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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: using time as a literary device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Time is one of many tools we authors can use when crafting a story. This said, bending time takes training and skill because it’s one of the toughest techniques to pull off well. Even those who bend time masterfully will have their fair share of critics because most audiences are accustomed to linear structure.

This is only natural.

We’ve all teethed on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Any story that deviates from this familiar pattern can vex and confuse us.

This is why movies like Memento tend to divide into two camps: those who loved it and those who couldn’t make it through thirty minutes.

Time Has a Proper Order

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Humans take time for granted, which is why time is one of those things that will wig people out when someone starts tinkering with it. Remember this because we can twist the audience’s assumptions to our advantage (especially in certain genres).

Bending time can disorient and confuse readers, but that isn’t always a good thing.

Most audiences enjoy the traditional Aristotelian three-act structure (which is why the lion’s share of novels are written in linear time). Aristotelian structure has been around over a thousand years for good reason. It’s endured simply because it’s a story structure that reflects time as sane humans experience it.

Time is hardwired into our brains. Our world reflects linear structure.

Morning–>noon–>night. We are born–>we live–>we die.

When old age manifests where childhood should be, something is clearly WRONG (progeria) and has disturbed the natural order.

Time & the Flashback

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever I’ve blogged about flashbacks being bad, inevitably commenters list a dozen books or movies where the writer (allegedly) used flashbacks all the time and it was super successful.

Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about 😛 .

First, I’d like to point out that, while we can learn from film, we must be careful mimicking movies in our work. Movies are visual, whereas writing is completely abstract. We’re creating people and worlds using combinations of 26 letters (and roughly four of those are pretty useless).

No one wants to play Scrabble and get Q.

Movies get a smidge more leeway because the audience can SEE changes in people, places and time and are less likely to suffer a brain cramp. Alas, even in screenwriting, flashbacks are a sign of lazy/amateurish writing for a couple of reasons.

First, most information can be relayed real-time. If I have a character who is OCD (As Good as It Gets), I don’t need to go back and explain WHY the character is trapped with a psychological disorder.

There is no need to hop into a literary DeLorean and go EXPLAIN. Audiences are smart and get that Melvin Udall has OCD by how he behaves.

That’s the whole show don’t tell thing at work.

In the original film version of Silence of the Lambs , director Jonathan Demme toyed with using a flashback for the tense moment when Hannibal Lecter demands Agent Starling part with her most traumatic memory in return for the key to locating Buffalo Bill.

***The time when young Clarice tries in vain to rescue one of the lambs from being slaughtered.

But Demme was too good of a director and Jodi Foster to great an actor. He knew the flashback would wreck the effect and so he nixed it and, instead allowed Foster to show just how incredible a performer she really was (which explains the Academy Award).

Because the story remained in the present, the memory was far more visceral. It intensified the story to nerve-shredding proportions.

Flashback FAIL

In most stories we don’t need to use flashbacks. In many new works I see the writer just about piques my interest, then slams on the brakes, throws it in reverse and takes me back to EXPLAIN WHY.

I have a mantra:

Resist the urge to explain.

Frequently, new writers jump back in time because they’re doing a good job at creating tension. Feeling the tension they’ve generated, they seek reprieve and so they explain. The problem with this is that they are killing the very element (tension) that will keep readers turning pages until 3 a.m.

Explanations are the antidote for tension.

What do we do when our kid acts up? We EXPLAIN. Sorry, he didn’t have a nap today. This serves to allay our own anxiety and relax the bystanders gathered round staring at us.

Explaining might work in life, but for fiction it spells D-E-A-T-H.

If the love interest in our novel is maddeningly evasive?  Leave it alone. Readers will keep reading to see if they find out/figure out what the heck his deal is.

If we go back and explain, “He has intimacy issues because his parents were murdered by a Mary Kay lady on bath salts,” we’ve just handed the reader a great place for a bookmark.

Hmm, question answered. I’ll get back to this later.

Let Them Wait

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Great writers keep layering on more and more questions that either are a) partially answered b) not answered until toward the end c) some not answered at all.

We can put some humdinger questions in a WIP and refuse to answer them. Seriously. Great writers are sadists. We’re ONLY required to fully answer the core story problem for THAT particular book.

Other than that? We writers are not required to tie everything up neatly with a bow. The best stories leave a smidge of unfinished business. Loose ends generate passion and conversations that linger long after readers have turned the final page.

***Additionally, if we want to write a series, it’s a good idea to NOT answer everything.

Tana French’s incredible book In The Woods does this brilliantly. She does her duty and answers the core mystery: Who killed the Knocknaree girl and why? But, there’s a lot more about Knocknaree’s dark past she withholds (likely so we’d read the rest of the series or because she is a brilliant author, a.k.a. heartless psychopath).

Readers long for catharsis—release—and the longer we (authors) can delay the reader getting what he/she wants, the better.

Flashback Apoplexy

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Flashbacks generally are a sign of weak writing. Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, we can go back and forth in time so just be patient.

As I’ve mentioned before I’m a HUGE fan of horror and I love, love, love American Horror Story, particularly Season Four Freak Show. Elsa Mars is one of the most beautifully conflicted villains I’ve ever encountered.

She’s layered, complex, and unpredictable. Every character and storyline is pure heart-wrenching genius.

Then, in Season Five, Jessica Lange left the show and they substituted her with Lady Gaga *face palm*. For me, this is like serving me Tofurkey when I’m used a Thanksgiving turkey a la Martha Stewart. I mean no disrespect to Lady Gaga, but she’s a performer not an actor. ‘

I’m certain they cast her because she’s a huge name (draw) but she didn’t have the acting abilities to take center stage, which is why Season Five (Hotel) and Season Six (Roanoke) are painful to watch.

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Season Five is like being trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive a stick. Just about get going forward then REVERSE. The series keeps going backwards to explain to the point that watching became more chore than fun.

In Season Six, AHS tried something different. It takes the form of a television show interviewing survivors and what happened is “reenacted.”

The HUGE problem with this is that no matter how many monsters, how much gore, how depraved the story gets, there is NO DRAMATIC TENSION. Why? Because of flashbacks. We know the people lived or they wouldn’t be sitting there being interviewed.

How can we worry about characters we KNOW are going to make it out alive? We can’t.

Time as a Literary Device

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

All this said, time CAN be used as a literary device. Progressing linearly isn’t always ideal, especially for certain genres. One surefire way to throw readers off is to mess with their sense of time. Non-linear structure is fantastic for mysteries, psychological thrillers, horror, and suspense.

If we choose to distort time, however, there needs to be a good reason for doing so. Let’s explore a handful of reasons…

Unreliable Narrator: Non-Linear Timeline

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Whenever we open a book (or start a movie) we’re programmed to trust the MC, that what he or she is relaying is truth. Non-linear plotting can use this human propensity to trust until given reason NOT to trust for advantage. Vanilla Sky, Black Swan, Shutter Island, and Fight Club are all superlative examples of twisting truth and trust.

Yet, notice the reason time is fractured in these stories.

The point is to intimate or even emulate madness. We begin trusting the MC but this trust erodes until we’re sucked into the chaos, our bearings lost, internal compass needle spinning and unable to find True North.

Past is Key to Present: Parallel Timeline

Sometimes the story shifts back and forth from past to present. Like train tracks running parallel they flow side-by-side until finally the past timeline converges with the present to solve the core story problem at hand.

We see this in Stephen King’s speculative fiction story The Green Mile. The story opens with elderly Paul Edgecomb in a retirement facility and establishes Paul’s present reality. THEN we go back in time to Louisiana State Penitentiary in the 1930s when young Paul Edgecomb worked as a prison guard in charge of Death Row.

Though we spend much of our time in the 1930s, we’re not going back in time for no reason. What happened decades ago on The Green Mile is essential for revealing a mystery in the present timeline at the retirement home.

A lot of literary works use the parallel timeline (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Parallel timelines are also employed in general fiction.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood uses parallel timelines to resolve a feud between mother and daughter. Sidda (daughter) must understand the past from her mother’s (Vivi’s) POV in order to forgive her and heal the relationship.

Memory LIES…or Does It?

Mysteries employ this tactic as well, though many authors tend to dribble the past throughout but in the form of memories, dreams, fragments of recollections the MC doesn’t fully trust. A good example of this is James Patterson’s The Murder House.

Can We Trust Our Senses?

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Ultimately, when we deviate from traditional linear timelines, we’re jarring the readers sense of what she believes she knows. By going back and forth (I.e. In the Woods) we can throw readers off figuring everything out too easily and we make them work for the resolutions they crave.

This said, jumping back and forth willy-nilly is a good way to simply tick readers off. Even when non-linear timelines are executed with mastery, there will always be certain people who will hate it.

I remember walking out of Vanilla Sky feeling like I’d just had a spiritual experience, but the people around me were irate because “that stupid movie was just too confusing.”

There are probably more people who hated Pulp Fiction than those who loved Pulp Fiction. BUT, those who LOVED Pulp Fiction did so with such passion it’s now an iconic movie.

We can’t please everyone. In the Woods was one of those books that made me weep and think, “What am I DOING? I can’t WRITE! Whaaaaaahhhhhh!”

Yet, go check out the one and two-star reviews from readers who “grew bored” or “got confused.”

Whenever we authors play with time, just accept that some people will hate it. But, since no one ever wrote a book that pleased everyone?

Relax.

Caveat Auctor

I want to put a warning in here. Just because we are zipping back and forth in time doesn’t mean our structure is sound. Employing time as a literary device is tricky because we can lose readers very easily.

Many editors loathe ‘flashbacks’ with the power of a thousand suns, but here is a post regarding WHY.

Frequently, if a writer is going backwards and forwards in time, it is more a symptom of major story problems than an indicator of genius. The above post explains how flashbacks can be symptomatic of a flawed or nonexistent plot.

***For those who’d like training in advanced plotting, I recommend the class I’m teaching tomorrow, Beyond Planet X. USA Today best-selling author Cait Reynolds and I are doing a Speculative Fiction Saturday with three classes in a row (World-Building, Character, and Advanced Plotting). The XXXFiles Bundle is the best value. Three classes for the price of two (SIX hours of training) and recordings are FREE with purchase. 

If you want to mess with your reader’s heads, then do it with style 😉 . I’m excited to teach this much more advanced material and hope you guys will join me!

I LOVE hearing from you!

What are some of your favorite movies or books that used time to mess with your head? Which ones did you hate? Why?

What do you WIN? For the month of SEPTEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***Chris Parrett is August’s winner. Please send your 5000 word Word doc to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins and 12 point Times New Roman Font, double-spaced. Congratulations!

***FYI: The Speculative Fiction Saturday has been moved to THIS COMING SATURDAY (9/15/18).

The software that powers our virtual classrooms kept crashing our servers #NotFun. Thus, we spent all last weekend upgrading/updating all the tech and it looks fantastic!

Again, for the value, I HIGHLY recommend The XXX Files Bundle (all three classes—world-building, character, advanced plotting—for the price of two). Speculative fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian, utopian, horror and basically all the weird stuff. Sign up and we can be weird TOGETHER!

time, flashbacks, non-linear plot structure, parallel timelines, Kristen Lamb, time as a literary device, In the Woods Tana French, how to write twist endings, story structure

Upcoming Classes for September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, Thursday September 27th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Purchase includes FREE recording of all three classes.

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 15th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Pitch Perfect—How To Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD Standard
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST

You’ve written a novel and now are faced with the two most terrifying challenges all writers face. The query and the synopsis.

Query letters can be daunting. How do you sell yourself? Your work? How can you stand apart without including glitter in your letter?

***NOTE: DO NOT PUT GLITTER IN YOUR QUERY.

Good question. We will cover that and more!

But sometimes the query is not enough.

Most writers would rather cut their wrists with a spork than be forced to write the dreaded…synopsis. Yet, this is a valuable skills all writers should learn. Synopses are often requested by agents and editors and it is tough not to feel the need to include every last little detail. Synopses are great for not only keeping your writing on track, but also for pitching your next book and your next to that agent of your choice.

This class will help you learn the fundamentals of writing a query letter and a synopsis. What you must include and what doesn’t belong.

So make your writing pitch perfect with these two skills!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One reason we might be tempted to use a flashback is to explain or to expound to artificially prop up weak characterization or a weak plot (the training wheel flashback). This is what good editors will cut. Then there is the other way to use time and that is time as a literary device. This is when our going back in time is used intelligently to serve the forward momentum of the story.

Last time, we delved into the idea of a loop around (one form of flashback as a literary device). Sometimes we see a story that is smack in the action and then after the inciting incident the story shifts back in time until it catches up where we began then continues real-time.

I used the example of Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Live Nun. This is looping back in time as a literary device and I explained how this was done. So go HERE if you’d like to explore this method of storytelling.

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 12.37.49 PM

Today we are going to look at parallel timelines.

What happens with a lot of new writers is that they simply see the surface. “Well, in X BOOK the author went back in time quite a lot, therefore flashbacks are AWESOME.” This is true on the surface, but if we dig down and look at WHY and HOW we see a bigger picture emerge. Some of our favorite books or TV shows or movies might appear to be just flipping back and forth in time, but if we can get an aerial shot, we see something more.

Often what the author is doing is running two timelines parallel. The present-day story is the superlative of the two and the reason is that the past has already happened. And when I say “present-day” I mean the most contemporary of the two timelines.

If a woman in The Great Depression is struggling to rebuild her life after losing the farm in the Dust Bowl and she does so by reading letters written by her grandmother during the Civil War, then the gal in the Great Depression’s decisions and thus the RESOLUTION to her struggle will be fed by the secondary timeline.

Unless she has a time-machine and THAT is a WHOLE ‘notha blog 😀 .

We will have the A Plot and the B Plot and the B Plot eventually merges and A finishes us out with a resolution.

An excellent example of this is the HBO series, True Detective. There is a tad bit of spoiler in this lesson, but not enough to ruin anything. I recommend watching and studying this series.

And I like using TV series because if we look at the TIME it takes to watch a full season and then cross-compare that with the TIME it takes to read a novel, the two are far more comparable than a movie and a book. Thus, I do recommend studying series to help with writing a novel because the intimacy with the characters and intricacy of the plot is much more relevant.

Anyway, Season One of True Detective has two timelines. The episode The Long Bright Dark starts us off and it involves two detectives (Rust Cohle and Martin Hart) being interviewed separately regarding a serial killer case they worked together back in 1995.

One might first be tempted to claim, “See! Look at all those flashbacks!” but hold up. WHY are we going back in time? We don’t have two detectives just talking about the Not So Good Old Days. If there was nothing important about the contemporary timeline, then our story would actually be SET in 1995.

The “present day” interview sessions would be contrived filler and likely meet a cutting room floor and for good reason. There is no POINT to them being there throughout unless we have a parallel timeline.

If there was nothing relevant in the present, we’d interview the cops and they’d tell an “I Remember When” story and not a very good one because that would actually KILL most of our suspense because we’d know, no matter what happened they LIVED to tell the tale. So I do recommend that if it is an I Remember When Story, try to maintain suspense.

***BTW, this is a MAJOR reason that prequels are a nightmare to write. We knew Obi Wan had to live to be in the New Hope so we weren’t ever worried.

For a parallel timeline story told in an I Remember When fashion, I recommend both the book and the movie The Green Mile.

In Stephen King’s The Green Mile there are TWO stories running in tandem. The contemporary story of an elderly gentleman in a nursing home who is being bullied intwined with the tale of a prison guard working death row. It isn’t until the end that we see HOW these stories fit together and WHY. The past takes up a lot of storytelling time, but it still is subordinate to the present. Eventually both timelines merge for the conclusion of the contemporary timeline (story) taking place in the nursing home.

What happened to John Coffee cannot be changed, but John Coffee changed Paul Edgecome and so the future is still mutable.

Back to True Detective

True Detective is NOT an I Remember When story, it is a straightforward parallel timeline. There is a reason these men are being asked about the serial killer they hunted and caught back in the 90s. And the reason is, they didn’t get the right guy. They only stopped ONE bad dude in a nest of vipers and they failed to cut off the monster’s head. Women and children are still disappearing and being murdered (this is actually a turning point in the overall plot of the series).

Remember our litmus for going back in the past.

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In the case of Cohle and Hart, the past is the reason they are in the interrogation room. A case they believed had been solved actually wasn’t and they nailed some low-level dirtbag and not the Big Kahuna. Being in that interrogation room eventually thrusts these two partners back to working together to finish what they started.

The reason we (the audience) are given a tour through the 90s is because all of this story is essential for uncovering the identity of the murderer and exposing a vast coverup (resolving the plot problem). It is also vital to see how these men were as young men, how they interacted, how they fought and why to fully appreciate the place they will eventually end up at the conclusion of the journey (resolving the character arc and story worthy problem).

We have to see the bitter, corrosive atheist Cohle and experience him to appreciate how this case eventually changes who he IS. We have to see the self-righteous and hypocritical (yet charming) Hart to appreciate the depth of character this case will create.

The parallel timelines are essential for us reconciling past and present both in story and character.

Thus, when you look at your favorite movies or shows or books, I recommend unpacking the WHY and the HOW so you can get a better glimpse of the magic this writer created.

A Quick Announcement: I ran into the first technical problem I’ve had in three years of running classes with my Log-Line Class (probably because my tech person went on vacation for the first time and wasn’t there to babysit me). We had class and an AWESOME time, but something went sideways with the recording. So I am holding it AGAIN July 8th to be able to get attendees that free recording.

The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.

Now that I’ve announced that, what are your thoughts? Does the flashback seem clearer now that we are unpacking the various ways it is employed? Do you maybe see some of your favorite stories in a new light?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less). 

I will announce JUNE’S WINNER next post!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook