So far I've talked about my book idea being too small, some serious POV problems, and a lack of confidence.
One of the biggest flaws of the dandelion story was my clumsy use of flashbacks and backstory.
Just so we're all on the same page, flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past. They are set apart from the story, sometimes in a different font, sometimes just with scene blocks. Backstory is woven into the current story.
The text marked in red is what backstory looks like:
This day was different, however. Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all.
At the end of freshman year, Paige had tearfully moved away from Brawder, California to some unknown town in Missouri, and no one had heard a word from her. Now here she was, a year later, on the first day of junior year. No one had even been expecting her.The above is copy and pasted from the dandelion story. I'm itching to edit, but I'm refraining. Though I would especially like to remove that unnecessary "even" from the last sentence. (For those who read last Friday's post, I would like to point out my parents and my husband [then boyfriend] loved me and supported me even when I was writing stinky stuff like this!)
A well used flashback or snippet of backstory can enhance a story. But it's one of those tools in your writer's tool box that should be used sparingly. Otherwise you run the risk of making your plot sluggish.
Here is the big lie I believed about flashbacks/backstory when I first began weaving stories - in order to be interested in my characters, the reader must understand who they are and how they got here.
This is one of those weird thing that when you read the above sentence, you can be like, "Yeah, I agree with that. Why would I be interested in them if I didn't know who they are?" But when you're reading and the author keeps pausing the story to fill you in, you're thinking, "This is moving so slow!"
Here are a couple quick guidelines for wielding flashbacks and backstory, then we'll talk more about them on Wednesday:
This stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. In the above example, I do a good thing where I say, "This day was different, however. Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all." Intriguing, right? Because I've already established that the other students know her, so what makes her a stranger to them?
Planting the question is good.
Answering the question in the next sentence is bad.
Instead it'd be much better if I just left the question dangling there and moved on with what was currently happening in the story. If the reader doesn't need an explanation at that moment, hold it back. You want to drop your backstory in like breadcrumbs.
2. No flashbacks within the first 3 chapters.
Again, this is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. But it's a guideline suggested by Donald Maass, who wrote Writing the Breakout Novel and who is possibly the biggest literary agent out there. (I don't know that there are any official rankings on literary agents, but he's doing very well for himself.)
In my early days, I would have really argued this point because I was a big fan of flashbacks. But now I agree. A flashback slows down the current story, which is the one your reader really cares about.
3. Only one or two flashbacks per book.
A flashback should be used only for a scene that is so emotionally charged, you can't do it justice by explaining it in a paragraph. In the Skylar Hoyt books, before the first book opens, she's nearly date raped at a party. It's, obviously, a very important turning point in Skylar's life. It's also not really something she likes to think about. Because she's pushing the pain away, there was no need to flashback to the scene in Me, Just Different. Or in Out with the In Crowd. It isn't until halfway through So Over It that we find out what happened that night, and then the scene is given almost an entire chapter.
But by now, the reader has gone through 2 1/2 books of not knowing exactly what happened that night (Skylar's also a little fuzzy on the details, as it turns out). By the time they reach the flashback, they understand the significance of it. Whereas if I'd put the scene in the first book, or if I'd opened Skylar's story with it, the way I'd considered, the reader wouldn't have understood as deeply.
I'll talk more about flashbacks and backstory on Wednesday. Anyone have any burning questions they'd like to make sure I address?