Tag Archives: writing tip

#Writing tip: flashbacks (and how I avoid them)

I always think carefully before utilising flashbacks to reveal backstory. There are other techniques available.

A flashback gives information about backstory to the readers and usually involves a complete change of scene as the incident from the past takes centre stage. It moves the narrative back in time from the point it has reached – ‘flashing back’ to a prior point.

FOR: Flashbacks can be a fabulous way to manipulate a timeline – or two or more timelines – if your novel involves that structure. Or the storyline can be suspended for the flashback to take place at a point that creates a cliffhanger. Frequently, flashbacks are used to tell the readers the backstory. Some genres use them so much that their readers must enjoy them.

AGAINST: A flashback halts the action, so any momentum my story’s building up is lost. Even if it’s exciting and crammed with intrigue, a flashback looks backwards instead of forwards and so sacrifices the all-important ‘page-turning quality’ or has to build up new PTQ … only to halt that, in turn, as the flashback ends and the main narrative takes over again. I’m not a massive fan of halting narrative drive, neither as a writer or a reader. My story is a train on a journey. The readers are the passengers. To utilise a flashback, I have to stop my train and get my passengers to board a second train and then drive that forward. Then I have to stop the second train and get everyone back on the first. It can work. We’ve all had journeys like that and reached our destination. But is it the most comfortable, immersive way of enjoying the ride?

ALTERNATIVES: As my books don’t involve me manipulating the timeline and I choose to construct cliffhangers in different ways, I utilise other techniques to convey backstory so my readers don’t have to change trains.

  • Conversation. Characters talk about past events, weaving their dialogue into the present action so the reader stays with the main narrative all the time. Dialogue’s a powerful tool and can be used to bring out skeletons from closets or probe old sores, provide explanations, expose lies and reveal secrets or hitherto hidden desires and allow characters to show both reader and other characters exactly how they feel or what they know.
  • Thoughts. Weaving memories into present action via a narrator or a third-person viewpoint character who’s acting out the scene, but thinking about the past at the same time. I find this great for revealing emotion and, if I need to, keeping information between Character A and the reader. That can build up tension as the reader knows other characters don’t share the same knowledge and there’s conflict on the horizon.
  • Prologues. I’ve posted about prologues in the past and I know not everyone likes them. However, a scene at the beginning of the book that’s going to have impact later, or even affect the whole book, can be a punchy, effective way of conveying backstory. To stretch my train metaphor, it’s the train manager making a dramatic announcement before the journey begins. Ladies and gentlemen, we hope you enjoy your journey but someone’s standing on a bridge we have to pass under and they may be throwing rocks.
  • Other forms of communication. Letters, diary entries, emails, texts, newspaper articles, websites, social media posts, even graffiti can convey backstory without the train even slowing as it whizzes through a station.

If I’m honest, you might find the occasional flashback in my early books. Maybe as time went on I became a more efficient train driver.

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#WritingTip: Final Chapter(s) and (possible) Epilogue

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It’s amazing how some (wonderful!) writers are able to keep the end to a story going. Black moment after black moment, more twists than a maze, they thrust their characters together and yank them apart … it’s riveting! 

On the other hand, you get the occasional finale that fizzles rather than sizzles and it spoils what’s been a great read.

I try and write the first kind of ending and avoid the second. I believe the right ending for my book already exists in my imagination. It’s just a case of recognising it.

Words such as resolution and conclusion are associated with endings for good reason. I look back at the story’s beginning. What did I want my hero and heroine to learn/find/resolve/defend and what did they have to overcome to do it? How can I answer questions and tie in threads, giving the reader the feeling that they are leaving by the same door by which they came in?

What I don’t want:

  • My characters to resolve the conflicts over a cup of tea i.e. make the conflicts that have driven the book suddenly trivial. I guess that in real life we learn to live with things but that’s not gripping.
  • Someone else to come along and solve everything. I want my central characters to be instrumental in their own ending.
  • The action to occur off stage and some lesser character come on to explain what happened.
  • To cheat readers with hasty contrivances, previously undisclosed facts or hitherto secret characters.

Like an airliner, a story needs a lot of space for its final flightpath. I like everything to go wrong, so completely wrong that it seems irretrievable. Then I make my central characters fight to retrieve it. I plumb the depths of their courage and fortitude, winkle out what they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve a goal. That, to me, is the end of the story.

But … maybe an Epilogue?

Some people dislike prologues and epilogues. I don’t have one in every book or feel that if I have one I must have the other but I don’t shy away from them either.

I try and wind up the final chapter in exactly the right place – after the big resolution – but I’m also mindful of the advice of a past editor not to leave readers too soon. An epilogue is a great opportunity to glimpse my characters enjoying their happy ending, satisfying subplots and maybe including the readers in a joke they’ve shared.

I leave open or ambiguous endings to others. I want readers to put my books down reluctantly, smiling or sighing … but satisfied. I want to give everyone time to say goodbye.

You may also like:

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#WritingTip Chapter Two and beyond

My recent blog activity included posts on Prologues and Chapter One. I’m not going to try and post about every possible chapter in one of my books but do think it’s worth saying something about Chapter Two and beyond.

Chapter Two

Although I find Chapter Two more flexible than the Prologue and/or Chapter One, it can still have certain characteristics:

  • Chapter Two can almost be another Chapter One, just as hooky and demanding, introducing a whole new character and/or situation. This is particularly useful if I introduced one viewpoint character in the first chapter and now want to bring on another viewpoint character with just as much room for her/his story. NB I’d probably include the character introduced in Chapter One as well so as not to completely interrupt flow but I’ve seen other authors successfully bring on a new character and situation almost as if beginning a different book. I think this latter approach takes a bit of confidence that the readers won’t feel disconnected and go and read something else instead, though.
  • Or Chapter Two can be a continuance of, or reaction to, the dramatic situation contained in Chapter One.
  • Or it can contain the background stuff I need to rationalise what’s grabbed the readers’ attention in Chapter One but I thought would interrupt flow at the time. I could allow myself a flashback at this point … if I was certain I needed one. Instead, I usually choose to bring the same information out in conversation/confrontation/introspection because it keeps the story flowing forward. I feel as if flashbacks put the action in reverse. NB This may be a personal prejudice.
  • Chapter Two can also be a place for readers to take a breather by introducing a complete change of pace. This can provide a sense of settling into the story. NB I wouldn’t want the pace to drop too far or for too long.

All chapters

I try and make every chapter open at a point of significance, exactly like a short story – bounce into the action or have somebody say something hookily surprising or intriguing. 

I aim to exit at least some chapters with drama, emotion, twists and surprises. As I’ve said before, the last page of a chapter is a good place for people to end a reading session and I like to try and stop them even if they’re reading in bed, shattered, and knowing they have to get up in the morning. I don’t want them to resist reading on. When I receive a message on social media or via my website and a reader says, ‘I was up until two reading your book!’ or ‘I just couldn’t put it down’ I feel as if I’ve succeeded!

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16 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft

#WritingTip What happens in Chapter One?

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I view Chapter One as an access corridor to the rest of my book and I want it to be interesting and uncluttered, regardless of whether it’s the opening to my book or a prologue has already had that honour.

I do want:

  • Something to hook readers into the story. An interesting situation or a point of change. A startling fact. A puzzle. Something that makes the readers want to know what happens next.
  • To set the tone. I remember beginning a book where, unusually for that author, corpses littered the landscape – and I don’t enjoy reading about death. It was several pages before the author revealed that she was describing a training exercise and the ‘corpses’ were actually personnel playing dead. The rest of the novel was just my cup of tea but I’d almost deleted it from my e-reader halfway through Chapter One because the tone wasn’t what I expected. It was scary and chilling – and slow – whereas I wanted warmth and to be hooked into the story.
  • To jump into the story. I like to hit the ground running and draw the readers in.
  • To keep the momentum up with action.
  • To introduce one of the viewpoint characters straight away. Readers are a bit like ducklings and instinctively follow the first person they see. If the scene’s about my heroine receiving a parcel I want the reader to see the heroine first, not the delivery person.
  • At least one character to like, to want to be with.
  • A sense of place.
  • Dialogue to ensure that characters act out the story and interact with each other.
  • A mood.
  • To keep it all one scene, if possible, so I don’t break the connection with the reader.

I don’t want:

  • To clutter the pages with masses of description. Description’s static. I weave it in with action and dialogue rather than pausing for a long stare around at the scenery.
  • Flashbacks. A flashback takes a story back rather than forward. I don’t have many flashbacks in my books anyway, choosing to show backstory in other ways, but I definitely keep them out of Chapter One. I want the action to be smooth and a flashback chops it up. NB Maybe this is why I sometimes have a prologue. I want the readers to have certain information from the past but don’t want to let it interrupt the present.
  • Too much introspection (thoughts). I feel dialogue conveys information in a way that keeps things moving. ‘How dare you talk to my child like that?‘ feels more immediate than: She had no right to talk to his child like that, he thought. Introspection can be a bit one-paced. NB This isn’t an unbreakable rule because there might be a reason he doesn’t want her to know his feelings. It’s just a ‘where possible’. NB2 I would often cut he thought from the sentence in reality but used it here for the sake of clarity.
  • An unsympathetic character (i.e. one the readers are probably not going to like) taking up too much space. To expect readers to spend time with someone they don’t like right at the beginning is a big ask. NB An exception is if the unsympathetic character’s not showing her/his true colours yet and I don’t want the readers to know s/he’s going to be unlikeable in the end.

If I can, I end the chapter with drama or high note, which encourages the readers into Chapter Two. Readers think a chapter end is a good place to put a book down.

But I think it’s an opportunity to keep them reading!

You may also like:

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14 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft

Writing tip: descriptive writing

Setting is important to my books as they’re seasonal and set in countries other than the UK or in an English village. I keep a picture of Middledip fresh in my imagination or a reader might message me to point out that you turn right of Honeybun Cottage to go to the garage, shop and pub in one book but left in another. (It’s right.) To help me in this I have a map of Middledip and also a spreadsheet so I know when the village hall was closed for repairs and when the pub got a refurb. If you wish, you can see the Middledip map on my website. Just follow the link, click GO! and the map opens up and you can hover over the markers and see who lives where. You can also take a walk around Nelson’s Bar.

If setting and sense of place is important then descriptions are too. Here are a few techniques I like:

  • typical features. In a village setting I comment on whether cottages are thatched or have roof slates, walls of brick or stone. If it’s a seaside village such as Nelson’s Bar then the sea and cliffs come into it a lot. In Italy it’s cypress trees, sunflowers, olive groves. In Malta the sea again, golden stone buildings, prickly pears and dust.
  • colour. I try and paint pictures into the imagination of my readers. A starry night sky is fine but silvery stars and black night feels better.
  • imagery. Simile and metaphor enliven writing and can be a shortcut to sharing my imagination. If I mention a bearlike man I don’t mean he’s furry and walks on all fours. I’m thinking big, shambling, maybe grim. Describing a cruise liner as a floating apartment block can produce the right image without labouring over a long description of cabin beside cabin, deck above deck, balconies and people on them and the whole floating on the sea.
  • character perspective. I often include my character’s feelings, both physical and emotional, when they view a scene. It makes the description interesting and keeps it in proportion. In Summer on a Sunny Island I set myself the task of having Rosa not like Malta when she first arrives. As I adore Malta, it was a challenge. I had to get under her skin and look at the teeming traffic, the road signs she didn’t understand, the dust that covered the car. She was too hot, a construction site was making too much noise. It took her a while to appreciate the joys of snorkelling in a turquoise sea and admiring the golden architecture.
  • weaving. I try and weave description in rather than holding up the narrative by indulging in long descriptive passages. Such passages are static. They don’t tell you what’s happening or how someone feels.
  • senses. Probably one of the things we learn first in writing is to utilise all our senses. If I’m describing my heroine I think the smell of her fabric conditioner, the smoothness of her skin and the sound of her laugh can be as important as the colour of her eyes and hair.
  • seasons. The sea on a sunny summer’s day compared to the sullen, corrugated waves of the winter ocean. Leafy hedges compared to bare branches. Bouncy white clouds compared to ragged grey. A pair of cut off denim shorts or a thick khaki parka. Sparkly flip-flops or fur-lined boots. Everything changes as the seasons do.

How much description you include depends on what you’re writing and how you write. It’s a personal choice and an editorial choice. Without it, readers have nothing to feed their mind’s eye.

You may also like:

Should I write a prologue?

What happens in Chapter One?

Chapter Two and beyond

Final Chapter(s) and (possible) Epilogue 

Act, react and interact – breathing life into my characters

My plotty head, Fiction Land and my dad

Learn about publishing

Agent or no agent?

4 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft