Writing Flashbacks

There are many ways that we can provide our audience with the information they need to follow along in a story. Many of us will use dialogue secondary characters to expose important tidbits of information that are integral to the plot.

However, sometimes another technique that can be used are flashbacks. These are moments within a story that take you back to specific moments within a character’s life. Flashbacks are not to be confused with simple memories. Memories can be summed up in a few sentences like “Alice held the melting ice cream cone in her hand, thinking back to the breakup. She hadn’t touched mint chocolate chip since.” Instead, flashbacks are a whole scene set in the past that takes your reader to that exact moment. And, flashbacks usually tend to expose something important. 

I had a professor in college once who described flashbacks as sort of like an “aha” moment for the reader. They are supposed to make something click in the story, whether it’s a key plot point or a breakthrough in character development. 

Since flashbacks are usually set in the past, they can be a little tricky to write as they can be jarring for the reader if not done correctly. That is why some writers tend to stay away from them. Personally, I love a good flashback. I think they’re great for giving readers very in-depth insight into a character’s origins. But flashbacks should be used sparingly – don’t include one in every single chapter or else you’ll end up with some very confused readers. 

The rule of thumb that I tend to follow for setting up a flashback is essentially what my college professor told me. She said keep them short and sweet. They don’t have to be any longer than a paragraph. And don’t use dreams as a way of setting up a flashback. It’s too cliché. Instead, she taught me to think of all flashbacks as being a doorway for your reader. While your character might be your reader’s guide, you still need something that will take your reader through that doorway. This has to be a trigger for your character to then open up that door. For example, that trigger could be the smell of lavender if your flashback is set in lavender field in the south of France. Or, perhaps a stack of dishes crashing to the floor in a busy restaurant can trigger your character to flashback to a traumatic moment in their past. Either way, it has to be something that will pull them into the flashback and then pull them out. 

So, if your character is an old woman harboring a secret about her eldest child not being her husband’s child but rather the product of an affair with a French lavender farmer, then you have two options. You can either expose it through dialogue or some other means like a found letter, etc., or you can reveal it during a flashback. If you decide that a flashback is how you want to expose the secret then you need a doorway. If the old woman smells the fresh lavender in her garden and thinks back to that wild summer in Provence, then she needs to come out of that flashback through the scent of lavender. If your character is escaping an abusive relationship and the sound of shattering plates takes them back to a really dark moment in their past, then those shattered plates need to bring them back to the present – that can be the scraping of the dishes being swept up or something like that. 

Flashbacks can seem intimidating to write, but they do add something unique to your writing. Are you pro flashbacks? Let me know!

Killing Characters

This seems to always be a divisive subject amongst writers. Some writers wouldn’t dream of killing off one of their characters, while other writers are more than happy to recreate their own versions of the infamous Red Wedding from Game of Thrones within their own works. Within the realm of fiction, character deaths can extend beyond just those of the villains. Side characters and even some main characters can be subject to meeting an untimely death. These are the characters that readers will mourn, especially if they happen to be a fan favorite. As writers, we know that not every character’s story can end in happily ever after. But killing characters can be a delicate art. You don’t want the death to be pointless, you want it to mean something. Below are somethings to keep in mind when you’re contemplating a potential character death. 

Positive Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Kick off the inciting action or to reveal a hidden secret. Sometimes our main character needs to experience the death of another character in order to get them to begin the proverbial hero’s quest. But at the same time, you don’t want the death to come across as cheap writing or cliched. You want this to be meaningful to the plot. In order for the death to be meaningful to the story’s plot, ask yourself if this inciting action can be kicked off any other way? Or can this hidden secret that is integral to the plot, can that be discovered any other way? If not, then you can proceed with the character’s death.

2) To motivate other characters. Again, death can be a great motivator to both heroes and villains. But you don’t want it to be the sole purpose of their motivation, meaning don’t kill a character just to get your hero or villain started on the path of their character arc and development.

3) To highlight a universal truth within your story’s universe. Sometimes some character deaths have to be sacrificial for the greater good of the story. If death is the only way to highlight a universal truth in your story, then do it. Or if you’re writing a series and you get to a point where there is no other way to illustrate a continuing theme then use a character death. 

4) It’s the only logical way of ending a character arc. There are plenty of ways for your character to come full circle and grow. Death doesn’t always have to be the answer. However, there are times when it is the only answer. As the writer of the story, you will know if this is the only way of wrapping up a character’s arc. 

Negative Reasons to Kill a Character:

1) Solely for the purpose of shocking your audience. No, no, no. You will only make your fan base angry. Don’t alienate your fan base.

2) To start some drama. If you’re killing a character just to spice things up within your story, then you really need to re-evaluate your plot. There are definitely tons of other ways to shake things up without having to kill a character. My personal rule is if you feel your story needs something shocking like a death to save it, then you really need to start from scratch again. 

3) Just for the character development of someone else.Yes, sometimes either a hero’s backstory or even a villain’s backstory will include the death of someone close to them in order to get them started on their respective paths. However, killing a character just for the purpose of further developing another character is not necessary. You can achieve the same effect with a less tragic accident. For example, if your story is about two brothers who haven’t spoken in 10 years, you don’t need to reconcile them by having them lose their mom in a firey car crash. Simply having her hospitalized with a broken leg would be enough to get them back in town and have to face one another and eventually reconcile. You still achieve the character development but without the character death. 

4) You’re unsure how to further the character’s storyline. This more applies to minor characters who sometimes serve their purpose in a story, but then we, as writers, don’t know what to do with them. While the topic of what to do with minor characters after they’ve served their purpose is always up for debate, killing them off isn’t advised. It serves no purpose and if they happen to be a well-received minor character, this can end up angering the fandom. 

5) You don’t like them. We’ve all had characters that we don’t like in our stories. And I’m not necessarily talking about villains. Sometimes as writers we create minor characters or even major characters that, as we get into the writing process, come to find we don’t actually like writing them. Either they’re too boring, we’ve gotten sick of writing them, or we simply can’t connect with them. The easiest solution to this is to remove them all together from the story. Make it such that they’ve never existed within our story’s universe. Sometimes I have found that these characters I don’t like are simply in the wrong story and once I find where they fit, they work much better. I’ve also found that if a character is easily removable from the story, then they were irrelevant to it anyways. Of course, problematic characters aren’t always easily removable like this. Sometimes a character needs to be in a story but we, the writers, just can’t stand their story anymore. Don’t kill them off, find another less dramatic way of writing them out.

How to Write Side Characters

When written correctly, side characters can actually be some pretty interesting people. Plus, they add a lot to the story. Yes, we all have to put effort into making our protagonists and antagonists multi-dimensional characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to forget about our side characters. While they might be minor characters in the grand scheme of things, they’re still vital to the telling of the story as they serve many functions such as revealing key details, motivating the protagonist or foiling the protagonist, and sometimes helping to outline certain plots in the story. These secondary characters can either interact with the protagonist through dialogue or through a memory that the main character has of them. 

Whichever way you choose to have your main character interact with your side character(s), it’s important to remember the main function of the side character: to help progress the story forward somehow. 

With that in mind, here are some tips to making sure your side characters are not one-sided.

Don’t get stuck on the little details:

Yes, writing a rich backstory is important to understanding your side character. But not everything has to be in your story. Just include the parts of the character’s backstory that are relevant to the plot and that move it forward. Don’t get stuck on the little details that don’t matter. It’ll only end up confusing your reader. A good tip to bear in mind is to ask yourself “does this add to the main story or distract from it?”

Don’t make them solely good or solely bad:

The best way to add dimension to your characters is to avoid making them one-sided. If they’re completely good or evil they’ll read completely flat. What I like to do for all my characters, including the side characters, is to give them three good virtues and three negative ones and work from there. The way I see it, if you mix black and white you get grey – and grey is where things get interesting. 

Don’t create too many characters:

Creating characters is fun. That is why it’s so easy to get swept up in the desire to write more and more characters, leading to your story to become very convoluted. If you ever read War and Peace, you know just how long that list of characters is. And if you read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you probably had to refresh your memory a couple times while reading as you tried to keep up with all the characters. While Tolstoy somehow made it work in 587,287 words, most of us are probably working with a much smaller word count goal. Therefore we shouldn’t make it too confusing for our readers to keep up with our cast of characters. 

The side characters are there to develop the main character(s):

No matter if you have one side character or five, they all share the same exact purpose: to develop the main character. Side characters can be used to expose key plot points without you necessarily going into exposition mode and “telling” what is happening, but rather “showing” it through the characters. A side character should never be just background noise, each side character should be an active participant in the story and either support your main character or provide an obstacle for them (without necessarily being the antagonist). 

Use them to help bring the world to life:

This is particularly helpful if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Secondary characters can be tools used to help bring the world you built to life. Physical descriptions, personal experiences, these are all ways that the side characters can help to better illustrate the world you’ve created. 

Try to keep them in one space:

In order to make it easier for your readers to keep up with your secondary characters, it’s a good idea to tie them to one location whenever possible. That means that your side character exists in one spot, like the bar, school, the library, etc. and they never venture beyond this point. But remember, even if they only exist as the woman in the coffee shop, they still need to serve a purpose to moving the story forward. It’s easier for your reader to learn character names etc. when they are in one location. But if you do move a secondary character around, do it with purpose. 

Give them a reason for being in a scene:

Speaking of purpose, you should make sure that your secondary character has a purpose for being in a scene. Like I said in the previous point, your side characters should really be kept to one location if it can be helped. But if you do end up moving them around, make sure that there is a reason for them to be in a different scene with your main character. If there is no good reason for your side character to be in the scene then it’ll just read as awkward and confusing. 

Preptober Plotting Tips

Welcome to Preptober! If you’re like me, you’re probably gearing up for November, which for lots of writers is simply known as NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last four years participating in every NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never been able to fully finish a challenge. After much careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s probably because my writing habits could use a change and a little more self-discipline. I’m very much a pantster when it comes to writing – I just start writing by the seam of my pants and hope for the best.

While this method might be great for getting the creativity flowing, it also means that you’re more likely to encounter roadblocks to the plot. I find these happen most often in the middle of your book. It’s easy to write the beginning and the ending of a story, but the middle is where you’re most likely to drop the ball if you don’t have a set plot with a linear continuity already planned out. And if you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo it’s so easy to give up halfway through because you don’t know what you’re doing. 

That is why it’s a great idea to try and become somewhat of a plotster. You don’t have to detail out every single minor event or occurrence, but having a general idea will definitely help get you from point A to point C without giving up when you hit point B. And this year for NaNoWriMo I’m determined to finish a full 65k manuscript, which is why I’m spending Preptober coming up with a solid enough outline to help me next month.

I’ve been following a simple three-act outline that focuses more on the character development. The setting isn’t something that you need to worry about as it pretty much writes itself. But the plot and characters are pretty intertwined. I personally like to outline my characters’ reactions to certain major plot points. And if you follow the traditional three-act plot, it’ll create a pretty easy-to-follow outline that you can turn to when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo.

Check it out below:

Act One

Opening/Narrative Hook:

  • Introduce character 
  • This is also the place where you can do a bit of world building as you set up and Introduce your character’s normal world
  • Introduce your character’s unfulfilled desires or what’s holding them back

Inciting Incident:

  • What happens to disrupt your character’s sense of “normalcy?”
  • Character can react to either want to change things or escape things

First Plot Point:

  • The moment the character makes the full commitment to whatever the inciting incident has called them to pursue
  • Character struggles with fears or a lie they believe about themselves/others/the world

Act Two

Rising Action:

  • Your character begins the proverbial “hero’s quest” and along the way must confront the things that make them uncomfortable such as fear of failure, fear of their own shortcomings, breaking down long-held beliefs, etc.
  • Your character’s fight against the antagonist begins
  • This is also when your main character begins to see that their fears/beliefs are wrong

Midpoint/Second Plot Point:

  • This is the biggest part of your novel so far, in which your character comes face to face with the antagonist

Post-Midpoint Rising Action:

  • The main character devises a plan to defeat the antagonist
  • They make a small step toward their goal
  • While continuing to grow as a character, they still struggle with previous fears/old beliefs

Act Three

Character’s Darkest Moment:

  • Right after that small step toward their goal in Act 2, the main character suffers a major setback that forces them to confront the fears or misplaced beliefs that have been holding them back the entire story
  • The release of their repression further fuels them to defeat the antagonist

The Climax:

  • The conclusion of the character’s arc is complete with the defeat of the antagonist (but keep in mind if this is Book One in a series then the smaller antagonistic force is stopped, but not the overarching antagonist of the entire story)

The Resolution:

  • Your character returns to “normal” but having experienced change they can’t return to the status quo, so they begin their life in a new way

Narrative Tension for Beginners

Narrative tension. You can’t create a page-turner without it. If there is no tension, the story won’t be very intriguing. How many of us have always dreamed of reading a book about a man who just sits on a bench the entire story? My point exactly. We want to read something that will pull us in. Give us the story of a man on a bench waiting for his blind date when some aliens suddenly land on Earth. That definitely makes things more interesting. Adding tension to your story can be tricky when you’re first starting out as a writer because it’s all about finding balance. You don’t want to overload your story and make it so convoluted with tension that you confuse your readers, but at the same time you don’t want it so thinned out that your story reads more like a to-do list with different characters than an actual plotted out idea. 

So, how do you find that balance? Simple. I’ve come up with some tips for first time writers looking to build tension in their stories. It’s important to keep in mind that tension is something your story should have, no matter if it’s 2,000 words or 200,000 words. 

Keep Raising the Stakes:

Okay, so you’ve got an initial conflict that sets your story in motion, but then you need to layer on top of it the smaller complications that arise from that end goal. Let’s dissect a classic plot for a moment. Lord of the Rings. We have the overarching goal that sets the story in motion, Frodo has the ring of power and he has to get it out of the Shire. But he’s only supposed to get it as far as Rivendell, however, the council votes to take it to Mordor and throw it into the fire and Frodo volunteers. Boom! The stakes just got raised for Frodo. Then the mines of Moria happen and Gandalf is lost. Stakes are raised again for the whole fellowship. Then the group splits up when the Uruk-hai attack. Stakes raised even further. Merry and Pippin are taken hostage causing Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli to go rescue them. More raised stakes – and that’s all just the first book!

But you can see where I’m going with this. One main conflict can have a ripple effect of other conflicts that arise, and your characters have to react to them. Each new minor conflict is you leveling up the tension for your characters, and making your readers want to keep reading because they don’t know how the character(s) will react. Your plot doesn’t even need to have a dragon and five armies to make it tense, every day contemporary stories can be just as intense. It all boils down to your main character wanting something, going after it, and setting in motion a bunch of minor hiccups that arise along the way, making it a constant choice between A or B. Love triangles are a very popular example of this. And a character’s desire doesn’t always have to be this grandiose desire to bring justice and equality to the world and tear down the corrupt system in order for your plot to have a purpose and drive conflict forward. Let us not forget that Shaun of the Dead’s events all started because someone wanted a Cornetto. 

Balance Tension with Moments of Calm:

I know I said you need to keep raising the stakes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character(s) a bit of break every once in a while. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to give your readers a chance to digest what’s happening in between obstacles. If you have too many problems arising for your characters all at once, it becomes too much. Plus, these moments of “rest” are where you can build the stories in other ways like characterization or revealing bits of backstory. For example, if you have two bank robbers trying to make it down from Montana to the Mexican border, you can slow it down a bit by maybe giving them a flat tire on a remote stretch of highway somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona. You’d still have the tension of a flat tire when they’re so close to achieving their goal, but there is still a chance to have some calm moments. While the two bank robbers are waiting for Triple A to arrive, they can have an in-depth conversation. One can reveal that he’s trying to pay off a loan shark, while the other can admit he’s never changed a flat tire before. Either way, that slow moment on the highway can be a chance to work on backstory and characterization. 

Don’t think that a story’s action needs to be all rise all the time in order to create tension. You can get the same effect from a few falls. Tension works best when you have a rise and a fall. Another great idea for tension is these false senses of security. When your character thinks they’ve accomplished their task and they’re home free, that is a fine time to reveal that there’s still a little ways to go. Again, drawing back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell. Everything seems chill. Those scenes are very calm for Frodo who thinks he’s soon going home. But then the council happens. The “oh my goodness” moment when Frodo offers to carry the ring to Mordor wouldn’t be so powerful if you didn’t have those calming moments before. While Frodo is in his false sense of security you’re able to digest all that he just went through to get to Rivendell. You feel for him. Which brings me to my next point…

Make Your Reader Emotional:

You can create the most intense plot with the perfect rise and fall pacing, but it won’t mean anything if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in what your character is experiencing. I will admit that a good portion of making your reader like your character, is to create a likeable character (I wrote a blog post on that if you want to read it). But another way to get your readers to like your character is using the plot. Even if your main plot of your book is something big like dismantling the ruling system, it’s a good idea to start small in terms of your character’s desire.

One example of this The Hunger Games. Across the three novels Katniss ends up creating a revolution and bringing down the corrupt government. She’s hailed as a hero. But that wasn’t her initial goal. Her initial goal was quite simple and quite relatable: She wanted to protect her sister. Even if we don’t have siblings, we all have at least one person we’d be willing to volunteer for if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. Therefore, as readers we are more willing to emotionally invest in a character that wants to protect her loved one from death, rather than a character who right off the bat is ready to take down the government. While something small, like a character wanting to return a library book before the library closes or getting a the last bag of jelly donuts for their sick family member can be what is needed to set a bigger plot in motion, it can also serve to make a character relatable to the reader. We’ve all needed to get somewhere before it closes just like we’ve all rushed to the end of the aisle to pick up the last something because it’s for someone we care about, and it’s these small, universal actions that readers relate to that help them become emotionally invested in your character’s conflict. 

Bring the Tension from Various Points:

When we think of tension between characters we tend to think of heroes and villains. And yes, the tension between your hero and your villain is important. But that doesn’t mean that we can overlook the side characters. Some of these side characters can actually help to create tension for your main characters. In fact, some side characters can be integral to subplots that create tension in the story. Never under-estimate the power of secondary conflict. For example, Batman. You have the main conflict of a superhero trying to clean up Gotham’s streets, but at the same, you also have the tension from his personal life as Bruce Wayne to factor in as well. Of course, while you want to bring in tension from all angles, you also don’t want to overcomplicate your plot either. It’s a fine balance.