Tag Archives: timeline

Backplots

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Following the last post, I thought I’d do a quick thing on backplots. General wisdom advises that you start your story as near to the action as possible, meaning that a lot of the character/world history has to be gone back to later, but managing the inclusion of backplot can be a real pain in the proverbial. One of the biggest issues is that it massively impacts pacing. You want to maintain the momentum of the story, keeping things moving forward at all times, keeping the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. Going back in time naturally slows the pacing down and you need to be careful not to lose all your carefully built up momentum in one flashback.

The approach recommended by the writing course I was recently on is ‘less is more’. Eliminate all backstory except what the reader absolutely NEEDS to know in order to understand what’s going on currently. That may mean not including some character elements that you know happened, but it’s all part of the iceberg approach to writing – the world and information built up behind the page is greater than what actually makes it onto paper. To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced by such a stringent approach to backstory. Some of my favourite books have been great in part because the world is so deep – Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of balance, where non-essential bits of world history are alluded to but not gone into in detail.

Regardless of how much or how little you include, getting the pacing right is key. Flashbacks are tricky because you actually reverse the direction of the story. They can work but it takes skill. Personally, I prefer to avoid them and stick to delivering it via dialogue or ‘real-time’ reveals like letters, exposition, etc. You can’t give it all at once, though. Just like subplots, it has to be dribbled out in small, regular dollops and preferably only when it’s actively needed to further the story.

If you want to get really technical about terms, backplot can be called external analepsis – going back to story elements prior to the start of the narrative. There’s also internal analepsis, which is going back to an earlier point within the narrative. That’s a very different technique and, whilst it still impacts the pacing, it’s a bit less of an issue. Usually that’s because it’s used to brings pieces of the plot together, so it does actually move things forward. By contrast, backplot explains but doesn’t usually advance the story.

A quick note on moving time forward before I finish. Be very careful about lazy words such as ‘later’, ‘next day’ or ‘the following week’, and of introductory montage paragraphs to cover what happened during the skipped time. If possible, go straight to the scene. If it’s interesting, write it fully; if it isn’t, don’t write it at all. Clean breaks are better. Also, try to condense the timeline of the story as much as possible. More time pressure means more tension and drama.

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Tracking Tension

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Over the past few days, as well as lots of family and more food than is good for me, I have had some much valued R+R. This has meant I’ve finally sat down and organised my prep notes for Animus, and finished them. I now have characters with sketched arcs and desires, a chapter-by-chapter plot outline, filed research notes and a tension graph.

This last is something I realised was really useful near the end of writing Spiritus, by which time it was too late for that book. The reason it’s so useful is because, once I’m mid flow, I tend to lose track of the ups and downs of story stress levels. That’s a big problem – you need to keep the tension cycle going at the right timing and level in order to both maintain the audience’s interest and give them some breathing space. It also helps a lot with getting your pacing right when outlining the chapters in the first place.

I decided to do mine on an excel spreadsheet, using a rating of 1-5. 1 is base, with no real tension, and 5 is peak tension which should only be used once or twice during the story so as not to devalue it. I broke the story outline down into individual events (some as small as a conversation) and assigned a tension value to each. These will probably change as I’m writing, but having that blueprint to aim for is very handy.

In a perfect world, a tension cycle should have the following: high tension at the start to draw the audience in, then a gentle rise and fall towards the key change point (about a third or half way through – think Elrond’s Council in Fellowship of the Ring), then another slightly less gentle rise and fall building towards the peak tension at the end, with an optional cool down at the very end.

That’s an example, of course. There are several different and equally valid patterns, but in every case the pacing is important. You need to give your readers something to grip them and a period of rest. Too much grip and they become exhausted; too much rest and they get bored.

Anyway, the tension graph for Animus came out like this, which pleased me:

Animus tension graph

It’s not the most beautiful graphic in the world, but it is a clear visual blueprint to follow and, in the original spreadsheet, it has the chapter points against each bit so I know what relates to when.

This is far and away the most organised I have ever been in approaching a writing project. Let’s see if the extra effort pays off.

When To Start

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Having now cleared the decks of both Spiritus editing and the short story, I am finally free to move on to Book 2 – Animus. This is the one which is not so much a sequel as telling the same story from the other side, where the end is already known and the interest lies in why the bad guy is not really a bad guy, and how he ended up in such a terrible position (i.e. dead).

Because the end is known, it actually frees up options of structure as I don’t have to save up for that kind of big reveal. I don’t have to work from start to finish because the tension isn’t designed to build that way. I can but I don’t have to. There are two other options that I’m playing with at the moment. The first is to start with the end – the aftermath to Spiritus which the audience doesn’t already know – as a prologue and tell the bulk of the story as flashback. There are two problems with this: 1) prologues are advised against in every ‘how to write’ book and article I’ve ever read, and 2) it loses the present tense ‘voice’ of the story so far. The second option is to tell it in the style of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which alternates between past and future. This is quite a technical challenge, although Mary Doria’s example proves it can be done.

But (there’s always a but) there’s a crucial thing which makes it work in The Sparrow. In the past, the main character’s story is almost entirely positive and exciting; in the future, he’s an utterly broken man. The tension and draw of the book is the curiosity over what went so terribly wrong that it resulted in his future state. I need to identify a similar type of tension and draw, otherwise the appeal is somewhat lacking, and it can’t just be ‘they lost the war’ because the audience already knows that.

The original idea of Animus is to reveal how the ‘bad’ guy of Spiritus is actually a good guy making difficult decisions in impossible circumstances – the inversion conceit, as the raptor rather grandly calls it. The format and timeline of the story is critical in giving this reveal its full impact. I’m just not sure I’ve found the right one yet.