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Thread: Rewriting woes

  1. #1
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    Rewriting woes

    I'm currently editing my fantasy novel, and I think I have written myself into a corner. I wanted to get rid of a flashback scene because I usually hate long flashbacks when I read them in other writers' work. I prefer to read a story in chronological order, so I find it annoying if the plot keeps jumping around in time. Nevertheless I have to include one scene from the childhood of my protagonist, otherwise later the plot becomes incomprehensible.

    In the original draft I began my novel like this:

    Prologue: Murder Side Story (Murder Victim's POV)
    Chapter 1: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 2: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 3: Flashback to Childhood Side Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 4: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    ...

    In the rewrite I tried this sequence:

    Prologue: Childhood Side Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 1: Murder Side Story (Murder Victim's POV)
    Chapter 2: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 3: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 4: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    ...

    I hoped the second sequence would flow smoother because the childhood scene happens eight years before the main story, while the murder and the main story occur only days apart (but on opposite sites of the continent).

    So I did a heavy rewrite of the childhood scene and turned it from a flashback into a prologue, introducing the characters, the setting, the magic... As a flashback the scene was about 4000 words, as a prologue it runs longer than 7000. Not because I weighed it down with infodumps, but because I changed dream-like memories into concrete real-time action. The scene reads better than before and it also works as a hook (it shows the enslaving of the protagonist's mind).

    What's my problem then, you might ask? I was indeed quite proud of my rewrite until I read the new chapters in succession. The start of my main story is boring now! It lost the mystery--the slow discovery how my characters relate to each other, the built-up of glimpses into a very alien society, and the hints how the magic works--all that is already spilled out in the new prologue. My gut instinct tells me I reveal too much before the main story actually begins.

    I can't decide whether I should rewrite the main story, rewrite the childhood scene (again), simply use the old murder prologue, try to fit in the flashback where it used to be but then I would have to choose between the new and the old version...

    I feel like I'm losing control over my own plotlines. Any ideas how to get them back in line? Maybe some of you solved a similar rewrite chaos and could give me tips?

  2. #2
    Speculative Horizons Moderator JamesL's Avatar
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    I would suggest leaving it the way it is at the moment. It is so important to have a really strong start to a book. If I may take The Jackal of Nar by John Marco as an example - this book has an explosive beginning but soon after quietens down for quite a while before the main story gets going. Providing your main story doesn't start off too boring, then as long as you have a great hook in the prologue then it should be fine.

    If your start is really good, then even if the following few chapters are a little dry or slow, it doesn't matter as you have already (hopefully) hooked the reader. And if the hook is good enough and the prologue promises enough, then the average reader will plough on for a good while, giving you enough room to get the story going.

    Hope that makes some sort of sense!

    EDIT: I think that having the book in as close to chronological order as possible is best, so therefore having the flashback at the start is preferable to having it later.

  3. #3
    Where have I been? Moderator JRMurdock's Avatar
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    My opinion, take it for what it's worth: order doesn't matter, it's the flow of the story.

    In my book, I have the storyteller. His story, obviously, takes place long after the story happened. Then I've got the story. Followed by another visit with the storyteller and finished off with a short story that takes place long before the story occurs.

    It's all in how you want to present the story. What does putting the flashback at the begining gain you that it doesn't from being a middle chapter? Does it make the story more intense or less? Where do you get the biggest impact?

    In the end, it's up to you to decide how you want to tell the story.

  4. #4
    This is going to sound like a really long process but it's what I find myself doing a lot...

    Did this story take you a long time to write, because if it did, they you may have improved significantly without even realizing it... In reading through your work you notice how strong it is with the new writing and then it deteriorates, or maybe that isn't the case.
    Maybe your writing is just as strong and you were trying to highlight the mysetery in which case I would suggest the long method - A quick rewrite.
    You already have the gist of the story down so it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

    It seems to me that you want to go with the second alternative because, as you mentioned, you don't like flashbacks. If that is how you plan to go then I suggest you alter the parts preceding the flashback.
    The way I personally do this can go one of two ways... Read your old work and just retype it as you go, you get a lot of variation because you are changing around the words; the other way is to print out the parts in question and just critique them heavily - separate yourself from the work and tweak it where you feel it needs tweaking. I find the second option works well because as you read you can point out the problematic areas and fix them.

    Hope some of this helps you, and maybe someone will give you an idea that keeps me from rewriting so often

  5. #5
    Light, sweet, crude. Wildeblood's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lego
    I'm currently editing my fantasy novel, and I think I have written myself into a corner. I wanted to get rid of a flashback scene because I usually hate long flashbacks when I read them in other writers' work. I prefer to read a story in chronological order, so I find it annoying if the plot keeps jumping around in time. Nevertheless I have to include one scene from the childhood of my protagonist, otherwise later the plot becomes incomprehensible.
    Flashbacks near the end are a cheat, used by incompetent authors. Near the beginning, they are fine. If you're anxious to hook the reader by getting to the action quickly, it's fine to use the sequence: here's what they're doing now; here's what motivates them (flashback).

    On the other hand, a flashback near the end of a story, revealing a vital but previously hidden piece of information, the hiding of which makes an otherwise obvious plot appear mysterious, needs to be taken out and shot.

    In the original draft I began my novel like this:

    Prologue: Murder Side Story (Murder Victim's POV)
    Chapter 1: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 2: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 3: Flashback to Childhood Side Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 4: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    ...

    In the rewrite I tried this sequence:

    Prologue: Childhood Side Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 1: Murder Side Story (Murder Victim's POV)
    Chapter 2: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 3: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 4: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    ...
    I would suggest:-

    Chapter 1: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 2: Murder Side Story (Murder Victim's POV)
    Chapter 3: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 4: Flashback to Childhood Side Story (Protagonist's POV)
    Chapter 5: Main Story (Protagonist's POV)
    ...

    One thing that annoys me as a reader is finding out that the first block of writing I read, whether it is Chapter 1 or "prologue", was a decoy plot and not the main plot. That is what I based my decision to continue reading (a commitment of my time, which is valuable) on. I don't like finding out, only when I reach the end, that I was tricked into reading the story.

  6. #6
    infomaniac Expendable's Avatar
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    The others all have very good ideas. There's nothing wrong with a flashback in the middle of the story, especially if it starts to explain what drives the protagonist.

    But you want a bit of mystery, something to spur the reader on. So don't give them everything up front. In reoccuring nightmares and repressed memories, we know something's behind that door over there. Only before we can reach the door, we wake up - and the reader gets a puzzle piece to hold onto. This makes for a good prologue I think.

    Imagine walking towards a bedroom door - then jumping forward to sitting in the back of a police car while a stretcher is loaded into the back of an ambulance, watching police and a family member argue over if you should be interviewed.

    Later, events bring up something more. We return to our flashback and this time we can open the door but still we don't want to see what's beyond so we wake up - another puzzle piece for the reader.

    By the time we reach the climax, we can finally see everything - the victim, the bloody knife, and the murderer. A path made by laying down puzzle peices in a row.

  7. #7
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    Thank you very much for the interesting suggestions. So the general consensus seems to be that I should stick to chronological storytelling except if a flashback a) reveals vital character motivation, and b) I don't hold it back till the end of the book to cloud a mystery the characters already know. Did I understand that right?


    At the moment I'm not so worried about the hook of my novel because I already have an action-packed opening, whether or not I use that childhood scene as a prologue. Rather I'm afraid to distract readers with the past before they even get to see the present.

    Did this story take you a long time to write, because if it did, they you may have improved significantly without even realizing it... In reading through your work you notice how strong it is with the new writing and then it deteriorates

    Ah, I hadn't thought about this, and yes, that would explain why the earlier chapters appear weak in comparison. I worked on this novel for more than a year and only finished a few short stories beforehand, so my writing changed a lot in the process. I'm not sure if the writing style has improved but at least I hope it did. Your suggestion to retype the beginning from scratch sounds very helpful, losing the baggage and concentrating on the story itself. And I would probably take less time to write a new start than trying to fumble all those old awkward sentences into something readable.

    One thing that annoys me as a reader is finding out that the first block of writing I read, whether it is Chapter 1 or "prologue", was a decoy plot and not the main plot. That is what I based my decision to continue reading (a commitment of my time, which is valuable) on. I don't like finding out, only when I reach the end, that I was tricked into reading the story.

    I agree, that's one of my pet peeves, too. Nothing is worse than a hook for the hook's sake. In my case, though, the mentioned murder serves as the stumbling block which sets the main story in motion. Basically my protagonist is framed for a murder he did not commit and gets chased across the entire continent because of this. The protagonist himself doesn't even realize he has to leave his home for his own protection until chapter seven, but the reader knows it from the start. (Well, most of my beta readers understood this, my boyfriend being the inattentive exception who said, "Huh? Did I miss something?")

    But you want a bit of mystery, something to spur the reader on. So don't give them everything up front. In reoccuring nightmares and repressed memories, we know something's behind that door over there. Only before we can reach the door, we wake up - and the reader gets a puzzle piece to hold onto.

    Thanks, Expendable, that's a very cool approach. And it would fit into my novel since the flashback in question is a traumatic torture memory that makes my protagonist suffer from recurring nightmares. Splitting it in parts and sprinkling the bits through several chapters might be the most effective way to show his past without interrupting the main story for too long. I will definitely try this.

    Again, thank you everybody for the ideas and opinions. I really appreciate them

  8. #8
    Speculative Horizons Moderator JamesL's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lego
    Again, thank you everybody for the ideas and opinions. I really appreciate them
    This is the whole point of the forum - everyone is here to help each other.

    There are a lot of good, knowledgeable people here and so don't hesitate to as for suggestions and opinions.

  9. #9
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    I would agree that if you are doing a mystery, telling readers the answer to the mystery right at the beginning is probably a bad idea. So I'd suggest returning to the original prologue and moving the flashback toward its original position in the ms.

    There is another way to go, since this is a dream/memory, but it's one you may not want to do since you don't like flashbacks. It might, however, help you build suspense without seeming to pop a rabbit out of the hat at the end. You could break the flashback up into fragments. The protagonist recalls/dreams bursts of this memory -- the fragments -- at various points in the story, to the point somewhere half-way or three-quarters of the way along where he remembers the whole thing. Also along the way, you can drop in clues in the narrative that relate to the flashback fragments that readers may not pick up at first reading but when they've learned the whole memory, will then make a lot of sense to them. This is the sort of framework that mystery writers use a great deal and would presumably work for your story as well. That way, you don't have a heaping big flashback sitting there as a chapter, but offer little kernels of it as you go, adding up to a whole.

    Simply put, if you want a story to be chronological, then you need to write a chronological story. Your story is not chronological -- past events effect the present day events and need to be uncovered for the plot and plot twists. Therefore, using a strictly chronological structure is probably going to be ineffective.

  10. #10
    If it were me I would use chronological order, but hold off on the most important twists in the prologue to try and slowly reveal them throughout the story. But in a lot of cases it would be hard or impossible to do. Just a suggestion
    e.g. something could happen and she thinks to herself or has a short paragraph of rememberence to a big twist in the story /or/ she could reveal it to someone in dialogue.

  11. #11
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    Just a quick thought:

    I couldn't advise you on placement unless I read it (and maybe not even then) but if you really don't like flashbacks you can always change a flashback into a chunk of dialogue. Your character can tell what happened to another person, can even mouth it at a grave marker or some such. Flashbacks aren't the only way to introduce extraneous information.

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