For Love of the Story

I watched For Love of the Game last night, but a different version than the one that was released in theaters or on tape or DVD.

My deceased life mate/soul mate was sick for many years, and one way kept himself busy when he hadn’t the strength to do much else was to tape movies. He started with our favorites, then went on to taping good parts of bad movies, and finally edited movies that we didn’t like. (It’s rather amusing — he turned a few dreadful serial killer movies into sweet romances by ending the movie before the charming killer showed his evil side.)

baseballThe problem we both had with For Love of the Game was the constant intrusion of the backstory. Billy Chapel is pitching the last game of his career and he keeps stopping to reflect on his past — detailed flashbacks that would take up more than a few seconds between his pitches. Would fans in the stands really care that he was pitching a perfect game if he spent most of his time on the mound staring glassy-eyed into the past? Would he really be able to “clear the mechanism” so easily if his mind wasn’t on the game?

My version is told in chronological order, from the meeting of the girl in the beginning to the remeeting at the end. When Chapel is pitching, then, his pauses are short, and seem more evidence of exhaustion than anything else.

So why am I mentioning this? I’ve been working sporadically on my novel about a grieving woman. A few years ago I wrote many scenes or parts of scenes, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to arrange the scenes and tell the story. As it stands right now, the story begins when the funeral people deliver the urn with her husband’s ashes, which is a good place to begin. (In a classic beginning, either a stranger knocks on the door or the character goes on a trip.) The only trouble is, there is a vast backstory that needs to be told, which is okay because it is about a woman grieving, after all, and much of grief is about unwinding the backstory, figuring out who you are, where you are, and how you got to that point.

Sometimes — most times, actually — stories need to be told in chronological order. It might serve my story better if I began when the husband got sick. It would show her dealing with his illness and would explain how she ended up in love with someone else while her husband was dying. This way, there would need to be only a few mentions of the past, such as when the met, what happened to her parents, etc, and not the constant intrusions into the past that are required if I were to start with the knock on the door.

But . . . a gun plays a role in the story. Finding the gun and eventually discovering the significance of the gun makes the grieving wgunoman realize that she put so much of herself into the marriage, and if she doesn’t know who her husband is, then how can she know who she is? If I told the story chronologically, the gun wouldn’t show up until the middle of the book, and it would lose its significance.

I suppose the best thing for me to do is to forget about the chronology and just type up the scenes. Afterward, if necessary, I can edit the book and put everything in chronological order. Either way, it’s all for love of the story.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writers: Be Bold!

When writing, it’s important to be decisive. Passive storytelling, passive events, passive motivations, passive characters, passive verbs, all lead to a story without risk or conviction, full of missed opportunities.

Get rid of the unnecessary qualifying words (quite, a bit, a little, some, somewhat, I guess) and non-specific words (someone, everything, huge, handsome, very, really). Such words detract from the authority and decisiveness of your writing.

Too many flashbacks rob a story of drive, give it a sense of aimlessness. So does a lack of focus. Thank heaven for rewrites! The grieving woman in my NaNoWriMo story keeps reflecting on the past, which makes sense, because for her there doesn’t seem to be much of a future. Still, it does seem aimless since she’s thinking instead of doing something. When I rewrite it, I’m going to take away the aimlessness by having the story revolve around a theme to give it focus.

The worst offense for indecisive writing is backing off from a major scene, skipping it entirely, or doing it in flashback. Many new writers don’t feel they are capable of writing dynamic action scenes, so they skim past it and hope readers won’t notice. Or they have a character other than the hero commit the final act, such a man showing up at the end to rescue the heroine in women-in-peril novels. This isn’t as common as it once was, which is good. If the woman is the hero, she needs to put herself on the line during the final scene and not expect someone else to do it for her.

In More Deaths Than One, it might seem as if I passed the buck — the solution to the mystery of Bob’s identity came in a letter rather than his doing the work himself — but the point of the scene was for him to interact with the waitress, not interact with the villain. I wanted to show her emotion on his behalf, show his reaction to her as together they learn the truth. It was the immediacy of their reaction that I needed. How a character feels, reacts, or emotes, is every bit as important as what a character does.

It’s important to trust yourself as a writer. Trust that you will be able to recognize the truth of your scene and what you want to accomplish (as I did with More Deaths Than One). Trust that when it comes time to rewrite and edit, you will know what you need to do to create a dynamic story, and that you will be able to do it.

Most important of all, don’t skirt around the story. Get right to the heart of the action. Be bold.

Writing Dynamic Descriptions

Description by its nature stops the forward movement of story. No matter how beautifully executed the passage, no matter how well a writer engages the senses, description alone goes nowhere. To be dynamic, it has to be part of the physical movement of the plot or part of the development of the character. This is done by not just describing something, but by showing the effect on the character and how the character reacts.

In the 1980s, bookracks in grocery stores were full of gothic romances. Perhaps you remember seeing those covers: a brooding mansion in the background, a woman in a diaphanous gown running away from the house, looking back at it in fear. Despite their triteness, those were dynamic covers: the pictorial description of the house, the effect on the character (fear), and how the character reacted (running away.) Written description can be as vibrant as those covers; it just means taking the description a step further and filtering it through the senses of a character.

Description can be used in other ways to make it dynamic. In previous blogs, I railed against unmotivated actions in bestsellers. Not only do unmotivated actions spoil the story; they show how little respect the authors have for their readers. It’s easy to motivate actions with sense description. Instead of having a character take important files with her for no reason, she could have heard a snip of music that reminded her of a time when she lost something of importance due to carelessness. Or the smell of lilac drifting in the window from outside could have reminded her of her grandmother’s maxim to always take important files with her when she leaves the apartment. (Well, maybe not. But you get the idea.)

Sense description is also useful for making a character remember, for strengthening her resolve, or for segueing from one thought to another. For example, if you need a flashback, one way to move gracefully to the past is by a scent. Perhaps those dang lilacs again. The scent reminds the character of her grandmother and the summer she . . . Instant flashback. Or the scent could remind her that she hasn’t talked to her grandmother for a while, and so resolves to call her. Or the scent reminds her of her grandmother, which reminds her of fresh baked doughnuts, and that reminds her of the shady character she saw in the doughnut shop.

Silly examples, I know. But the point is not silly. Make descriptions come alive by using them to move the story forward.

On Writing: Flashing Back to Flashbacks

In my post on finding a beginning to a novel, I mentioned as an aside that if you have many flashbacks in your book, you should move the story backward in order present those scenes as they happened chronologically. It’s good advice — my advice on writing is the distillation of the hundreds of writing manuals I have read coupled with my own experience as an unpublished novelist — but reading the comments people left on my blog made me wonder where I really stand.

I do think that ideally a story should begin at the beginning and go to the end with few backtracks. Telling it chronologically gives the story impetus, making us want to read further in order to find out what is going to happen. But the ideal way of telling a story is not always the most practical way.

If I have any reservations about my novel More Deaths Than One, they come from its five long flashbacks. Two flashbacks are told as stories. Scheherazade-like, the hero seduces the heroine with the stories so, as in all elements of a good novel, they do double duty. Two other flashbacks introduce the hero when he was younger and introduce a friend who is murdered. The fifth, I’m embarrassed to admit, is there simply because I like the story it told, though it did introduce a minor character. (And the heroine asked for a story. What can I say? She was insatiable.)

Originally I wrote the book in three parts: present, past, then present again. That didn’t work — the past was so boring it slowed the pace, even though much of it was important. Then I tried using a prologue. That didn’t work either; it seemed as if it were there merely as a hook and not an integral part of the story. So I began the novel in the present and added flashbacks as needed. I don’t know if it works, but right now it’s the only way I know to tell the story.

In my other books, I let the characters tell each other their life stories. It’s a cheat, really, a means of making the past seem more immediate, but at least the characters get to know each other at the same time the reader does. The flashbacks in my work-in-progress are true flashbacks, momentary musings by the hero. I do not plan to write any scenes in the past. I want this one to have as much forward movement as possible to mask its real character — an allegory. (I mean, really, an allegory? Who reads allegories?)

As a reader, I prefer anything that keeps my attention. Often, flashbacks disturb the flow of the story, making me aware of the construct. In the minutes it takes for me to get into the flow of the back-story, I lose interest. But I admit, I have become something of a philistine and no longer admire writing solely for its artistic and intellectual achievements.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Finding a Beginning to a Novel

The search engine terms that bring most visitors to my blog are “the origin of the grim reaper” and “the moving finger writes,” but occasionally people come looking for something specific about writing. Lately, it seems, people are wondering how to find the beginning of a novel.

A character’s life, like any life, starts with either a gleam in the parents’ eyes or a birth, depending on your religious and political beliefs. And all stories, taken to their logical conclusion, end in death. Somewhere in that spectrum is the story you want to tell, and since all stories are about change, the novel should begin as close to the moment of change as possible.

The one exception to this rule is that if your story will need flashbacks, you should move the beginning further back on the spectrum in order to show these scenes as they are happening. Flashbacks, no matter how interesting, stop the flow of a story; because they are in the past, readers have no stake in their outcome. Making your flashbacks part of the present gives them an immediacy they would not otherwise have.

Most new writers (and many professionals who should know better) begin with a weather report, long passages of description to set the scene, or even the character’s ancestry. If you feel comfortable starting one of these ways, do so, but keep in mind it is only a temporary construct until you figure out where you are going with your story. As you write, you will find ways of inserting the necessary information elsewhere in the book, and will be able to delete it from the beginning of your novel. Despite what you might think, readers do not need to know who your character is before you begin the tale. They need to be thrust into the story so that they can find out for themselves who your character is.

So, start your novel with something happening, with a moment of potential drama, with a conversation. Many books begin with violence, which is a sure way of catching readers’ interest. At the very least, they will find it more exciting than a weather report or a description of your extraterrestrial world. And so will you. The more excited you are about the story you are writing, the easier it will be for you to write. Because, as you will find out, beginning a novel is simple; finishing it is an entirely different matter.