain age and how that might effect his view of himself as your protagonist becomes the same age as his father when he was disinherited. You might even write it in gorgeous, moving prose. I'd read that. But if that isn't your story--if it's your back-story--you can get the same point across (that your protagonist has "issues" with men of his father's generation) by writing a dramatic scene where your protagonist is cruel or indifferent to an older man. Drama is vivid, memorable and engaging. And, frankly, makes the point better and faster than ruminations.

Can't I stop and think ever? Certainly. Please do. I like thoughtful books, but that's not the way to begin one. Before you have your characters consider the state of their lives, show us your characters within their lives, in action. Even a book like "Pride and Prejudice," which is alleged to be pretty tame and undramatic, begins with 1) a statement of theme (a man with money needs a wife), and 2) the event which kicks off the action of the book (the mansion up the road has been rented by a man with money; we simply must meet him!). That's not as dramatic as jumping a volcano or battling Poseidon, but it's still a dramatized scene that immediately introduces us to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and immediately introduces conflict. Which is exactly what we want as readers, and one reason why Austen's book is still in print after all these years.

This post is a bit of a hash, stucturally. It all seemed brilliant on the way to the office, but it might be less focused than I might like. I'll try to clarify things later.


  1. No Scott, I think it's a great post, and it's one to mull over. I'm reading a novel right now called A Matter of Honor. The first two chapters hooked me immediately, but the third chapter is really rough. It's a flashback scene. I normally enjoy flashbacks, but this one is really rocky. I'm losing my bearings. What are your thoughts on that? I think flashbacks are a clever way of incorporating backstory, but sometimes it interrupts the pacings, don't you think? Interestingly, this book is written by a literary agent with Writers House.

  2. Amy: without the benefit of having read A Matter of Honor, I'll go out on a limb and say that I think flashbacks are generally a mistake. I don't know how they became such a widely-used device, but most of the time they just stop the forward motion of the story. This is another reason why people who watch more films than they read novels should not write novels: they try to use cinematic techniques instead of literary ones, and those techniques usually don't work.

    I think people write flashbacks because their back-stories are just not interesting, so the flashbacks are an attempt to make the back-story seem dramatic and exciting. Likely, the back-story just isn't needed and the characterization or plot setup could be done some other way.

    I'm working on a theory that you can always show character in the story's "present tense," and that you can always explain the conflict in that present tense as well. In my own novel, I have just removed a chapter of back-story, and I am going to do all of my characterization and explanation of conflict in the story itself, in the story's own present, and I am going to somehow make it all work. It will be difficult to do, but I've decided that there is a 1:1 relationship between the amount of back-story in a novel and how lazy the writer is. Flashbacks are the laziest of back-story techniques. Let's stamp them out.

  3. We could nit pick structure, but your point came across loud and clear. I don't think there is much room to argue the validity of your points, either.

    That's my way of saying "good post." See, you're not the only one with the gift of extended verbosity.

  4. Scott,
    Your digression point is something I had a hard time with for a long time in my book. I had the sense that my characters wanted something, but that something was pretty amorphous. They didn't know what they wanted--which is okay. But, I didn't know what they wanted either, which wasn't okay. And, as you said, whatever they want, they must want it ENOUGH TO ACT, otherwise, there is no movement.

    Your other point about showing character through action made me think. I tend to agree with you. Action is very revealing, and I think it provides more insight because action is sort of a gateway to more complex thought simply due to the fact that you don't have to express it. As soon as we try to write down the thought, we limit it. The only powerful example I can think of is Virginia Woolf. In her case, though, her subject matter was thought and the functioning of the brain, in many ways. She used those thoughts to convey movement, albeit brain movement. So, even though she was writing down thoughts, she had the action in those thoughts.

  5. "It will be difficult to do, but I've decided that there is a 1:1 relationship between the amount of back-story in a novel and how lazy the writer is."

    At first I agreed, but now I think excessive back-story indicates inexperience as much as it indicates laziness; it can be a lot of work to write annoying back-story that no one wants to read, right?

    "Flashbacks are the laziest of back-story techniques."

    But I want a prologue made up of a series of flashbacks. I kid.

  6. Justus: I want a flashback made up of a series of prologues.

  7. Rick: Thanks! My next post will be better structured, because I'll have had my morning coffee before writing it. Promise.

    Davin: I've had that problem, too. For a while, I defended not knowing what my characters wanted by claiming that they were "too complex" to talk about that way. Eventually I got over my defensiveness and wrote better characters.

    Ms. Woolf is of course a special case, being a genius and all. Even though nothing seems to be happening in her books, I always seem to read them holding my breath in suspense.

    I also think action versus reading the character's thoughts is more compelling for readers because when readers observe and judge, they are more active participants in the story than when we're just telling them things. Readers get to figure stuff out when we dramatize. "Okay, I get it" is much less fun than, "Aha! I've figured this out!"

    Justus: Excellent point, and it's true that one can work very hard and sweat over the wrong stuff entirely. It doesn't make you lazy, unless you already know better but don't want to work harder over the right stuff.

    Another important general point: Back-story and exposition and 'telling' and slow, actionless passages are not bad things in and of themselves. They are tools, and are therefore neutral. Unless they are the wrong tools for the work at hand in your story. We need to use a lot of tools to write well, and we must learn to use the subtle quiet tools as well as the big noisy ones.

  8. Whether you think it's structurally askew, I believe this post clears up a lot of misconceptions writers (me included until recently) believe story beginnings need to entail. When we're told to "hook" the reader, oftentimes it comes across as "jump right into the action". Don't bore the reader, SHOW them something.

    In the past, many times I've started the story with a series of character actions or description but I'm still not hooking the reader. And furthermore, I'm not even enticing the reader to commit to my story long enough to discover the conflict. In addition, I kept thinking it wrong to insert much inner thought until the reader grew more comfortable with the character.

    Now, it helps to read posts like this and realize SHOWING conflict--in action or through the characters--doesn't have to be done with a big explosion. In fact, something simple like Jane Doe's dilemma whether or not to return home can be done with a unique voice, punctuated with questioning thoughts and hands wrung in anxiety. Or, more generally, by showing a character we want to know more about, a dilemma we're intrigued to discover, and actions that back up as well as propel the scene. Thanks!

  9. Scott,

    What is your definition of a flashback?

  10. Rick: I'll provisionally define "flashback" as a dramatized scene that steps backward in time from the narrative.

    I think of flashbacks as separate from narratives that have two distinct timelines (or three timelines), because intertwined timelines are a structural narrative device, whereas most flashbacks (which I tend to think of as free-standing events stuck into the narrative rather than repeating phenomena) are just expository devices.

    In other words, most flashbacks exist to give exposition and don't so much have a dramatic purpose, so the events in them don't need to be dramatized. That's my complaint with them, really: they're just back-story or dressed-up infodumps.

    We've all read books that contain flashbacks (usually in exciting italics!), and we may have even really liked these books. But I think we've probably liked them despite the flashbacks, not because of them. It's possible for a good story to be clumsily written. In those cases, we should learn to emulate the story craft, but not the writing craft.

  11. Cindy: That's an important point, that action doesn't have to be over-the-top stuff. But characters must make choices and act upon those choices and then live with the consequences. That's what a story is. That's what life is. So conflict isn't always Man Against The Gods or whatever; sometimes it's just a husband and wife having a slight disagreement that acts as a precursor to larger conflicts about relationships and perceptions of reality that shape the main characters' choices and actions.

    Or, as Faulkner allegedly said, start with your protagonist doing something, even if it's just drinking a glass of water.

  12. I am going to try to write a coherent post, but I fear it might sound a bit mumbo-jumbo-y. My apologies in advance. (That's not a flashback, it's foreshadowing....)

    Anyway, I don't disagree with you completely, yet I cannot completely agree, either. Because sometimes, for me, there is the way a story "wants" to be written. And not all stories want to be written following the same rules. It's like the internal debate between artist and craftsman.....artist wants to create that which has never been created, craftsman wants to follow the standard of the craft. (If this is boring you, just pretend it's a flashback and skip it.)

    I love stories that test the standard of the craft, those authors who seek to create art. I love being surprised by the differences in storytelling technique. Sometimes, the flashback really, really works.

    Probably won't surprise you, but I like a good, short prologue, too!

    Which is why, going back the point of your post (show me where we're going),I think a lot of authors use a prologue. They want to give you something to wonder about while they slowly lead you into their story. It might be boring to some, but not completely without its merit.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.


  13. Scott,
    Would you consider this flashback or just rich prose? I'm thinking a lot about this idea. I've written a couple of stories that had no official flashback or this sort of back story. Usually, readers think very highly of them, and I think it's because a flashback-less story moves faster. But, I'm not against flashbacks so much. It's almost like it's simply a matter of structure. I think of the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that had a gorgeous flashback in the middle. For me it worked because it was long enough for me to get lost in it. Flashbacks that don't work as well are maybe shorter and more frequent. There's a bad pattern that becomes obvous and clunky.

    "Jerry slumped down in the booth that reminded him of the ice cream parlor he frequented as a boy. The entire restaurant had a familiarity to it, a staleness that he would rather have avoided. In no time, Martha arrived, dabbing her excess lipstick away with a hankerchief. Her steps were heavy over the linoleum, and more than one of the men at the bar looked up from their beers."

  14. Davin: I don't think that's a flashback, because you don't dramatize the memory. Flashbacks are dramatized.

    Also, I don't think a successful flashback in a film has anything whatsoever to do with flashbacks in a novel. Tell me instead about the book that had a gorgeous flashback in the middle.

    I think flashbacks could work if the reader needs all the details of the scene as dramatized, but only then.

    Shelley: I agree that there is more than one way to tell a story. And certainly there are writers who, if you gave them nothing but a handful of hackneyed old cliches, could write beautiful books with them. But only because they are such excellent craftsmen as well as artists.

    I think that most of us go through a phase where we want to be artists but don't know our craft. We try to use techniques that are "arty" on the surface (like flashbacks or prologues or multiple narrators or whatever) because, in general, we've got crappy stories and empty characters and are doing our unschooled best to make the book exciting. So we make claims like, "Well, Famous Author has a flashback in his first chapter, and his book was successful." The implication of course being that our own use of flashbacks is therefore successful and justified. This is an unreasonable assertion. My first novel's first half had a flashback for every other chapter, because a) I didn't know how to write backstory, and b) I had seen that structure in books by other writers and I thought it was cool. What I didn't know was that it didn't work with the story I was telling.

  15. Thanks Scott. My concern was with my own novel, which does have two distinct time lines, and since the story deals with past lives, they are both necessary. The challenge for me is how to weave the past against the fabric of the present.

    Thinking to my earlier drafts, I can notice numerous occasions where I did use flashbacks for unnecessary exposition, usually of minor characters.

    Your explanation was very helpful for me to understand the difference, I appreciate it.

  16. Here's a short piece for comment / critique. Set up: the Troubadour is a ghost, and memories of his life are repressed. Gil is reincarnated, and was someone the Troubadour knew when he was alive life. Gil's presence begins to draw the repressed memories out...

    The Troubadour lay down on the porch looked up at Gil though the wooden slats of the swing. He listened to the deep breaths of a dreamless sleep. A single tear hung at the corner of Gil’s eye. The Troubadour stared at the droplet, watching it grow until gravity pulled it away from the lashes. The salty water passed through him, releasing a flood of memories before flattening out on the floor of the porch. The Troubadour closed his eyes and remembered what it was like to be a child.


    “Come to me, mon petite renard,” his mother called. My little fox. He always had a clever, mischievous side to him.

    He ran to her and climbed up onto her lap. Just shy of his fifth birthday, he would not fit there much longer. She wrapped her arms around her son and held him tight. A tear rolled down her cheek.

    “Why are you crying, mama? Are you happy-sad again?”

    “Yes. I am happy-sad.”

    “Did papa make you sad?”

    “Not this time, no.”

    “What was it?”

    “Everything else.”


    “No, not you. You are always the happy part of my happy-sad.”

    He smiled and held her tight, hoping that his hug would squeeze the sad parts out of her. And for the moment it did. But he knew the sad always returned as soon as he let go. So he clung to her as long as he could and eventually drifted off to sleep.

  17. Hmmm...the book example is tougher because all the books I can think of that has at least one flashback ends up jumping all over the place timewise: Light In August, Everything Is Illuminated...Rooster. :)

  18. Rick,
    Thanks for posting an excerpt! It was an interesting read. I'd say it's hard to decide if that flashback works since we don't have the full context of the rest of the book. I can imagine the same scene being quickly summarized, but that may also make the story less interesting and miss key elements.

    I liked that realization that the boy wouldn't be able to sit on his mother's lap for much longer.

  19. Davin: Do you mean the story in "Light in August" about the pregnant woman? Yeah, that's all flash-everywhere, but Faulkner, you know. How many of us can do that? I haven't read the Foer book, so I can't talk about it. "Rooster" isn't flashback; it's duel timelines (done very well).

    How did this become a discussion of flashbacks? I posted about keeping your characters active!

    Rick: I agree with Davin in that a) it's hard to say if this works in the context of the book, and b) it looks like it could all be summarized. I like the child's character, what you show of him here anyway.

    I have a book planned for the distant future where the first third is in the present, the middle third is about 1500 years ago, and the third third mashes them both together, sort of the way past and present merge in "The Satanic Verses." But done better.

  20. Davin,

    The flashback / cut to the past narrative goes on further, into several other scenes from the past (about 1,300 words).

    I guess the main thing I would like feedback on is how the transition plays out from present life to past life.

    The story of the past is told in parallel to the story of the present, but through resurgent memories. I try to do it in an active manner, i.e. I am not telling you he had a tender loving relationship with his mother as a young child, I'm showing you.

  21. Yeah, Everything Is Illuminated is duel timelines too. Well, it's like Truel timelines. I'm sure there's an actual word for that, but I'm unwilling to look it up. Rooster has some flashbacks along with the duel timelines. It gets a bit disorganized in Part II, jumping around.

    Rick, I thought your transition worked. It seems pretty straight forward and clean.

  22. Scott, this is an excellent post. I got lost once in your digression. ;)

    I have struggled with flashbacks so much. It was really bad in my first novel. And I had one reader stop Monarch because she couldn't handle the flashbacks anymore. *head to desk*

    Yes, so I have learned my lesson for what works and what doesn't. Or I'm beginning to. I have one "flashback" in Monarch now. I made Davin read it and he says it works, so I'm feeling good about that.

    I never thought of "flashbacks" working as dual timelines for some reason. But when they work that way, like in Davin's Rooster they don't even feel like flashbacks. Either way, the name of your post says it all - you have to show your reader where you're going with the story. And if that includes pointless flashbacks they're probably going to set the book down.

  23. Davin-- I think "treble" is the word, though "ternary" might work too.

  24. I think this is an excellent post. One to keep and refer back to.


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