Monthly Memo: The Flashback vs. The Flash Forward

 

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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.

 (Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)

Flashbacks:

A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.

Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:

This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.

 

Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:

This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.

 

Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:

Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.

 

Flash Forwards:

Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.

This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.

Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)

When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.

 

Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:

When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2

When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.

 

Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:

This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.

The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.

 

Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)

This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.

 

Distinguishing Between the Two:

Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening?  To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.

If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.

Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.

One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.

 

Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:

There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.

A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.

The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.

 

Final notes

Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.

Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.


Monthly Memo: 3 Uses for Flashbacks

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Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”

In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.

So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?

Openings

If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.

  1. You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense.  A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
  2. A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
  3. A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.

 

Memory

Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:

  1. The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
  2. A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
  3. Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.

 

Mystery

One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:

  1. Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
  2. The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
  3. The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.

Final Notes:

The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.

Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Monthly Memo: From Outline to the Page

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Sometimes the hardest part of writing a story is taking the outlined idea and turning it into words on the page. It’s great to know that X and Y need to happen, but how do you make them happen in writing? How do you take that character and bring him to life? How do you take that villain and make her fun yet terrifying? How do you unravel those conflicts in words? There are a lot of different methods for bringing a story to life, but here are the few that I find help me the most when moving from the outline, to the page.

Character

Before I begin writing a character I spend some time figuring out at least 3-4 concrete details about his or her personality. I think about their dominant personality trait that people see, their core moral value that guides most of their decisions, and a personality trait that they have that’s a flaw. I also sometimes figure out a minor personality trait that most people may not notice, but it’s a core part of who that character is. Beyond that, I like to find one physical trait I see very clearly to help me visualize the character, and I like to understand at least one solid relationship they have with someone, be it family or friend. The other two things I think you should figure out is what the characters main goal in life is, and perhaps what they’re afraid of.

I think these core details give you enough that you can easily visualize the character and write them well without having to figure out every last ounce of the characters life. These details give you an overall sense of who they are, and as you work out more while writing you can develop the character more clearly. If you need to do more to figure out the character in order to write them, try doing a free-write so you can ease yourself into the character’s voice. If you write 3-5 pages in your character’s voice, you’ll learn a lot about them and find it easier to write the character’s voice for the story.

Setting

To get your setting from outline to page, I think the important thing is to ask yourself what’s important about the setting. What about it is vital to your story? Why does the story need to take place in that specific spot? If you know these details then you know what elements of your setting to emphasize in your story. The more important a detail is, the more you want to describe it unless you’re trying to keep it subtle for some sort of plot reveal. At the very least, when writing a setting I feel you should give enough detail about it to help create a solid visual image in your reader’s head. You want them to be able to visualize where the characters are, how they’re moving throughout the scene, and why we’re in that specific place.

Plot

The hardest part of taking your outline and bringing it to the page in my opinion is how to portray the plot. You have your outline that says “Amy goes to the park. Amy runs into Ryan. They fight. Amy leaves upset.” If you write it that way, that’s an incredibly short story and has no real depth or development. So how do you write that short sequence of events and make it interesting? What parts do you expand on and what do you rush through?

For the first step in your outline “Amy goes to the park,” you want to show Amy’s mindset, give a sense of the setting, and establish some form of a goal for why she’s going to the park. Is she meeting someone? Is she trying to find some privacy? Does she have a kid she’s taking to play? Set the tone of the scene, and choose your tone with the thought of how it will change in the upcoming scenes in mind. Then as you go to the next scene, “Amy runs into Ryan,” start thinking about the implications of that scene. How does meeting Ryan change Amy’s mood? How does their interaction start? How do they meet up? On purpose or accidentally?

As you go into the final scenes, “They fight, and Amy leaves upset,” start to think about how to transition there as well. What upsets Amy? How quickly does she leave? What’s the environment around them look like? The questions can go on forever, but it’s important to focus on things that involve the tone, the setting, the characters, and the sequence of events.

Final Notes

If you’re really struggling to transfer your story from outline to page, remind yourself that a story isn’t just about action and a sequence of events. The details you bring out in the story will help take your story from an outline of X and Y happens, to something that has depth and is fun to read. So explore the layers of your story and try to bring them out. Remember, it’s often easier to remove details if you put too much rather than trying to add more later on. So write and explore, and see what kind of story evolves.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Monthly Memo: Finding Time to Write

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How do you find the time to write?

Can you be a writer when you have a full-time job?

Or a family?

I have a brilliant story idea but I’m just so busy…

The above are all questions are just a few ways people have essentially asked me “how can I be a writer if I don’t have time?” Every time I hear it I have a mixed reaction. I like it because it shows that these people understand that writing is a craft that takes time and work and dedication. It shows they respect that it doesn’t just magically happen. As a writer, I appreciate that because many, many people think writers just throw some words on a page, easy as pie.

On the other hand, I absolutely abhor the question. The reason I dislike it is because writing is like anything else someone wants to do, if they really want to do it they find the time. There’s no magical secret to how writers find time to write, they just make it happen.

That being said, I know some people will still want ideas for finding time to write, so here are some ways I find time to write when I am slammed with other life responsibilities:

Sleep Less

If you really want to write, then you’re going to have to find the time elsewhere. If you don’t want to cut back on work, hobbies, free time, etc., then your other option is to cut back on sleep. Either get up an hour earlier, or go to bed an hour later, and use that time to write. You don’t have to do it every day, even an hour a week will add up in the long-term. The point is, the time has to come from somewhere and sleep is something everyone can cut back on now and then without too much consequence. So pick a day a week to try it and go from there.

Multitask

Can you eat lunch and type at the same time? How about when you’re watching a movie or listening to music? Can you talk while you do household chores? What about when you’re driving or hiking or whatever your hobby is? When I’m on long road trips I use a tape recorder to plot and outline, develop characters, and sometimes even write a few pages. You can do this while out and about doing things like hiking and such as well. I know several authors who do this, and some even send the audio out to be transcribed for them to make things easier. It takes some adjustment to get used to writing in this fashion, and it’s not always your best writing, but getting something down on the page so that the next time you have a break you can revise it makes for better progress than not writing at all.

Every Spare Minute

Basically, this is the main option. Every spare minute you have you try to write. Even if it’s just you wake up in the morning and jot a line down, take a shower, jot another line, eat breakfast, jot a line, go to work, jot a line a lunch, work some more and jot a line again a dinner and before bed. If you do that all day you should at least have a paragraph if not a whole page. Writing is done one word at a time, and while it’s not the most efficient method for writing, the little lines add up throughout the days/weeks/months and before you know it you’ll have a finished piece of work. So anytime you can add another word, sentence, paragraph, and so on, you should.

Final Notes

I know the above advice is nothing brilliant or even particularly new, but sometimes as writers we all need reminders that if we want to write, we have to find time for ourselves. There’s no magic secret or perfect writing opportunity that’s going to appear in your schedule. You use the time you have, any way you can, using any medium available, to get words on the page. Yes, it may not be efficient or look anything like the “dream writer’s life” but you’ll be writing, and you can’t be a writer if you don’t write.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Monthly Memo: Playing Cupid

Since this month’s memo date falls near Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write about how to pick your protagonist’s love interest for a story. I find you can’t always decide on the dynamic between a couple until you write out their first meeting. So with that in mind, here is how I go about doing that.

To start, we need to first pick your core protagonist. If you have one in mind, that’s great, skip to Step Two below. If not, begin at Step One.

Step One: Pick your protagonist.

An easy way I find to create a core protagonist when I’m really struggling is to think of three people I know. Then I think of a prominent personality trait for each of them.

For example:

Person 1: Talks too much, and rambles.

Person 2: Is obsessed with dogs.

Person 3: Is always negative.

Try to pick traits that don’t overshadow each other. So don’t pick traits like one loves cats and the other loves dogs. Once you have the three traits, combine them to create the partial personality for your new protagonist. Using those traits as a jumping point, come up with other details about the character you are creating. Male or female? Age range? Occupation?

For mine, we’ll say it’s a female, who is a vet, and who is in her late 20s.

Keep expanding the details of your protagonist until you feel like you have a good general idea of who they are.

Step Two: Find the love interest.

If you already have a protagonist in mind, make sure you can describe them as if they were one of your friends you’ve known for years. What’s their hobby, what’s their job, what’s their secret wish, what’s their favorite thing in the world, and what’s their biggest pet peeve? You should be able to at least answer the above questions, but preferably much, much more.

Once you have the general idea of the protagonist, it’s time to find their love interest. Whenever I have to find a love interest, I always make a list of the places my character is most likely to be because these are the places the love interest is most likely to be found.

For my example: My character is most likely to be in her vet’s office, at home, or maybe volunteering at an animal shelter. So the place she’s most likely to meet her future love interest is in one of those places. Let’s go with at the Vet’s office.

Once you choose where they may meet, then it’s time to choose who the love interest is. What kind of person would go to that place? For mine, it’s clearly going to be a pet owner, or maybe a vendor selling vet supplies, or even a coworker. I chose the easy one, pet owner.

Now go through the character building questions again – what does this love interest look like? What do the like to do? Why are they at this place interacting with your protagonist? Do they share any of the same personality traits as your protagonist? Do they starkly contrast to any traits? I usually like to have one strong thing that the two characters connect with (for mine, a love of animals), and then I have two or three things they can disagree on and fight over (for mine, attitude and the proper treatment for the pet).

Step Three: The first interaction.

The key to every love story, in my opinion, is the first interaction. In general, I find that love story first meetings go one of three ways: either the couple feels an instant spark, they instantly hate each other, or they barely notice each other at all except mild acknowledgment. So decide which of the three ways your meeting is going to go.

If they’re going to get along, decide what they instantly connect on and go with it. Write the scene and let try to make it last a few pages in the first draft. Show the strength of their immediate connection. Is it just physical, or is it mental, or both? Do they plan to meet again? Or never again? Explore the scene and free write a bit, you can cut it down later.

If they’re going to fight, then what is it that’s going to make them hate each other? Since my protagonist is always negative, I think it would work best if she and the pet owner get in a fight initially. She wants him to treat his dog with a specific medicine, but he’s adamant that he wants to treat the dog naturally. Whatever your characters are fighting about, write the scene.

It’s generally works better if they can both be somewhat right, because you want them both to be likable. So for mine, I wouldn’t make the illness for the dog anything serious, maybe something minor like fleas, and then the fight isn’t something that would make the owner, or the vet, unlikable.

If they’re barely going to notice each other, they still have to connect on some small scale so there is something to build their relationship on as the story progresses. So what is the small detail they’re each going to remember about each other? Do they both buy the same item in a store? Do they both do something kind for the same stranger without knowing it? Does something one does have a positive impact on the other somehow?

Write the scene and see what transpires between your protagonist and new love interest. Remember, you aren’t writing the entire relationship, you’re writing the first meeting. You want to leave room for their relationship to grow and develop. So make sure when the pair parts, there’s room for things to continue changing between them.

I really think the first meeting is the key to developing any relationship because it sets the tone for everything to come in the story for that couple. Once you have that first meeting right on paper, then you can build the rest of the relationship from there.

If you want another way to start the story for your love interest, you can also try my “Meet Cute” writing prompt on Author the World.

Until next month, happy writing!


Monthly Writing Memo: The One and Only Writing Rule

As almost every writer knows, anywhere you go to discuss writing will always have someone proclaiming their tried and true rules for writing that you MUST follow. Post on any writing forum whether it be for screenwriting or fiction and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of eager “expert” or “professional” writers ready to tell you exactly which rules matter and which are hogwash. Yes, many of these writers have published novels or sold scripts and are professionals in the industry, but does that mean their rules are THE rules to follow?

Absolutely not.

Let me say that again – Absolutely not. Just because someone has sold a script or published a novel or piece of writing doesn’t mean that they will be able to give you rules to writing that will be guaranteed to work on your story. If you put every writer who ever sold something in a room and asked them to come up with a master list of writing rules it’d be impossible. There’d be factions who think you can never write in present tense and others who think a description of the weather should never start a novel.

There’d be groups who think the epitome of literary or cinematic genius is one specific piece of work, and others who think that same work is a crock of shit. If the people who are actually selling works of writing cannot agree on what makes good writing, and which writing rules are always true, then how on earth can a newbie writer even dream of making it in the industry, let alone be brave enough to even try to put words on the page?

Ultimately, all of this boils down to one single fact about writing: There are hundreds of rules for writing, but one of those rules is that there are no rules. Now before you dip out of this article, because that’s a useless piece of advice in the previous sentence, give me a chance to elaborate.

Writing is a subjective thing. Every story is going to require following a different mix of rules to make it work. That’s why whenever I write a post about the “rules” of writing, I try to explain which situations the rule applies to, and where it might not apply. Also, every writer is going to have different opinions about what makes a good story, and every publisher/studio/audience is going to have a different opinion about what they find marketable and worth buying. If this is true, which based on the evidence presented through comparing a wide range of published and produced pieces of writing it is, then the one and only real rule for writing is that you have to know the “What” and the “Why” of your story.

Essentially, knowing the What’s and Why’s of your story is all about researching the genre or style of writing you want to write by studying the existing works in that genre, and being conscious about your story and your writing choices so that you can answer the following questions on each project you work on:

  • What writing “rules” do you have to follow for this particular story? In general, writing rules are not actually rules at all, but rather they’re typical or common guidelines of storytelling that work or don’t work based on previously existing works. So knowing what “rules” you have to follow just means you know which “rules” actually apply to what you’re writing, and which don’t. If you’ve done your due diligence and prep work before writing by studying other works that are similar to what you want to write, then you should have a general idea of what the common rules of that style or genre of story are, and which might apply to your story.
  • Why are you following or ignoring these rules? Every time someone tells you a “rule” for writing, it’s important to understand why the rule exists, and where it applies. For your own work, always be able to justify why you’re breaking one set of rules, and why you’re following other rules. You may not have to follow all the “rules” in your writing, but people come up with these various rules for a reason, so understanding why they exist will help you understand why you need to follow certain ones and ignore others in your work.
  • What is your setting, characters, plot, etc.? If you don’t know this when you’re writing, then your writing will probably be all over the place. Some people can free-write and discover a lot of these details as they go, but it is almost universally true that having these elements solidly in mind before writing will make your writing stronger.
  •  Why are you choosing these characters, this setting, that plot, etc.? Ultimately, the core of writing is to make deliberate choices and to be able to justify those choices as being ones that serve the story. Every character, setting, plot device, and elements of your story down to word choice can have a major impact on your writing. The more deliberate and conscious you can be in your choices, the more your writing should come together to tell a successful story.

As you can see, this one and only writing rule really boils down to being conscious about each choice you make in your writing and constantly asking yourself why whenever you are presented with a “rule” that someone thinks is universally true. All of these “rules” people come up with regarding writing are the results of people looking for the magic formula to a guaranteed sale on a piece of work, and they find it by looking for common elements across sold pieces of writing. While it is often true that these elements do exist, there are also just as many pieces of writing out there that break these trends.

Every story is its own thing and has its own identity, and I’m a firm believer that if you focus on serving the story rather than trying to force it to fit pre-existing rules or expectations, then your story will be better for it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to sell it, no one can guarantee that, but I am saying if you stay true to your story even if it means breaking the rules, your story will be stronger.

The important thing is to know what “rules” exist and to be able to justify why you broke these preconceived rules that people have and to show that you did so consciously. Ultimately, people aren’t going to focus on whether you broke the “rules” or not with your writing when deciding to buy it, they’re going to focus on whether you’ve put in the work to construct a compelling story that people want to read. If you do that, nothing else matters.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice once a month on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Monthly Writing Memo: 5 types of Heroes

Welcome to the first Monthly Writing Memo! So for my own blog, Author the World, I’ve been thinking about doing a post about villains. As those of you who have been following know, I’ve been studying horror as I work on my horror film script. During this process, I’ve been wondering about the different types of villains, which in turn made me wonder about the different types of heroes in stories. So for this Month’s Writing Memo, I thought I’d do a post about heroes, and then later this week my post on villains will be up on Author the World.

In general, I think all heroes can really be broken down into a few main types, and every hero in a story usually falls into one of them. The way I’ve divided them up is by what motivates them rather than what they specifically do, or how they go about being a hero.

  1. The Savior –

The Savior is someone who actively tries to be a hero. They want to help people and save the day, so they seek out ways they can do this. The most obvious example of this is many superhero stories where characters like Superman or Spiderman actively seek out those in danger to help them. These characters do it solely because they want to help people and be a hero. Some want recognition, some want the satisfaction of saving people, but either way the thing that drives them is the need to be the hero. It’s a compulsion almost, and when they don’t just help when they see someone in danger, they actively seek the danger (and the victims) out.

  1. The Soldier –

The Soldier is similar to the Savior in that they feel the desire to help people, but the soldier does it out of a sense of duty and honor. That’s not to say they don’t have other motivations as well, but this character type is driven by the sense that it is their responsibility to help people, and they must take action. I think if you look at the movie “Die Hard” you’ll see John McClane fits into this character type. Yeah, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is also a police officer and when he sees the problem he feels it is his duty to take action. Many of these character types are those military or police type characters, or have other positions that are focused on helping people in some way. Some other example jobs that a character can have to fit this role include teacher, doctor, or even counselor/therapist.

The goal of this character is to do their “job” and help people because they think it is their responsibility and duty. Maybe it can cross over into the Savior role of feeling driven to help people, but the slight distinction is where the Savior would say “I helped because they were in trouble,” the Soldier would say “I helped because it was my job/responsibility to help.”

  1. The Mercenary –

The Mercenary Hero doesn’t necessarily have to be getting paid, though some form of payment is generally the motivation for them to be the hero. They are a hero because they get something out of it. An example of this is are characters like Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure. That is a personal mission for him and he doesn’t do it for anyone else, he does it for largely selfish reasons—he desperately wants the truth and the excitement of discovering the treasure.

The Mercenary is driven by what he/she personally gets out of being the hero. They can be paid to do the job, they can be on a personal mission of love or vengeance or profit, but whatever it is they are being the hero because it serves them, not because they want to serve the people they are saving.

  1. The Reluctant Hero –

The Reluctant Hero is one of my favorite types of heroes to write because they don’t try to be perfect, and often try to extricate themselves from the drama, but they morally feel the urge to help when they see a situation. Unlike the Savior they won’t seek out the conflict, and unlike the Mercenary they don’t want anything for themselves, but similarly to the Soldier they feel a sense of duty.

The Reluctant Hero is someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and they aren’t doing it because it’s their job like the Soldier. They are a person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time, and they morally can’t bring themselves to turn away from those in need. If asked why they helped, they would respond “I couldn’t turn my back on it, and it was the right thing to do.” They don’t feel like it’s their duty, they just feel like they were the only one there at the time who could do it, so they did.

I think the one thing that is often interesting about the Reluctant Hero is that, if someone else was around who could successfully do the saving, the Reluctant Hero would let them, but often they are put in situations where either they have to try, or all is lost.

  1. The Anti-Hero –

The final type of hero isn’t quite a hero at all – the Anti-Hero. The Anti-Hero is not someone who is trying to help anyone, and they’re most often not a good person. There are slight varying definitions of this, but in my opinion, the Anti-Hero is a character who ultimately has their own larger goal, but they do kind, heroic things along the way in pursuit of their goal. I think this falls into a lot of gangster characters who do wonderful things for the “little people” but who aren’t really good characters at all, and whose larger goals are really something quite unhero-like.

Another version of the Anti-Hero is someone who does dark, violent things in order to achieve something good. This kind of character is like Batman at times (The Dark Knight is the obvious example). Batman kills and commits crimes in order to make Gotham a better place, going from loved hero to wanted criminal.

Either way, the main thing about the Anti-hero is that they don’t follow the same rules as the normal hero, and that they will often commit villain-like acts in the pursuit of their goal. These sorts of acts will stand in stark contrast with the heroic elements, and it will make the audience question whether the character is hero or villain.

Final Notes:

I’m sure there are some more minor variations of heroes, but in general, I think most heroes in stories can be divided up into one of the five categories above. If you aren’t sure about which your character is, ask yourself what motivates them to be a hero? What motivates them to commit heroic acts? If you have that answer, you should be able to pinpoint what type of hero they are.

For my blog post on the various types of villains, stop by Author the World on Friday. Until next month, happy writing!