Friday, 17 October 2008

Coffee Break - Stories and Plots

Greetings, fellow Racers. Help yourself to a drink of your choice, and a snack if you wish ­ - whatever you like.

Talking of help, I am shamelessly using this opportunity to ask for yours. You see, there’s an aspect of this novel-writing business that I’ve been struggling to get my head around for ages and ages. It’s to do with chronology.

I had a light bulb moment last week when EM Forster finally helped me to grasp the difference between story and plot. (Yes, I'm sure I should have understood this years ago, but hey, everything takes time.) In Aspects of The Novel, he says that a story is an account of fictional or factual events in chronological order, while a plot is a story designed by a novelist to maximise the reader’s enjoyment ­ and is therefore not necessarily in chronological order.

I find it really hard to think of my novel in anything other than chronological order. But at least three people have now commented that it would benefit from not being entirely in chronological order. So I’m feeling slightly stuck.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I often don’t enjoy novels that aren’t written in chronological order. Especially those that are mostly flashback. I had real trouble with Small Island by Andrea Levy because the first short section is set in 1948, and so much of the rest is set before then that I didn’t feel motivated to read on. Luckily I knew I was supposed to like that book. I got very cross with The Sportswriter, and gave up a third of the way through when only three brief events had happened in the present with everything else being flashback. ‘I reckon Richard Ford wrote the wrong book,’ I pontificated to friends. They smiled, kindly. Later I discovered that it’s regarded as an iconic American novel. Whoops!

Although the way they structure their books isn't to my personal taste, at least both Andrea Levy and Richard Ford write well. Clunky flashbacks really set my teeth on edge. ‘As she stood at the door her mind wandered back to the day when…’ ‘He sank onto the sofa and couldn’t help remembering the time they…’ Aarrgghh! Don’t do that!

Yet some writers whose work I enjoy seem able to slip effortlessly in and out of different time zones. Carol Shields, Maurice Gee, and AS Byatt spring to mind. You may be able to suggest others. But how do they do it? I've examined their writing and I can't work it out. I’ve looked through all my shelves of how-to books and there’s very little in them about this aspect of plotting. So I’m turning to you. Do you always write your novels in chronological order, or not? If not, how do you move seamlessly between different times in your characters’ lives? Any tips would be very welcome, because this is doing my head in!

PS: please see post below while you're here - clever, clever Captain Black is working on a widget for our blogs promoting all the novel racers' books, and he needs your feedback - thanks


JJ said...

OMG, I am so struggling with this too. I loved the way Atonement was told and yet I don't see any way of writing my own but in a linear manner.

I'm sorry I can't help you, but I really look forward to hearing what everyone else advises.

liz fenwick said...

Great topic...

Tough one though. Good flashbacks are hard. In AR in the early drafts there were loads...however I was told this didn't work so I rewrote and so they weren't flashback but more active. Still not sure if this helped the story.

Another to deal with this is with a prologue and I know the jury out on them.

Unfortunately as a fall out of living in two places I haven't got Kate H's Self Presevation Society to hand but I seem to recall that bounces back and forth time and it was flawless so maybe she can shed some light on it.

One thing I do know is that for me the first draft of the novel has to be cronological otherwise I won't get the story out - after that I think I can play with....

I really lookforward to hearing more about this one.....

Debs said...

Interesting post.

I mostly writing in chronological order, although with my first novel there were a couple of flashbacks. I'm not sure how well done they were to be honest and do prefer it if a novel remains in the present.

I'm not sure how to help with this, but will certainly be interested to read the other comments as they come in and learn from them.

B said...

I got all the way through A215 with a great mark not understanding the difference between story and plot. I still haven't had that lightbulb thing where I understand it - will let you know when I do!

As far as someone who moves around in time goes, Maggie O'Farrell and especially After You'd Gone is wonderful at it. In that book, too, there's a good reason for it moving around in time and the book just wouldn't really work chronologically. But it's probably not all that helpful, because of the reason it needs to be written like that.


All I can suggest is trial and error - once all the book is written, try moving parts around, see if it works. If not try something else. I have nothing more useful to add than that, sorry!

DOT said...

My book too is being written strictly chronologically, but to address your dilemma, think of your M/S as a film script.

Pulp Fiction was a strictly chronological story, except it was cut achronologically. It jumps in time depending on the characters we are watching to demonstrate how certain events/coincidences come about.

The same can happen effectively with the written word. Though it does depend on your work having a number of POVs. I have just one.

Cathy said...

I actually enjoy reading and writing work with timeshifts ( and I so agree with B, Maggie O'Farrell handles them perfectly in After You'd Gone which is one of my favourite books). Another book which handles flashbacks well is Over by Margaret Forster, which I also moves seamlessly and frequently between past and present.

But timeshifts are also the thing causing me the most problem in my own novel. It seems I can handle them in short stories but not in a longer work. The hard part is to make the flashbacks integrate well and not seem like an artificial device. I think it is easiest with a first person narrator, as internal monologue lends itself to the technique.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I'm struggling to plot a book that crosses three time periods at the moment.

Rowan Coleman said...

HI all, I write flash backs quite a lot, although not in this novel I've just finished but ALOT in THE ACCIDENTAL WIFE which is really a novel about coming to terms with events that happened in the past. I don't get it right all of the time, and it is easy to stray in the clunky and clumsy realms - I like FB its a good tool, but like any device you need to go lightly when using it and make sure it flows in with the writing and doesn't lose or confuse the reader, which is easier said than done. My top tip when using FB anchor the FB passage in the present at both the begining and the end of the fB so the reader knows where they are.

Fiona said...

I know three people have told you that your work would benefit from some flashbacks but do you really feel that it would? You are not like other writers - none of us - so why do something that you are not comfortable with?
Perhaps, if you do want to use FB, could you experiment with using a couple of sentences in a short story and see how you feel about it?
I like to read all kinds of books and sometimes the ones that take a different or quirkier approach such as using notes to let the reader have vital information, can be refreshing.
I will have a think of some to recommend to you.

Kate said...

I do love the Forster idea (("The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king. etc") and I like the fact that as a writer you have all that knowledge and control of everything that’s happened to your characters…but it’s dangerous. I’ve always loved flashbacks but I think they can hold up the story, and I often cut out a lot of flashback when I am writing a second draft. It’s in the later drafts that I really begin to focus on what the reader really needs to know, versus what I know, and trying to give the minimum background that enables them to understand the character, but doesn’t hold up the story.

Thanks, Liz, for the kind words about the Self-Preservation Society – that is the opposite of what I said up there: it has a prologue AND a series of seven flashbacks, though the flashbacks form separate chapters and are effectively told in the present tense as my heroine’s memory is disrupted by a head injury, and she relives the situations which gave rise to her present-day problems. But that was a special case – more and more I am a fan of a fairly simple timeline, with only occasional recollections.

Btw, I finally got round to answering the fascinating question posed LAST week about the issue of where fiction might go in the credit crunch era: have done it on my blog, as it was a bit long to post here in the comments. Better late than never, eh? It also involves rumtopfs...

Caroline said...


I think I write in a chronological way, as in the voice is in the present but can refer to the past. I've read a few books that offer prologue in the present and then start the novel before that moment, leading up to the present time.

There are no rules really - are there?

I suppose that this comes from plotting and building. We build backstories that cover different aspects of a life and then decide at which point we'd like to begin our story.

I don't think I have the answer!

Lazy Perfectionista said...

I'm not really a linear thinker - I find mind maps easier than plot spreadsheet or something, and I don't write chronologically. My WIP is two periods of the same character's life (basically the beginning and end of a relationship) woven together, though they are both told chronologically within themselves. It's not a series of flashback because they are two distinct stories that complement each other. When choosing the positioning, I try to link thematically or with the characters involved in the specific scenes so it's not too much of a jolt for the reader.

I don't write chronologically, which is actually how I find there's always something I can write about. No matter what kind of mood I'm in there's a scene or chapter somewher in my WIP that feels appealing!

Lane said...

My book is strictly chronological because I've tried to keep it simple. There are recollections but no FBs as the story doesn't call for it.

Flashbacks and time jumps, if not used seamlessly, can interrupt flow. (I know what you mean about Small Island Zinnia). They work when the devices used to implement them don't 'show'.

Thanks Zinnia. Interesting subject.

Calistro said...

Yes, I'm a chronological writer too. Writing is hard enough as it is without making the structure complicated too! With novel 1 I loosely followed the 'hero's journey' structure so it had to be chronological but I had to use flashback to help explain why the main character was so desperate to complete her quest (so to speak). I was very wary of inserting clunky flashback scenes and tried to incorporate them as seamlessly as possible (how successful I was I don't know) and also to keep them to a minimum. Funnily enough my agent actually asked me to put MORE in. I agree with the comment (Rowan I think) about starting in the present, flashing back, then going back to the present again.

I think the best advice for 'how to' deal with a novel that isn't chronological is to study the novels of authors who you think have done a particularly good job. Something else you could consider is writing out all your scenes or chapters on index cards and laying them out on the floor. Can you shuffle them around to make the structure stronger?

Flowerpot said...

I write chronologically but the newest novel is written in the past and the present - alternating chapters. But they are in chronological order!

ChrisH said...

Very interesting topic, Zinnia. I think the straightforwards answer is that the successful use of FB depends very much upon the skill of the writer but that is not to suggest that only AS Byatt is capable of pulling off this device!

I know that you've had advice from people who've read your work but is there one Critical Reader whom you trust just to let you know if something feels clunky? It's just that I've been made very aware of times when I've stretched the bond between writer and reader by my own CR (who happens to the person I live with so he really takes his life in his hands!). Then it's back to the old advice; ie do whatever you have to hold your reader's interest! A skillfully incorporated FB which keeps the reader turning the pages won't be disruptive especially when you think how easily the spell can be broken by something that grates in a chronological novel.

Hmmn, lots to think about...

wordtryst said...

The two novels I've completed are in chronological order, but my current WIP, apart from being a different genre to those, is not chronological, with many flashbacks. I'm writing the scenes in no particular order, and don't know yet how I'll link them. I'm looking forward to that challenge!

I have no problem with FBs, or any other plot device, once the execution is good. I'm taking note of the examples given here in case I'm in need of inspiration later on (and because I so love a good-read recommendation).

(I had no problem with Small Island - absolutely loved it. But them, I may have been predisposed to like it, for obvious reasons.)

Helen Shearer said...

Hi all,

Nice to be back after missing last week. Boring personal issues - no need to elaborate. I like the idea of a story that jumps around. I find that if the writer doesn't tell too much in the flashback sequences it can really drive the suspense. I'm especially a fan of the time-honoured 'climax at the beginning then cutting back to three years before and gradually building to the climax again' approach. You do have to be careful though. I think a good way to approach it might be two POV's, first person in the present and third person in the flashbacks maybe.

I also like dot's idea of approaching it like a screenplay. Syd Field's book 'Screenplay' is very helpful, even if it is not intended for novelists. I'd recommend having a look through it. Some people find his approach too formulaic and I suppose there's a certain amount of truth to that, but I found it helped me to focus.

CC Devine said...

My current wip is mostly chronological but early drafts contained flashbacks that proved to be very clunky so I ditched them. I think you have to be extremely careful when using flashback but equally it can work for some stories.

I think many of the suggestions above are useful so perhaps you should play around with some of them and find what works for you. Best of luck!

L-Plate Author said...

I'm with CC devine actually, couldn't have put it better myself.

Good luck Zinnia, you'll know exactly what to do when the time is right. There is some good advice above and all I can add to it is go with your gut feeling. I spent too much time trying to please other people with my writing that I complety lost me at one point. Be careful not to do that please!

Captain Black said...

I'm a bit late today. I've actually been working with my co-author on our book. What? On a Friday? 'Fraid so. I'll therefore have a large G&T.

Chronology: what a marvellous subject! So complex and full of possibilities. If you think you've got problems, try writing stories which not only involve different times, but also time-travelling and other complex causal connections across the space-time continuum. I can't remember the last time I read some serious Sci-Fi that was told completely in chronological order.

Which brings me to the question: what do I like to read, in terms of chronological arrangement? The answer is simple: the more complex and intricate, the better! I just love those moments when you say (to yourself or out loud) "oh, so that happened because of that thing before - Aha!". Having said that, I also read many other genres - even books with pink covers ;oP - and many of these are told in strict chronology; perfectly well and enjoyable to read. My favourite books combine many genres and are told in mixed chronology.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like 'em complex (sorry Fia).

As for writing, well, pretty much the same thing goes, except for how I go about it. I tend to work in streams: I design a number of streams to the story/plot, in strict chronological order (no actual writing at this stage). Each stream will probably be a particular characters POV for the events that occur. I then write each stream separately as if it were one story and not connected. I create each of these so that they read in chronological order, though I write them in whatever order I feel like at the time. This is where all that pre-plotting pays for itself. Finally, having got all of the streams in their self-consistent glory (I wish), I then weave them together into the overall book.

Then comes the fun part: taking the thing as a whole and looking for inconsistencies, adjusting pace, fiddling with chapter lengths and alternations, and so on.

Phew. I don't know about you but I'm knackered just thinking about it. I'll just go for a lie down...

...Hmm, maybe I'll just write "girl meets boy" next time.

Zinnia, I think the short answer might be: you don't have to write things in the order they finally appear in the book. What dot said, basically.

I can't resist telling you about one of my favourite time-related fiction things. In Pandora's Star by Peter F Hamilton, an astronomer witnesses an important astrological event but didn't record it. So what he does is to travel further away, but faster than light, through a wormhole (they're all the rage in the future), so that he can see the event once again!

There seems to be an elephant in my pyjamas.

Thank you all for your kind words on the widget. I'll do a bit more work on it next week. Please send me your book cover graphics and any info to go with them. Alternatively you can put them on the web somewhere and I'll grab them.

ps. I agree that flashbacks are crap and cheesy. Avoid them (and clichés) like the plague.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Ooer. My latest is all dreams, flashbacks, memories, and hopping across alternate realities. But it all happens in the correct order. And it's going to get really confusing in the third volume when my central character turns up to watch herself being born. I suppose that's what happens when your parents are founding members of the League of Temporal Adventurers.

All my earlier novels have been chronological. Honest.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Wow, fabulous topic of conversation. Something I have never thought about to be perfectly honest. I write my novel in the order I see it and I know some of it may be seen as flashback. I guess that's the paranormal side of the plot.

You really have me thinking about this one, Zinnia.

CJ xx

Clare Sudders said...

I often do non-chronological. My first novel had three separate time frames, one written in past tense, one in present tense, one in future, and I never sad anything like "I remember when" - I just jumped between the three and let the tense indicate which time zone I was in.

In my second book I had some flashback, although most of it was chronological. I think the key with flashback is, NOT to signpost it by prefacing it with "I remember when" or any of the other clumsy examples you quote in your post.

Instead, you use the content and context to make it clear that it's flashback. Here's an example from my own book. I'm not sure how clear it is from this short snippet without seeing the whole chapter, but maybe it'll be helpful. The whole book is written in the present tense, even for the flashbacks:

“Yes,” says Henrietta. “It would. And you would have had to...”
“I did.”
Her ears are ringing.
She can’t see anything. She’s scared, but excited. After months of being told she’s not ready, she’s finally been admitted to this most sacred ritual of all.

The section before the break (indicated by stars) is ordinary narrative, and the section afterwards is flashback.

Don't treat it any differently from the rest of the prose. Just tell the story as you would have done if it were in chronological order, but use context and content to make it clear that it's flashback.

Also, Robert McKee says flashbacks that are any length need to be treated as mini-stories in their own right. Sub-plots, if you will. With beginnings, middles and ends. With premise, forward motion, inciting incidents, value change between start and end (i.e. it has to take you somewhere), all that stuff.

Lily Sheehan said...

Hey, great post - I have awarded the Novel Racers the 'I love your Blog Award' on my blog!

KayJay said...

How very timely - unlike my appearance at the coffee morning a few days late, sorry...

I'm almost finished my first draft of my first novel for adults (my previous stuff has been for children) and I was having doubts about a fairly lengthy flashback that occurs early on in the book and sets up a subplot. It's a chronological book, commercial women's fiction. (I think different rules apply depending what genre you're writing in.) My instinct and experience of reading other people's stuff told me it worked and that the transitions etc were pretty smooth, but I have been continuing to question whether it's a bad move.

The reason? I did a writing class a few years back with a teacher who told us that flashbacks were a huge no-no. She was adamant they were sloppy and amateurish. She said using flashback (in a traditionally written chronological book) was on a par with ending your book with 'I woke up and it was all a dream'. I respect her - she is a successful, published writer of many children's books - and I have since heard agents and editors express similar feelings on panels at conferences, so I have been scared to break her rule!

Obviously, you write more, you learn and improve and dare to break rules. I think I understand what she was getting at, advising a class of beginners in this way, but it left such an impression on me that it has been heartening to read how others have approached this.

This might be an idea for a coffee morning in itself! Advice others have given you about your writing that has haunted you and ultimately turned out to be a wrong!