Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

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The way you structure the timeline of your story will massively impact the style you use to tell it, and the story itself. There’s half a dozen ways of using time, ranging from the straight-forward linear progression, through flashbacks of various lengths and styles, to the chaotic patchwork that is something like Hal Duncan’s Vellum – a book which reads like Dr. Who on acid, and must have required meticulous planning to write.

I have a bit of an issue with flashbacks, in that it’s very easy to use them badly. That sudden change in tempo, perspective, often even viewpoint – moving from third-person narration to first-person a la Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera – means that the reader is jarred out of submersion and can suddenly see the mechanics underneath the story. But they do provide a very useful way of getting around a dual problem: first, that it is generally advisable to start the story as close to the action as possible (thus missing out on the backstory/set-up), and second, that narrating the backstory through character dialogue is ‘tell, not show’.

Basically, how do you show the backstory without flashbacks? You can, of course, just start with it and go from there but that gives your book a very different tempo, with a slow build-up that had better be engaging otherwise you lose your audience before they get to the high drama. If the book is supposed to be in the ‘action’ genre, that doesn’t work – you have to start with the big bang and work in the set-up later, like James Bond.

Whilst planning Book 2, I have run into this problem. Initially I’d planned it as a linear progression, like Book 1, but the tempo and feel of the story is very different. The narrator is not a person of infinite patience, they are closer to Rambo in goblin form. They would start with the big bang, and then narrate the set-up later when explaining it to another character. But that explanation, if just done as a conversation, lacks punch and immediacy. Which means I need to play with that old enemy – the flashback. Hopefully I’m a better writer now, and can tackle it with subtlety and skill. Plus the raptor has loaned me The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which has well-managed flashbacks every other chapter, so that should give some guidance. Fingers crossed.

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