Character Arcs, Flashbacks and Pacing
Today I want to share with you what I learned about tying character arcs, flashbacks and pacing together. I only recently became aware that there was such a feature as pacing in writing. I know about pacing in music, and I hate it when they get it wrong in movies (flow of the movie). The latest moan about movie flow is the one for Suicide Squad, where the first third of the movie is a drag of background information of the main characters. But I never stood still realising that this was also a part of writing. And it’s important to do it right. Here’s a way to use it.
But lets start with character arcs first. I read about it in a screenwriting lesson a while ago (heavens knows which one). It was describing a couple in bed getting up and dressed. The situation started very amicable, but with every sentence, every action, the relationship deteriorated and became downright hostile by the time they left the bedroom. The lesson was that not only do you need your characters to develop over the whole play, they need to develop within every scene too. Quintessential Editor wrote a nice blog about self editing (you can look for it here) (sorry, the page itself wouldn’t copy) and it was point 11 that caught my eye.
Suddenly the quarter dropped as to why one of my readers mentioned she didn’t like one of my main characters, but absolutely loved one of the side-characters. Unknowingly I had developed the side-character throughout my story, but totally did nothing with the main character! He stayed as bland as anything from beginning to end. No wonder she didn’t like him. So make sure all your (important) characters develop (for better or for worse).
You probably get sick and tired of me saying I’m using flashbacks by now, but it ties in with this week’s lesson. They are a major tie between the character arcs and pacing. As you want your readers to get to know your characters, you give them little snippets of information about them. Flashbacks are just one way to do this. It gives the reader the reason why your character does things, feel, act, react in a certain way.
Now, pacing is the most difficult thing to learn in writing (or so I am told). I read this in an article on Flipboard today, called The Art of Pacing (you can also find it under the blog heading here), by Jack Tyler. It reminded me of the article on flashbacks I read yesterday by Neil Whitman (you can find the link to it here). Somewhere else (and I’m so sorry but I just spent thirty minutes trying to find the article in vain) I read the magic words ‘a flashback needs to follow an intense moment to have purpose.’ And this is all to do with pacing. Readers don’t want to get bored with flashbacks left, right and centre so you can inundate them with background information. Flashbacks slow the story down, the action here and now isn’t happening anymore. Flashbacks have to make sense, they need to have a purpose. And the best time to put them in is right after an intense moment. The readers can then take time to process the action and in the mean time get some more information as to why the action has happened.
In my book, for example (spoiler alert!), I talk about Charlie for a chapter or four before there is a bit of a clash about ‘who sleeps in the big bedroom and who sleeps in the tiny room with the bunk beds.’ Charlie is sent packing to the bunk beds ‘as he is better sized for that room.’ There are a few more hints leading up to this statement, but they are minute. The characters go to sleep and in the next chapter a flashback describes my MC spending an evening with Charlie during which it becomes clear that Charlie has achondroplasia (he is a dwarf). This set up has the reader at first wondering what is going on. Why is Charlie sent packing? What is meant with ‘he is better sized’? Then, while the characters are sleeping, the answers are revealed to the readers. Hopefully their minds will then have an ‘aha’ moment when they remember the little comments about Charlie’s size I put in earlier (but that is a topic called foreshadowing).
This is one way to incorporate character arcs, flashbacks and pacing, I bet there are more…
Have A Happy Writing Weekend!