One Hour Before “Once Upon a Time”

What do the movies “Titanic”and “Forrest Gump” have in common? It’s not an actor or actress, certainly not location or theme and I don’t mean that they were both blockbusters. It’s the use of flashback as a medium to tell the story. The nice thing about reading or watching a movie that starts with a flashback is you know whoever is telling the story, makes it out of whatever trial that will be told. I’m one of those people. I’m okay with someone telling me everything will be fine in the end before I even start. But that’s not what this post is about.

There are flashback beginnings that don’t give the assurance that everything will be okay. Those start with impending doom. A car barreling toward a closing drawbridge, a bullet flying through the air headed toward someone’s heart, a person leaping off a cliff. No guarantees with those beginnings that everyone is going to be okay. You have to wait until the flashback catches up to the beginning to find out. That burning question can generate some serious reader engagement. It’s hard for me to abandon reading a book if a question is proposed at the beginning. I want to know the answer and I’ll plow through a snail crawling plot, poor scene structure and confusing character development, just to get to the end to know. Human curiosity is the driving energy of why people read what we write. But that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve heard at more than one writer’s conference not to have a flashback in the first few pages of a novel. But even with this in mind, I find that some kind of reflection in the past naturally finds its way into first pages. It always seems so necessary to set up the story, to show where the character is at by introducing a nostalgic moment.
I have heavily edited the “Kill Words” novel. I chopped thousands of words from the beginning. Words that introduced my protagonist, her life, her concerns and worries. Good stuff right? Not really. Not if
you’re a reader that wants to be pulled in and transported from real life into a fictional world. I chopped until the story begins right at the precipice of disaster. It was a mind blowing realization that the story became powerful not weak when the word count took a hit. But that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about this, even though starting without much introduction or information about my protagonist, with no leading up to the moment when trouble really invades her life, the fact is, she had a life before the story begins. At least, writer, the protagonist should have a life. A character sketch is essential before and during the crafting of a novel but if you stop there, you’re falling short of having a strong scaffold to construct the plot.

How important is it to know your characters, especially the main characters? In my experience it is the single, most important part of producing a cohesive, sound and meaningful novel. It doesn’t matter if you’re a plotter with an outline or storyboard, or a Panster making up the story as you go, creating a lifetime of memories and history for your characters is essential.

I had Maisey’s life mapped out in the original beginning of the novel. When I cut it away I almost didn’t notice that she was undefinable without that cumbersome introductory tether. That is until I asked myself a question. What happened in Maisey’s life just before the story began?
I started with answering that question for six months ago, but then brought it in closer and closer until I asked what was she doing and thinking the hour before the story began.
With that exercise, Maisey broke open wide and I saw inside her, who she was at that moment and why her first interactions with Tyler were the catalyst of her metamorphosis. I answered the questions by free style writing with no rules about sentence structure, punctuation, order. Really, it was a conversation, typed as my imagination dictated it to my fingers. That allowed an unbroken flow and felt like stream of consciousness from Maisey. The end result is I was able to revise with confidence which comes through as depth in my character that translates to the reader easily relating as though she is a real person and they want to know what happens to her.
Is character history important for a great story? You bet, but it doesn’t have to show in detailed flashbacks or story set-up that tries to veil information with nostalgia or lapses into internal conversation. Just know what your character’s life was about a year before the story, a week, an hour, and then boom, start the novel.

Write on people! NaNoWriMo warriors, get cracking on those revisions or stop and have a conversation with your characters.

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