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The Method & The Mystery

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a guest blog by Kimberly Savage

I make it a point in life: never argue with Albert Einstein. Who knows what he had in mind when he wrote the words above but, to me, he describes the mysterious process of writing perfectly. And how we surprise ourselves along the way.

Starting the first draft of my work-in-progress, I had a sketch of what my book was about: the characters, the setting, the ideas. Enter the Book Architecture Method which both helps you organize the material you already know, and helps you discover things you didn’t know about your book.

I wrote my first draft and then, following the Method, I analyzed it. I figured out my theme. I recalled my scenes from memory. And I wrote down my series.

If you don’t know series, it is the quintessential Book Architecture concept. I think of it as an archetype, which can be a character, a setting, an object, a phrase, an idea, a theme. For more information on series, check out this PDF from Stuart’s third book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts.

Many of my series that I had in my mind stayed mostly the same, maybe with some cutting and stitching. But I also found I’d started something new in the draft that stood out: Biology.

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Being able to take a step back is what any writing method should help you do…or else it’s not doing its job. In my case, I saw:

  • Biology is my main character’s favorite school subject.
  • There’s some subtext about genetics – since the character is half Native American.
  • Add to that, the character is a cutter, so there’s blood.
  • And, oh yeah, there’s rumination on life and death – what we know, what we don’t know.

I made Biology a series. If I was wrong, and it turned out to be a dead end, I could always erase it from my series grid.

Then I wrote my second draft, and a funny thing happened. Biology became a big deal in the story. I used it as a metaphor, a scene-builder, a character-enhancer. It became one of the main series of the story. It made my story much stronger, much deeper.

Biology as a series surprised me, because it wasn’t in my head when I’d started. And if I hadn’t been looking for new series and surprises, I would’ve missed it.

Using the Method is an amazing way to harness the mystery of your own writing.

  • You go beyond what you already know about your story,
  • You identify the mysteries that you’ve created, and
  • You figure out how to make your story stronger with them.

And you still have lots of room for all the things you have yet to discover.

So go ahead, give the Method a try. Your story will be stronger for it. And you’ll make Einstein so proud.

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Begin at the Beginning. Please?

I have been making an unofficial list of the “world’s most commonly used writing axioms,” and I’m pretty sure in media res needs to be on there. In media res means “in the middle of things.”

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It is advice given to writers to start their stories with an action that will capture the reader’s attention. This action should be compelling—it cannot waste too many precious words on exposition, or setting the scene. This action should inspire curiosity. 

So far, so good. In the last twenty years, however, in media res has taken on a much narrower definition. Now it means something like: Choose a scene from the middle of your narrative (when approached in a chronological sense), then spend the next chunk of the story leading up to it again until the reader can figure out just exactly what the first scene meant after all.

Really?

In media res was originally used as a tool for selection; that is, it helped Greek playwrights figure out where to begin their narrative. Presenting a scene first indicates its importance to the whole, just as deciding which scene will come last indicates the dramatist’s moral intent through the fate of the characters. A certain scene was chosen to initiate the action, to begin the entertainment.

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But the dramatist did not go back and fill in the details of what happened previously—it was assumed that the audience would already have this information (which battle had been fought, who had been the victor, what situation these characters found themselves in, etc.).

By contrast, today’s writer who begins in media res starts us off with a lone, out-of-sequence scene… and then what can amount to half the book is told in essence as a flashback. It is disconcerting to us readers because, basically, we forget about the scene that started everything off except for harboring a mild curiosity as to why it has been given such special placement and when it might recur.

I would argue for two ways out of this current dilemma.

chart-line-148256_1280First, if you are going to begin with a scene from the middle of the narrative, why not continue to utilize the narrative possibilities of flashbacks and multiple concurrent timelines to ensure that your first scene does not look like an ugly duckling?

The second and perhaps simpler solution to the in media res dilemma is that once you have begun in the “thick of it,” don’t backtrack. If your first scene engenders interest, if it implies a world where there is something at stake and immediately transports the reader into a situation with dramatic tension, why not just continue from there?

The Five Rules of Flashback

Reposted from my guest blog on Writing Forward

“Flashback” is a term that we are all familiar with, even if its definition has grown a little vague. We sense that a flashback is something that happened before… but happened before what? Where we are now?

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In other words, what are we flashing back from? This is where I think it is useful to introduce a companion term to flashback: the reading present. The reading present is the main narrative throughline, the most commonly visited time period, the one whose beginning and end most closely mirrors the beginning and end of the book as a whole.

There are good reasons to leave the reading present: by flashing back we can deepen characterization, create suspense, or introduce other characters and events that will eventually matter a great deal to our outcome. But there are also bad reasons to use flashback, not morally bad reasons of course, just whoops-I-painted-myself-in-a-wicked-corner bad reasons.

To assist with this quandary, I offer the following five rules of writing flashbacks:

  1. The first rule of flashback is just that, when we flash back, we do so for a reason. And — get this — we reveal this reason to the reader. This reveal can be subtle, but readers need to be able to make some kind of connection to why we just went there or they will feel lost.
  2. We don’t leave the reading present for so long that readers lose their bearings upon return. In other words, don’t fall in love with another time period and dally there, favoring it over the reading present. The reader will wonder if that is when your story really takes place, and perhaps everything else has been a flashforward, which gets confusing (see rule #5). Readers need exactly one reading present. Whatever the narrative frame, to wherever it jumps around, the reader’s expectation is that they will return to the reading present, which is where they feel most at home to find out what happens next.
  3. We don’t flash back for too short a time, such as a few lines or a paragraph, which is really more like presenting a memory. It’s better to stay in the reading present in that case and recount the past events through a character’s thoughts. When we do flash back, it should be for an entire scene, with all the benefits that a scene brings: dynamic action, a change in the state of affairs, development of the theme. This doesn’t mean a flashback can be only one scene long; it can be longer provided readers aren’t lost upon their return (see rule #2).
  4. If you are going to use multiple timelines, present each timeline chronologically. Help a reader out: if we are flashing back from a throughline that takes place in 2002 to a throughline that takes place in 1993, at least have the events in 1993 take place sequentially: you know, June, 1993 in one flashback, July, 1993 in the next flashback, October 1993, etc. We need to feel the narrative driving forward at all times.
  5. Flashbacks work, but flash-forwards don’t usually work. Flashbacks work because they correspond with our psychology: when we have a problem, we think back to an earlier time when something else happened, then we figure something out about ourselves or our world (this is how therapy works, I think). Flash-forwards—jumping forward in narrative order—usually don’t work because the human psyche is not constructed that way. If someone asks about your past, you can discourse on it rather freely even though you might end up changing the subject. If someone asks about the future, all but the most reckless souls will admit they don’t know yet.

For a great example of the reading present (or the viewing present, in this case) and some fabulous use of flashbacks, watch the film Slumdog Millionaire. The reading present here is the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The main character, Jamal, answers each question successfully, much to the surprise of all involved, by flashing back to specific events in his past and coming back to the viewing present with the correct response. There is even a third timeline — a lot to ask of today’s movie-going public — of Jamal being interrogated by the police. But it works because each timeline in presented in chronological order.

Check out my second book, Book Architecturefor further analysis of Slumdog Millionaire, and many more writing rules strategies.

When we talk about flashbacks, the reading present, chronologies, and multiple timelines, we are talking about the general category called order, right? And I say that if we’re talking about order… then we might as well have some!

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Role of the Prompter

Writing teachers often say that finding your own unique voice is the most important thing to do as a writer. But what are you to do when you struggle to find your voice: Mimic authors you admire or write like the author you are reading at the moment?

The thing is, when people speak of voice in writing circles, they don’t often talk about what it is. It’s pretty simple, really. It is the voice you hear in your head.

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