In the last class we looked at how to put together a scene. Today we’re going to look at some other narrative effects that can be of great use when writing fiction.
Summary can be a useful method of leading the reader into a scene. That being said, there’s a guideline that modern authors should minimize their use of summary.
Summary can be used to briefly cover the events leading up to the point where the scene begins.
Let’s say we’re writing a scene where Molly and Frank are in a diner.
We can go straight into the scene thus:
Molly and Frank huddled over the counter at Rosko’s Diner.
“What do you feel like?” Molly scrolled through the sticky plastic pages of the epic menu.
“Nothing,” muttered Frank. He tossed the menu across the counter like a poker player folding his cards. “Nothing at all. Eating is the last thing I want to do right now.”
“You’ve got to have something,” said Molly…
So, clearly something has happened to put Frank off his food. You might want to hint at what that event might have been with a little summary, such as:
Shards of shattered glass still spiked up between the paving stones in front of Rosko’s Diner, and flickered in the the slow rain that seemed to have been falling since the accident. Seemed to have been falling all month––all year––since Molly had first arrived in this dump of a town. How long ago was that?
Molly couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t lived there.
But she had. At one time she’d lived on a breezy hill-top overlooking the ocean, but she had no memories left of that time.
All she had now was Frank. She huddled up against him at the counter of Rosko’s.
Notice that I’m hinting at an accident, and broken glass, but I’m still not giving the game away. You never want to use summary to give the game away.
Right now the sense of mystery is deeper if anything.
What you never want to say is something like:
Frank still hadn’t come to terms with his brother being killed by a drunk driver the week before…
I realize I’m being absurd on almost every level, but try to avoid doing the same kind of thing.
If your characters have just had a row, you can show their reaction to the row, but you don’t want to explain why they had a row.
You can also use summary in the middle of a scene if you want to skip a sequence of unimportant events––but there’s still some reason to mention them.
Following whatever happened in the diner you could say:
Frank stormed out into rain, and splashed across to his GTI. By the time Molly reached it the engine was running. Molly opened the door, jumped in and they drove out to the abandoned mill…
It’s still the same scene if the time gap is short, and the general theme is continued. Nothing important happens on the journey by a few lines of description give a significant sense of the environment.
You don’t want to use summary to reveal unimportant information, such as the fact that Frank and Molly had been best friends since kindergarten––the reader will not care––but, you can reveal that sort of thing in flashback…if there’s a good reason to do so.
Frank stormed out into rain, and splashed across to his GTI. By the time Molly reached it the engine was running. Molly opened the door and jumped in. Frank peeled out of the lot as if he was never coming back.
Molly thought about simpler times when Frank would race his toy cars down the driveway. He’d crash them in to each other making explosion sounds with his mouth, then sit back and survey the wreckage with all the detachment of a buddhist monk in a Burger King.
Now, the only thing that had changed was the size of the cars.
Notice how I’ve signaled going in to the flashback, out of the flashback with Molly thought… and Now…
These are known as signals. You need to signal when you’re going in to flashback and when you’re coming out, otherwise you’ll confuse the reader––and maybe yourself.
You can go into flashback mode at any point in your scene, although you shouldn’t go in to early, and you should try to find some element that causes your viewpoint character to reminisce. A technique that seems to be used quite often is to have the protagonist visit a building that they haven’t seen for many years.
In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, the protagonist––a soldier in World War Two––discovers that his barracks are in fact a country house where he vacationed as a youth––and had his first love affair.
In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the Protagonist returns to the house of her first love affair in a dream.
Waugh and Du Maurier are classic British authors, but the master of flashback was Boris Pasternak, a Russian author writing in secret––and under threat of execution––during Stalin’s reign of terror.
In his novel Dr. Zhivago the eponymous character returns to his abandoned childhood home in the midst of the severest winter of the Russian Revolution, and wrings about as much emotion from this technique as is humanly possible.
Here’s an exercise: write a flashback.
Begin the ‘now’ of the story. Have the protagonist see something that takes her back to her past.
Signal going in to the flashback.
Write the flashback.
Signal coming out of the flashback, and return to the ‘now’ of the story.
What caused you to reminisce recently?
Remember, you’re wiring for sixteen year-olds, so something that happened two years prior can seem like ancient history.
The Difference Between Backstory and Flashback.
A flashback is a scene within a scene. Sometimes the flashback can take over from the main scene, and then we refer to them as a frame story and an embedded story. This technique is used to great effect in The Arabian Nights, which we will look at later in the semester.
Backstory is background information about any of the characters––or even about the setting.
In the story we’re playing around with, you––the author––may well be aware that Molly turned seventeen last March, and she lives with her mother, and one older sister, who’s battling addiction to opioids after surgery she had for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
You, the author, know these things about Molly, but you don’t need to tell the reader, unless her home life is critical to the story.
If you really need to reveal Molly’s background information, then reveal it bit-by-bit, exactly as if Molly was a new friend. In one chapter you might reveal that she has an older sister, the next you might reveal that the sister is a cancer survivor––and then it might take several chapters before you reveal that she has an opioid addiction.
You want to build suspense, and in order to do so you want to withhold as much information from the reader as you can––without confusing them.
There’s nothing artificial about this, after all Molly might not want to tell you––the reader––about her sister’s addiction at all.
But the addiction is going to affect a lot of Molly’s decisions.
You, the reader, will be like those astronomers who detect a planet orbiting a distant star by the irregular behavior of the star.
In some ways foreshadowing is the opposite of flashback.
With foreshadowing you set up things that you’re going to need later on in the story.
The simplest way to understand foreshadowing is to have your viewpoint character casually notice something that shouldn’t be there.
Let’s say that on her way out of the diner, Molly briefly notices an army tank. She doesn’t say anything about it, apart from merely stating that it’s there. She definitely doesn’t explain why it’s there.
Now, you the reader might be nonplussed for a moment, but then as Molly doesn’t say any more about the tank you’ll probably think there’s some benign explanation for the tank, and you’ll probably forget about it.
However, a few pages later it’s revealed that this is an alternative reality, and this part of New Jersey is under martial law. Then you will pause, and say to yourself, Oh, right. That’s why there was a tank outside the diner in Chapter One. It all makes sense now…
A skillful writer will have Molly notice the tank, and then have something dramatic happen in order to make sure the reader forgets about it. Perhaps Molly notices the tank, but then Frank revs his GTI, and looks as if he’s about to peel out of the parking lot without her.
The whole idea of foreshadowing is sometimes referred to as Chekhov’s Gun, after the Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov (sorry, another Russian, The way I see it is that if you’re working under threat of execution, then you’ll only be a writer if you really, really have something important to say).
The principle of Chekhov’s gun is that if a gun appears in act one, then it has to be fired at someone before the end of the next act.
In fact the principle of Chekhov’s gun is really an obligation for the author. Every item worth mentioning in the story, has to be important to the story.
In Long Way Down, William mentions the gun, long before it actually becomes significant.
You can foreshadow ideas too. In Little Red Riding Hood, as soon as Little Red’s mother tells her not to talk to any strangers you know that Little Red is going to talk to a stranger.
George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire opens with the beheading of a deserter from the Night’s Watch. You know that there will be plenty of heads being chopped off later in the story, plus you know that an important character will join the Night’s Watch and try to leave.
Can you think of any examples of foreshadowing in fiction?