Forwards Not Backwards

The basic tenet of writing fiction is to “show not tell”, so authors paint scenes with words instead of just explaining the next part of the story. This is solid advice that comes as close to being a golden rule as anyone can expect in the fluid realm of storytelling, where an empty page plus some words becomes a narrative that provokes a dream in the mind of a reader.

Although this rule is almost universally followed, other pieces of solid advice are often ignored, and I will mention some of them in later posts. One that comes high on my list of below-par storytelling issues is the unwillingness of a writer to maintain the forward flow of the narrative. All good stories are about people, not details of architecture and landscape. Scenery and weather are the backdrop upon which the story is told, so any time spent describing the setting is time spent away from the characters and their thoughts and actions. Of course, the backdrop must be painted, but only with light brushstrokes, unless its nature is crucial to the story. The imagination of the reader, especially when immersed in a vivid fictional dream, can create a great deal of detail from only a little prose, and revel in the personal picture it has painted. What the reader cannot create is the next line of dialogue spoken by a character; only the author can do that and move the story along.

Historical, futuristic, or fantasy worlds require more description, but contemporary settings do not, so a writer who insists on lengthy descriptions of everyday scenery is slowing the forward momentum of the narrative and running the risk of loosening the hold of the fictional dream. Discrete paragraphs, spread throughout the overall text, can add whatever detail is necessary without slowing the tempo of the tale. Although a reader may still be held in the dream by a narrator whose skilful handling of descriptive prose gives a sense of life and vibrancy to inanimate objects, the hold is still light because there is no sense of anticipation, which comes only from the actions, words, and thoughts of the characters.

Digressions have the same effect, unless they are brief and self-evidently relevant to the story, and retrospective passages even more so. A look backwards to earlier events can be important to an understanding of the present, but it never justifies a whole chapter being devoted to the task. This is just bad storytelling. The art of the flashback should be used to highlight all pertinent prior events, and these backward glances can be spread evenly over several chapters with sufficient space and brevity to cause no slowing of the forward momentum of the story and thus no interruption of the fictional dream. However, this requires a complete understanding of the connection between past and present, and thus the inclusion of only the salient details, via a number of flashbacks, perhaps by various characters at different points in the story. The easier and lazier option is to create a whole chapter and give it a timestamp. This is blunt and, in my opinion, insulting to the reader. It declares that the present story is temporarily halted and a mandatory diversion into the past is what the reader will have to endure, and I use the word “endure” for good reason. Such a chapter excuses the writer the need to sift out the unnecessary details. Instead, it replaces the desire for brevity with the compulsion to provide a chapter of decent length, thus leading to the addition of the eager reader’s worst enemy: filler material.

The soft padding of filler material always slows down the narrative, so when added to the lazy detour of a historical chapter, the crime is doubled. A story should start at a point that can easily be identified as its natural beginning, and then it should progress to its natural end, filled with the thoughts, actions, and dialogue of its characters. Any deviation from this, however necessary, should be handled smoothly and be beneficial to the story without halting it. All writers could tell stories like this, and I believe that all writers should do so because it mirrors the way in which the story of our own life travels forward. Our constant dream, as I described in my first post, has a continual forward motion, as do all the real-life stories that are woven into it, so all good fictional tales should follow suit and keep us engaged with a sense of anticipation. If anyone can find me a work of fiction that is fragmented in time and bloated with descriptive filler material, and then give me a convincing case as to why I should spend many hours reading it, I would be interested to hear from you.

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