Flashbacks in Fiction

In this post, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I debate the use of flashbacks in fiction.

SYDNEY: A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me! I thought of all the books that use that literary technique.

Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left. Moreover, if you reassembled events in their chronological order, they would lose the mystery and terrific vitality that the flashback structure invests the story with.

More recently there is A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, which relies on flashback so extensively that without them, the reader would understand nothing about her main characters. The novel is flawed, in my opinion – deeply flawed. But that is not the fault of the flashbacks.

The Killing Lessons, a crime novel by Saul Black, published in 2015, uses flashbacks to uncover why the killer does what he does. Crime fiction in general uses flashbacks through dialogue to uncover the sort of information that will help the detective understand the murder victim and who might have killed them.

Flashbacks are a way of revealing back story, that drama from the past that drives the main characters in the present drama. There are other ways of revealing back story. But it has to be disclosed in some way, or in a variety of ways, if the main characters are to achieve psychological and emotional depth. Back story helps the reader invest emotionally in the main characters. Even commercial fiction benefits from a strong back story, and if done correctly, that benefit can be conveyed through flashbacks.

JENNIFER: I wonder if that fellow writer was me, Sydney. It may have been, because I am wary of flashbacks. They’re a useful device, but their drawback is they bring the momentum of the main narrative to a screaming halt. Flashbacks differ from exposition, where you tell readers something about a character’s past. A flashback is a fully dramatised scene.

My advice is never to use flashbacks in the first fifty pages. Wait until a story is well-developed and has built up energy. If you can wait until half-way through, that’s good. Three-quarters of the way through is even better. Flashbacks reveal information and motivation, and detract from the mystery. Readers will no longer be curious about why a character behaves in a certain way. In my latest novel, Journey’s End, I have a protracted flashback in the final act. If that scene came any sooner, it would prick the balloon of narrative tension. Keep them guessing, I say.

SYDNEY: No, it wasn’t you, Jenny, though I can see why you think it might have been! I hold a different view from yours entirely. I think discovering motivation late in the drama is a mistake, usually – although I can conceive of occasions when it’s useful. If the character has depth, then uncovering motivation won’t dispel mystery. There should be plenty more to learn about a character – including about their motivation. Nor do I think flashbacks bring a narrative to a grinding halt. Does Wuthering Heights scream to a halt when Mr Lawrence reads Cathy’s diary? Does it scream to a halt every time Nellie tells him more of the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the Linton family? When done properly, flashbacks deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. I’m not that interested in linear narratives. I read them but I do like a narrative that jumbles things up. Plenty of novels and short stories are built on a switching back and forth in time and benefit enormously from it.

JENNY: I think of novels such as Wuthering Heights as “flashback novels”, exceptions to the general rule. Almost the entire novel is told in flashback. If a book begins with a woman on her deathbed, for example, the majority of the novel could be her recalling her life story. The flashback fundamentally becomes the novel’s main narrative, and the present day story is little more than a framing device.

I still maintain that flashbacks in more conventional novels slow the pace and risk losing readers. It’s something writers should be aware of. That said, I have published six novels which all contain flashbacks because, as you say, they do deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. Flashbacks are worth the risk. These are my tips if you decide to use them.

  • Use appropriate starting points. Memories are triggered by objects or our senses: a photograph, the scent of pine needles, a magpie’s morning chorus. Use these devices to transport the character back in time.
  • Hook the reader into the main story first. Give them a reason to go with the flashback. This means not using one too early, and choosing an exciting part of the story to insert it in. You want the reader to care enough to dive back into the present day narrative.
  • Make it completely clear that it is a flashback. There’s nothing more annoying than reading about a character in present-day Sydney and suddenly you’re back in 1970 Sicily without quite knowing how you got there.
  • I signal the transition with a break, and by changing the verb tense. My stories are usually in past tense, so I write the first two sentences of the flashback in the pluperfect. For example: ‘He had studied German at high school. It had been his worst subject.’ This grammatical change is necessary to tell the reader that they’re going back in time. After two sentences I go back to simple past tense: ‘He hated his teacher, that was the problem. Frau Goetz was a sadistic cow.’ On transitioning back to the present, I do the same thing in reverse. Two sentences in the pluperfect, break, then back to the simple past tense.

SYDNEY: These are good tips for the transition between present story and flashback. For me, the most important thing is to give the reader a good reason to go with them. That means setting up a mystery surrounding a character which can only be answered by flashbacks. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is a good example of that. Much as I disliked Jude, the main character, I wanted to know about his past, the one he refused to tell his friends. Thus, by withholding it and describing symptoms of his psychological disturbance, Ms Yanagihara sets up a mystery that is then solved in long flashbacks. The reader is in a privileged position — the story unveils to the reader all Jude’s secrets while keeping them hidden from the other characters. That privileged communication is one of the most powerful devices a writer can use.

As to ‘flashback novels’, I think you have to ask yourself why the writer chose to use flashbacks instead of stripping away the framing device and simply presenting the story in chronological order. There will be a very good reason for it, a reason that can’t be served by a linear narrative. Linear narrative is the most popular out there, but there are times when it impoverishes a story.

Also think of all the commercial fiction that uses different storylines involving separate casts of characters — George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, for instance. Although these different storylines are not flashbacks, they demand that the reader jump from one story to another, which is what flashbacks do. Does that multi-story structure alienate the reader? No. Think of the novels written with two or more timelines involving different sets of characters. For example, Green Darkness, by Anya Seton, a commercial historical novel set in modern-day England and in the Tudor period. Again, these are not necessarily flashback stories, but they demand that the reader jump from one storyline to another. Does that alienate the reader? No. Plenty of commercial women’s fiction uses the multi-story structure. Again, while these might not be flashbacks, they ask that readers leave one storyline and commit to another, which is the objection to flashbacks.

So, whether to use flashbacks or not, consult your own taste. Do you like flashbacks? Whenever I come upon them, I go with them. Since I like them, I disregard the so-called rule that prohibits them. But hey, call me an outlaw.

If you don’t like them, don’t use them.

Anachronisms

cross blogIt’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here we share some thoughts on anachronisms – those pesky out-of-time errors, and how to avoid them.

 

JENNY –
The word anachronism is derived from the Greek word anachronous which means against time. The term refers to a person, thing or idea that exists outside its time in history, especially one that happened or existed later than the period being written about. If readers stumble over details they know to be incorrect, it distracts from the story, breaking the contract between writer and reader. Avoiding this trap can be a minefield for historical authors. Fiction set in an imagined past is bound to be anachronistic to some extent, no matter how hard a writer tries to avoid it. The trick is not to let it show.

Anachronisms 1Shakespeare is famous for his anachronisms. He wrote of a clock in Julius Caesar, when clocks would not have existed. In the same play he talks of a man wearing a doublet, a garment unknown in ancient Rome, but fashionable in Shakespeare’s time. In Macbeth he talks about dollars, the wrong unit of currency. Then there is Cleopatra wanting to play billiards. Billiards was invented almost 2000 years after her reign, but was a game of luxury and masculine entertainment in Shakespeare’s era. The audience would have understood that it was an allusion to Cleopatra’s enormous political power. Such anachronisms were probably intentional, designed to help a contemporary audience engage more easily with a historical period.

SYDNEY –
As I read your list of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, Jenny, I wondered if it was also a way of letting the audience know that under the thin disguise of historical fiction, he was actually writing about modern times, modern conflicts, and commenting on modern political tensions without risking imprisonment by a touchy monarch.

Anachronisms 2The same cannot be said of the anachronisms in the manuscripts I’ve assessed over the years. In some cases, these errors are there because the writer hasn’t done their research. But more often, it’s a failure of imagination. When a writer sets a story in the early 1980s and describes a character texting messages on her phone, I’m quite sure the writer hasn’t exerted themselves enough to imagine themselves into the time of their story. They can’t imagine life without mobiles.

That’s an obvious instance. A subtler example is when the writer can’t imagine life without mobiles, but knows mobiles didn’t exist in the period her story is set, the 1960s, and so she hands her characters pagers. This particular writer told me with complete confidence, ‘Pagers existed then. They were used to summon doctors to emergency cases.’ That might be true. That’s not the issue, though. The issue is that the writer has been unable to imagine life without instant contact, and so has given all her characters, none of whom are doctors, pagers to fill a gap left by a lack of imagination.

Anachronisms 3I think this points to one of the nagging problems of writing historical fiction. The writer doesn’t simply have to do their research and get the fashions, architecture, language and political scene correct. The writer has to think themselves into the world they have created. People in the past thought differently, had a different outlook, a different worldview to people of today. Many behaviours remain recognisably the same. But the way people understand the world and how it operates, what they expect, is different. Those who are old enough, have seen how quickly worldviews can change. People who were adults in the 1980s know what it’s like to set out for a date or an appointment or to meet a friend on the understanding that something might happen to derail them. They can’t phone to say something’s come up – they missed their train, they witnessed a mugging and stopped to help the victim, they tripped and sprained their ankle. I postponed for years getting a mobile, hating the idea of being in constant reach of other people. Then one day I set out to meet a friend for lunch. I missed the train. I was only ten minutes late, but she was furious because I hadn’t been able to let her know I was delayed. My attitude was the old one – it didn’t matter if I was ten minutes late. Things happen. Her attitude was the new one – no matter what, you phone to let the other person know something’s come up. The next day, I bought a mobile. Now I’m bumping up against another new assumption about the world – that everyone’s got a smart phone. I still have my old steam-powered phone, which can’t receive emails. People send images to my phone and can’t understand why I don’t respond. But that’s another story!

JENNY –
Anachronisms 4It sounds like you’d fit perfectly into a historical novel, Sydney! As you say, an anachronistic worldview can be just as disconcerting to readers as obvious lapses like mobile phones that hadn’t been invented yet. This is particularly important when writing about fairly recent periods. I intend writing a book roughly covering the years 1929 – 1960. Some people will remember these times from first-hand experience. My mother once complained about a novel set in World War 2. ‘There weren’t nylon stockings during the war,’ she said. ‘Nylon was reserved for military use, like making parachutes.

Anachronisms can crop up in a hundred ways – a change in the geography of a town, forgetting to check when introduced animals or plants arrived (for example, trout were only introduced to Tasmania in 1864) or simply using out of context word choices. Historical writers need to be constantly on the alert. People often say, ‘I really liked the story, but then such-and-such happened and I couldn’t get past it.’ It would be a shame to lose readers for want of a little research.

One Character, Two Conflicting Goals

by Peacewolf Creations

by PeaceWolfCreations

Stories need conflict, we all know that. Usually this comes about via a protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. One man wants to win the battle and another man wants to stop him. This is the simplest version. But what about when opposing goals are contained within the same person? This happens when a character desperately wants two things that are mutually exclusive. It echoes life, and allows for rich characterisation when the choice is finally made. Readers really feel for a hero in the throes of this kind of tortured inner turmoil. If done well, the readers themselves become torn in two directions. They take sides, change their minds, feel the frustration. It’s an unbeatable recipe for a page-turning read, and the engine room of many popular novels.

Anna KareninaConflicting goals lie at the heart of Anna Karenina. Anna wants both her adulterous lover Vronsky and her child. In nineteenth century Russia she can’t have both. Will she follow her burning passion whatever the cost? Or will she return to a safe, suffocating marriage for the sake of her child? She chooses Vronsky. Her choice destroys their love and leads to ultimate disaster. Tolstoy uses action, thoughts, dialogue and backstory to emphasise the pull of these conflicting goals. They seem equally matched, until the fatal choice is made.

  • Other well-known examples are Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – Bella wants to be with Edward, but she also wants to live.
  • Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen – Jacob wants to keep his job at the circus, but he also wants to protect the elephants
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Hamlet wants to avenge his father by killing the king, but he also wants to fulfil his duty as a prince by protecting the king and the stability of the kingdom
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss wants to win the games so she can live, but if she wins, her friend Peeta will die. She wants him to live too.

internal conflictThe greater the war within, the more compelling your story will be. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, sets out a good way to create conflicting goals. ‘Ask what does your hero most want in the novel – his story goal. Then ask what’s the opposite of that, or mutually exclusive to it? Give your hero an equally compelling reason to not pursue his goal. He wants both at once, but can’t have them both. The story will play out in how the hero pursues these opposing desires until the conflict is resolved, one way or another.’

2016 Australia Day Book Giveaway

 

I’m delighted to be part of the Book’d Out Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop celebrating Australian writers and stories. I’m giving away a copy of my latest novel Turtle Reef, and a copy of Jilted by the fabulous Rachael Johns. The giveaway is only open to Australian residents. Stop by the other blogs on the tour to win more great prizes.

My Australia Day blog post is about a little Australian native orchid, that connects my memories of a lost brother with my upcoming novel, Journey’s End.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAThere is little more poignant in life, than helping to pack up the house of a loved one who has died too young. This has been my sad task recently, since the untimely death of my brother, Rod Scoullar. He was a learned man, a man who loved Australia’s fauna and flora – a naturalist of the first order. His study was a gold-mine of nature books, stored on impressive floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered an entire wall. It was here that I found the holy grail for Aussie orchid lovers – Australian Indigenous Orchids Vol 1 & 2 by A W Dockrill. These are hard to find volumes, and sell on-line Ravine orchid 4.ashxfor up to $200 a set. But aside from being the definitive treatises on native orchids, they also provided me with a wonderful link to my new book, Journey’s End, which will be out in late May.

Journey’s End is concerned in part with a woman’s journey through grief. I’m deep in the edits at the moment. Little did I know when I was writing this book that it would take such a personal turn. It’s set in the wild, mountainous, subtropical rainforests of the Great Eastern Escarpment, and the rare Ravine Orchid (Sarchochilus fitzgeraldii) plays a significant role in the story. So I looked it up in my brother’s books, and found a glorious, full-colour plate of this beautiful and delicate flower.

Ravine orchid 4The Ravine Orchid is found in wet, humid rainforests of the Great Dividing Range, where waterfalls cascade from the tablelands. It is lithophytic, which means its roots cling to rocks or creep into humus-filled crevices. Old colonies form mats many meters wide, and relish the constant play of cool air through the deep, damp ravines. Plants also occasionally grow on the moss-covered buttresses of ancient trees. The fragile flowers appear in October and November, and are up to forty millimeters wide. Colours vary from pure white, white with a red heart, to a rare all-crimson form. They are borne on graceful, pendulous stems which may measure more than a meter long. Quite a sight, when draped in full bloom on the rocks above a mountain stream.

Ravine orchid 3I was fortunate enough to buy a tiny specimen from the Tinonee Orchid Nursery when on a research trip for the book last year, pictured right. According to the wonderful Ray Clement, it should do well in the climate of the southern Victorian ranges where I live. So far so good. One day it may flower, and I’ll think of my brother, and his passion for Australia’s marvellous native plants.

To go into the prize draw leave a comment on this blog post. Don’t forget to check out the other blogs at Book’d Out to be in the running for more great prizes!! (Entries will close at midnight on Wednesday January 27th)

Emotion And Stories

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith. This month, we discuss the importance of emotion in narrative.

SYDNEY

As a writing mentor and manuscript assessor, I can often tell who has been to creative writing class. Apart from other telltale signs, these writers leave out emotion. They think they have to show it, not tell it.

Mr DarcyThis is a tricky area. In some instances, an action will indeed reveal how a character feels. But the writer has to make sure that it does, and that it shows it strongly enough. For example, if a character is responding to an insult, they might redden and glare. But what if the character is having a reflective moment, thinking over some revelation that overturns their assumptions? In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes such a moment for Elizabeth Bennet, after Elizabeth reads Darcy’s letter explaining his relationship with Wickham and his actions concerning Jane and Bingley. Miss Austen knows an action won’t cover it. Not even a series of actions. The reader needs analysis of how Elizabeth feels, and how her feelings evolve from angry rejection of Darcy’s version to confused acceptance. That means emotions have to be named and thoughts described. If they aren’t named, the reader won’t know what she feels, and won’t be able to feel with her.

JENNY

Yes, I agree. Readers need to understand how the character feels, and many writers leave it out, in pursuit of showing, not telling. I used to fall into this trap.

EmotionsFor example, maybe our character Peter is in an unhappy marriage, or hates his job. So the writer quite rightly puts Peter in difficult and provoking situations – perhaps he fights with his boss or his wife walks out on him. With something this crucial, it’s important to indicate Peter’s internal thoughts and emotions. There are a variety of ways for Peter to respond to his spouse leaving. He might be angry, resentful, relieved, scared, liberated, or a mix of these. It’s risky to let readers fill in the blanks until Peter’s character is well established. My editor once said you run another risk too. If the writer doesn’t emphasise Peter’s feelings, readers might think he doesn’t care – might think the event washed over him, leaving him cold. So it’s important to show reactions. Otherwise characters might be misunderstood. But don’t overdo it!

There are various ways to indicate how characters are feeling. Internal physical sensations are the classic ‘show’.

Emotion.jpg‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry couldn’t breathe. A cold stone settled in the pit of his stomach. This child had meant everything.

Then there’s body language – physical gestures, facial expressions, actions etc.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry’s fingers trembled. The glass lurched alarmingly, spilling wine down the front of his trousers. He cried out. This child had meant everything.

And sometimes it helps to flat out state the emotion, for clarity.

‘I lost the baby,’ said Anne. ‘A son.’

Henry raised his hand, as if he might ward off the terrible news. Disappointment fell like a physical weight upon his heart, crushing it. His marriage, his kingdom – his very honour as a man – depended on the arrival of an heir. This child had meant everything.

emotion 2As readers, we are on a search for feeling – for a quickened pulse and a brighter pallet of colours than we find in everyday life. To feel, we need an emotional connection with the characters. I believe it’s the place where all good stories start.

SYDNEY

Aren’t you clever! There I was thinking Anne and Henry were two everyday Australian people – and they were THAT Anne and Henry!

Yes, reading is meant to be an emotional experience. It gives us access to other ways of living life. We’re meant to identify with the characters, especially the principal POV – although we’re free to identify with any character we choose to. I often think about the smaller characters in a novel, like Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and her foolish insistence on threadbare wisdom. Poor Mary is the daughter who came after Elizabeth, their father’s favourite. Mary is also the one who signals Mr Bennet’s disillusionment with his marriage. He loves the daughters he had when he still loved his wife, and keeps his distance from the daughters of his disillusionment. Of the younger three, Mary is the one who feels it most strongly, and competes with Elizabeth in the only way she can – through her efforts to be “wise” or intelligent. Poor Mary, I’ve always had a place in my heart for her.

Emotion 3.jpgAnyway, describing your character’s emotions closes the gap between reader and character. Without that emotional content, the reader is forced to stand at a distance from the story, is forced to think the story, not feel the story. Thinking it is a lesser experience and lets the reader off the hook before they’ve got anywhere near it. Emotional investment is a vital ingredient in that much-desired quality we call unputdownable.

BB14

Thoughts On Dialogue

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith.

This month, we analyse a passage of dialogue from The Red King, by Victor Kelleher, to see what makes effective dialogue. Here is the passage itself:

‘Petie was sitting on a low wooden stool in the centre of the clearing, the mist and the smoke from the camp fire curling about him. There was no sign of the animals. His thin body was hunched over a flat piece of rock which he was using as a table; and his long fingers, heavy with rings, were busily drawing gold coins from a leather pouch which she had often seen hanging at her Master’s belt.
         

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’
         

He swung towards her, gold coins spilling from his cupped hands, a mischievous smile forming on his lips. ‘Do I deserve no payment for saving you from the fever?’ he asked. ‘Not even a few paltry coins?’
         

‘It’s not just the coins!’ she shouted, and pointed to the collar encircling her neck. ‘This didn’t belong to you! It wasn’t yours to use like this!’

‘But it was also part of your master’s property,’ he countered. ‘The collar and the gold together. Why should I keep one and give up the other?’

‘I’ve already told you,’ she protested. ‘He made me free. Free! You had no right … no right …!’

‘No right?’ he interrupted. ‘Without me you would be dead. And there’s little freedom in the grave, Timkin, I assure you of that.’

‘I’d rather be in the grave than wearing this again!’ she replied hotly.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.’

 

 

SYDNEY:-
DialogueOne of the first things I noticed about this passage of dialogue is the power transfer. At the start, the power balance is fairly equal between the two characters, with a slight leaning toward Timkin, who has taken the moral high ground.

‘So!’ she hissed at him. ‘You’re nothing but a common thief!’

By the end of the piece, Petie has taken power by adopting a menacing tone of voice.

‘That too can be arranged,’ he answered, and all at once there was a sinister undertone to his words that matched the chill of the morning.

The Red KingKelleher underlines the menace in Petie’s tone by describing it. This has at least two functions. The first is to emphasise the power transfer. Emphasis is a vital part of good narrative. The second function is to draw a line under the dialogue sequence. The scene goes on but this bit of power transfer has been framed and divided from the next bit of the story by the description of Petie’s sinister tone of voice.

JENNY:-
This is an excellent passage to show how dialogue should convey an underlying tension. The conflict here is obvious – one character has the other captive. Timkin is moving in the direction of her desire – freedom. Petie is maintaining his desire – to hold her prisoner – and upping the ante by making veiled threats. Readers expect dialogue to have this kind of purpose and direction. They expect to be led somewhere and Kelleher does this.

tom-chiarella-011aa

Tom Chiarella

But is tension always  necessary? Yes. Good dialogue is a combination of desire on the part of one character weighed against the tension inherent in the scene. You may think there isn’t always tension when people speak. A family conversation, for example, where people love each other. Does that sort of dialogue need tension? Of course! (For many of us, family causes more conflict than anything else.) It doesn’t have to be grand conflict. In his wonderful essay on writing dialogue Tom Chiarella puts it this way.

‘Tension is more like the energy between charged particles. It’s always there, even when two people agree. Think of two cars traveling a reasonable distance apart from one another along an interstate at sixty-five miles an hour. Safe distance.Same direction. Same speed. No tension, right? Wrong. We all know it only takes one little bump in the road, one touch of the brakes, a deer in the headlights for everything to be completely and suddenly redefined.’

 

SYDNEY:-
Yes, dialogue always has to have tension. I would only qualify what you said, Jenny, by saying that BOTH characters have desire. They are clashing desires. This is what causes the tension. In Kelleher’s excerpt, you can see that each character states their position clearly and so they fight it out through dialogue. Other pertinent information is shown through the narrative bits that frame the dialogue. What you get is a layered piece of storytelling through dialogue.

JENNY:-
Each line of dialogue simply responding to the previous one, bloated dialogue, is one of the most common mistakes of new writers. Speech in novels should be stylised. It should sidestep the obvious with off-centre responses, questions, silence or body language.

So ‘This is wonderful fruit cake. Sue.’
     ‘Thanks Jill.’
     ‘Can I have the recipe?’
     ‘Of course.’

Could become …

      ‘This is wonderful fruit cake, Sue.’
       Her sister never handed out compliments. What was going on?
      ‘Can I have the recipe?’
Sue shoved her chair back from the table. ‘I need a drink.’

Much more interesting!

SYDNEY:-
Indeed! I switched off at the first passage between Sue and Jill, but at the second passage, I sat up straight and paid attention! Dialogue is meant to have that effect. Readers know they’re meant to sit up and pay attention when dialogue comes into it.

JENNY:-
I do have one problem with the Kelleher excerpt, and that’s his use of dialogue tags. I strongly believe that said becomes invisible and is all that’s needed. The occasional whispered or shouted is okay, but not protested, countered or replied hotly. It just distracts me.

I’m not a fan of loads of dialogue in fiction. No response is often the best response, so sometimes it’s good to simply shut your characters up. Silence can show confusion, pain, determination, anger – any number of emotions. It allows the rest of the scene to carry the weight via action, sensory description, physical details, thoughts or even the rhythm of words themselves.

SYDNEY:-
Dialogue 3Yes, dialogue gains in texture if the writer uses other ways of conveying what’s going on with the characters, or if they’re inventive with their character responses. It takes practice and confidence to know when to use words and when an action will do the job just as well or better.

Also, dialogue does not replace action. As a manuscript assessor, I read many, many manuscripts by writers who thought dialogue was always showing, not telling. So they wrote reams of dialogue in which this kind of thing happened:

Joe said, ‘Look who is coming down the street. It is Leonard, carrying a bazooka. He is talking to a woman. A police car is following them.’

Sam said, ‘I am filling the kettle and putting it on the stove. Do you want coffee? I have a bad feeling about that bazooka. I was in Nam as a kid of eighteen and weapons make me think of those days. That is why I became a Federal police officer.’

The purpose of this sort of dialogue is to inform the reader. It isn’t about an exchange between two characters with clashing goals. But dialogue shouldn’t be merely an info dump. Dialogue has a dramatic function that must be fulfilled at all times.

When a reader starts reading a story, they enter into a contract. This contract involves trust – the reader gives the story their trust that it will do its job properly and carry them away on a wave of enchantment. If a story breaks that contract, it loses the reader, who stops reading or switches off or gets distracted. Dialogue that lacks dramatic tension breaks that contract.

BB14

The Vulnerable Writer

cross blogIt’s that time of the month for general writerly chit-chat with author and writing teacher Sydney Smith. This week we’re talking about the importance of vulnerability.

SYDNEY –
One of the creative writing forms I teach is memoir, sometimes called life writing. The commonest issue writers of memoir face is vulnerability. They fear exposing themselves to the reader. It’s common for these writers to fictionalise their life story, or use the third person, in order to shield themselves. A writer once asked me if her memoir was still a memoir if she wrote in the third person. I said no, which angered her. I dealt with her wrongly, thus driving her deeper into her own self-protectiveness. What I should have done was tell her the story of my own struggle to overcome my fear of self-exposure. So, although I have lost that opportunity, I will tell the story here.

Back in 2004, I developed an eye condition that made it hard for me to do everyday things like read the newspaper and walk safely down a flight of stairs. One of the curious things about my eye condition is that I sometimes see objects that aren’t there: flowers, feathers, scraps of paper that might be folded notes. I want to write a story about a woman who sees things that aren’t there―it’s such an odd and magical experience.

Vulnerability 1It’s normal when you lose some part of your body or one of the senses that you enter a mourning period. During this period you give up hoping for the return of the lost sense or lost limb, and you adjust to a new way of relating to the world and yourself. I examined the way I was living my life and realised I was stuck in a rut. I had to think about what I really wanted from life and how I should go about getting it. In a really meaningful way, my eye condition was the best thing that could have happened to me. It catapulted me into a situation where I was forced to change the way I conducted my life. Some of these changes came about through conscious decision. Some were involuntary, and these have been the most potent agents of change.

Vulnerability 2As I came out of my mourning period, I was seized by a need to write about my relationship with my mother. It had been difficult; my mother had a mental illness and suffered from psychotic episodes. For years I had avoided writing about her, either directly or in disguised forms. My protagonists are notably lacking a mother. Again and again I write about women who either have a father only, or no parents at all. So the idea of writing about myself and my mother was a struggle. The first part of the struggle was learning how to write memoir when I only knew how to write fiction and journalism. That was tough enough. But still tougher was my struggle to write about her and myself in a true and honest way, stripped of justifications and defensiveness, self-aggrandisement and blame. I had to be vulnerable and that was frightening.

This fear took the form of a prohibition – thou shalt not write about they mother! Behind that hung another prohibition – thou shalt not write about thyself! Every time I sat down to write a short memoir about her, I would stare at a blank document page for about half an hour, type a little, erase it, type again, erase it, and finally close the document and do something else.

wife swapThen I figured a way around the prohibition. I was addicted to a reality TV show called Wife Swap USA, in which two couples swapped partners. There was always a crazy mother in there. The show could more accurately have been called Mad Mothers USA. I used to watch this show and see my own mother in these mad women. So I wrote an essay about it. First I analysed an episode, then I took a reality TV camera into my home when I was sixteen and let it roam around, recording what went on there. By starting with the show and moving into memoir, I had sneaked up on my mother―and it was liberating! Even better (because we writers need proof that we’ve done a good job) Griffith REVIEW published it. Before long, I didn’t have to sneak up on her anymore. I could write about her directly, and a few years after that, my book-length memoir, The Lost Woman, was published.

The Lost WomanI had got over the fear of exposing myself, of being vulnerable in front of strangers. But something curious had happened. I’m a fiction writer and had struggled to get close to my characters. Since I struggled with that, so did my readers. Insuperable barriers separated me from my characters, and my characters from my readers. But once I had overcome my fear of being vulnerable, I found myself no longer fearing to expose my characters. By overcoming my fear, I had made myself, quite by chance, a better storyteller and a better writer.

JENNY –
That’s a fabulous story, Sydney, and I can highly recommend The Lost Woman. ‘An extraordinary memoir from a ferociously talented writer, The Lost Woman will mesmerise readers with its power and humanity.’

vulnerability 3Not being a writer of memoir, I don’t have quite the same problem. Also, I’m the sort of person who can’t help wearing my heart on my sleeve. This causes complications in the real world, but is a gift to a novelist. Because as you say, it isn’t just memoirists who are afraid to expose themselves. Writers of fiction can be equally tempted to protect their innermost selves, writing half-truths, and shying away from things that matter the most to them.They fear being shamed, or embarrassed, or judged.

How much of yourself are you prepared to put on the page? If you truly want to write great fiction, you have to be willing to go deep. It takes courage to do this. Otherwise, what matters most passionately to you will remain hidden from your readers. The words will lack soul. This is difficult, because we’re all programmed not to expose ourselves. We have psychological defence tools to protect ourselves from pain and raw emotions. Some writers even protect their characters, and are afraid to make them vulnerable. But if we write like this, we will pussyfoot around the heart of our story and have no real impact on the reader. Ernest Hemingway understood this when he said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.’

What are you scared to write? Maybe that’s exactly what you should be doing. When I think of my favourite books, they all pack a raw, emotional punch.

BB14