Questionable: How do you make two timelines work?

CateM wrote: “I’m trying to do one of those dual timelines in a story, where Plot A is the protagonist’s current story, and Plot B is a story from their past. I’ve watch this structure go bad many, many times (*cough* Arrow *cough*), but I also know I’ve seen it work really well before (Big Fish, Second Hand Lions). The problem is, in my favorite examples, the past storyline either features a different protagonist than the present storyline, or the past storyline is the main story, and the present is just a framing device (The Notebook, for all its problems).  Anyone have any thoughts about what makes this structure work, and what makes it not work? Or examples of ones that work for you, even if you can’t put your finger on why?”

The big problem with running two story lines is that readers/viewers will like one better and see the other as an intrusion, aka the parts people skip. Arrow is an excellent example of that; anytime I’ve gone back to watch again, I’ve fast forwarded through the flashbacks and never missed them.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read or seen a narrative that does make that work, and then they tend not to be traditional linear stories (the present story with flashbacks) but more framed stories or patterned plots.  So assuming you want. linear structure with flashbacks, I think you have to ask yourself some questions.

  1. Why do you need both stories?
  2. Which one is more important?
  3. Can you do memory instead of flashback?

 

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Questionable: How Do You Move a Story Through Time?

Colognegrrl asked:
I am presently working on a manuscript that has been giving me hell. I know where I’m coming from and where I want to end, but in between are a lot of problems. The main challenge is to fill the time gaps, you know like “this scene is on Sunday and the next important thing happens on Thursday, but what did she do in between? She must have met the guy, she must have done this and that, it’s too boring to tell but how do you take the reader from Sunday to Thursday …?”

This is called a segue and it’s used all the time. The easiest way is to dump everything into a clause: 

“For the next five days, Jane tried to pretend she didn’t care, throwing herself into her work, but on Thursday . . . “

If stuff happens during that time, you may need a full sentence: 

“Jane snapped at her mother on Sunday, savaged a client on Monday, kicked a dog on Tuesday, wept helplessly at work on Wednesday, and then fired her assistant on Thursday when he said, ‘This has to stop.’ Except he was right, so she rehired him and then that afternoon went to see Richard.”  Worst case scenario: It takes an entire paragraph as summary.

The key is to find out if there’s any info in that five days that must be on the page.  If there isn’t, stick with the basics:

“Five days later, Jane . . . “

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Person of Interest: RAM: There Is No Good Back Story

Person of Interest Binge LogoWhen I chose the episode and craft topics, I did it by memory. As a fan of the series, I loved “RAM,” so I thought it’d be a good way to talk about “good backstory.” Watching it now as a writer, it’s still an excellent story on its own (another written by Denise The), but in the context of the series as a whole, it has two main purposes: explain what happened in the past and provide fan service. The problem is, while it’s fun to know what was happening to Finch and Reese before they joined forces (even more fun to see Shaw at her murderous best), there is nothing in the story that we needed to know. It’s a good episode, but if you were editing the season as a novel, this episode would go. Back story kills, people, no matter how well it’s written.

Previously on Person of Interest: Continue reading

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Questionable: Back Story and Flashback

Katie Redhead said:

I vote yes to discussing how and when to deploy backstory effectively . . . And maybe I’m sort of asking another question all together about flashbacks vs backstory and whether which way we get the information makes a difference to how I feel about a character.

Let’s start with what back story is, then go on to the difference between flashback and memory as a way of putting back story on the page, and then talk about back story and character. Continue reading

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