Notes for Novelists: Plot

We learn more (and believe more) from watching people in action than listening to what they tell us about themselves. The novel is no different. Villains behave badly. Good guys do creditable things. If that good guy is also your viewpoint, you can enrich his character with thoughts, interior monologue and flashback. The reader knows the mainsprings of action, and what fears and difficulties had to be overcome.

If the good guy is not the viewpoint, then other characters can comment on the action, tell each other how it contrasts with expectations, and so on.

Heroes make things happen, but they're not miracle workers. If yours rescues the woman from the frozen lake, make sure you've shown your reader that he's a skating ace, and fearless, well before that scene. Explanations inserted at the climax to a story look contrived, and are unforgivable when the word processor allows easy changes in the script.

Likewise coincidences. The boy needs to meet his girl several times, and in ways that seem natural, before the romance blossoms. The reader has suspected their involvement, but delaying the moment gives you time to flesh out their characters more, and build suspense.


Once alerted, you can watch the techniques being used in your favourite films and novels, but the following takes the matter a little further:

Be Your Own Casting Director: Introduction. One of several useful posts on this Write Time Write Place blog.


Flashbacks take your reader into a scene that happened before the present. Because that interrupts the narrative, and endangers the illusion of scenes passing before the reader's gaze, flashbacks need to be used carefully and sparingly. In general, a flashback should:

Add materially to the present scene: provide motivation, richness of character, suspense.

Introduce an immediate scene and not off-stage narrative.

Move immediately from the present to the flashback.

Start with an arresting sentence.

A problem arises immediately with 'had'. Since most stories are written in the past tense, the logical tense for flashbacks would be the pluperfect. That destroys the continuity and immediacy of the scene, however, and it's better to quickly signal a flashback and then continue in the simple past tense. Instead of:

I was always in trouble at school. Even on rare good days I had had the distinct impression the girls were laughing at me . . . Try: I was always in trouble at school. Even on good days I knew the girls were laughing at me . . .

You can introduce a flashback with dialogue:

'Truth is, Sue, I wasn't exactly a hotshot at school.'

An understatement.

How many times was I standing in the corner . . . ?

Or go direct into dialogue from a flashback.

I was not good at school. 'Roberts you are the most singularly dull and obtuse boy in this class. Stand up. . .'

Flashbacks can create suspense: 'Go on, little man.' I thought of the doctor's advice.

To close a flashback you can simply leave a blank line and pick up the previous scene.

Or you can refer to the flashback in some way:

Then I moved to Baltimore, and everything changed. I was still thinking of those humiliations when I saw Delmot's puzzled look come off my face.


Flashbacks. The Writing Life blog: some dos and don'ts.  


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