Tag Archives: Hallie Ephron

After The First Five Pages

Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages alerted novelists to the need to create an intriguing opening. But the truth is, writers need to keep readers interested beyond that first scene. After the initial intrigue, what will keep them turning pages?

A number of pitfalls can work against this goal: glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in a prologue (quotes from Hallie Ephron, The Writer, October 2008).

“Gore, profanity or explicit sex” seem self-explanatory. These things pull readers out of the story.

“Glumps” or Long paragraphs of backstory or even of description work against the story because there is little tension, the element agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) says is necessary on every page.

Newer writers often believe it is vital for readers to understand what came before, what the character or story world is all about, or the story won’t make sense.

The problem is, if readers are bored with these “necessities,” they won’t stick around. Instead, writers need to trust their readers and unfold the backstory and descriptions as the story takes place.

Regarding the flash forward, Ephron says it is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz. An exciting flash forward, however, will simply serve as a sharp contrast to the lackluster events that put the story in motion–not a proven way of keeping readers turning pages.

Beyond avoiding these pitfalls, what should writers be sure to include after the first five pages if we are to keep readers engaged?

First we must create characters readers care about. Quirky characters may be interesting, but they may also be hard to connect with. On the other hand, bland characters that are floating through the life of their story aren’t interesting. The writer must find the balance.

In my reading, I’ve found stories with truly wonderful characters. They are fun–even funny–and realistic, with age spots and crows feet as well as knight-in-shining-armor charisma and undeniable moral fiber.

And yet, at times, something has been missing, something so integral that I can easily close the book and not finish reading because I just don’t care.

Yikes! 😮 What would cause such a thing?

In a nutshell, objectives. Actually, the lack thereof. In order for me to cheer for a character, which means I’ve arrived at the caring level, I have to see the character striving to accomplish something. The story can’t stall on bad things happening to a good character, over and over again. Instead, the character must take on a central problem and work to win out.

Somehow, a character striving, especially against great odds, resonates. It is in the effort to overcome that a character’s mettle shines.

That being said, I believe there is still more. In order for a reader to truly care, there needs to be the legitimate possibility of failure. Frodo was such a hero, such a tragic hero, in part because his ability to pull off a victory was in doubt until the last sentence of the climax. For much of the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak. Then his spirit gave out.

Along the way, he’d experienced a good number of successes, so how did Tolkien make readers feel as if Frodo might not make it in the end? I think the main way was by not protecting his characters from hurt. The four hobbits were captured, Frodo was wounded, Gandolf was killed, Peregrin looked into the crystal and fell gravely ill. King Theoden came under Worm Tongue’s spell, Boromir succumbed to his desire for the ring and died. At every turn, the end seemed in doubt and victories weren’t had without paying a price.

In summary, readers need to know what the character is trying to achieve so they can cheer for him. And winning can’t come easily or quickly. There needs to be the credible possibility that winning won’t be the kind of winning the reader was hoping for. With an engaging character trying to achieve the near impossible in the face of the real potential for failure, readers are bound to be scrambling for the book during every free moment.

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 4

In the previous three parts to this short series, I’ve discussed the importance of making backstory a natural, organic part of the story; two techniques to use suggested by Hallie Ephron in her Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory”; and a more detailed explanation of how to convey backstory through dialogue.

That brings us to Ms. Ephron’s final two techniques: memories and a flashback scene.

A character’s memories can convey backstory without bringing the story action to a halt if those memories fit in with the present scene. The idea is to use something in the story present to trigger a memory.

A memory trigger can be a loud sound like a church bell

The trigger can be a sound — something jarring or disruptive like a car alarm going off. Or it can be a smell such as baking bread or a visual like an antique tea service, just like Grandma’s. The objects or events that can initiate a character’s memory are endless.

The important thing in making the memory seem natural is to avoid calling attention to it. Skilled novelists don’t announce a memory.

Here’s an example of a memory that doesn’t transition smoothly into or out of the memory.

    Ramon heard the loud gong of the church bell. He thought a minute. Yes, he’d heard something just like that bell years ago, when he was only a boy. He used to visit his Tío Miguel every Sunday, and the bell in the church down the block rang so loud, they sometimes had to stop talking until it ended. Ramon shook himself out of his reverie.

Here’s the same memory written with smoother transitions rather than announcements.

    The loud gong of the church bell sounded again, and Ramon stopped talking. Not to listen, but from habit. Years ago, when he visited Tío Miguel on Sundays, the church bell down the block rang so loud they couldn’t hear each other over the repeated bong-bong. They’d learned to go silent and wait, just as he did now.

The final method of providing readers with necessary backstory is by creating a flashback — a scene set in an earlier time. As with the memory technique, the transitions are critical. But flashbacks have several things that are different.

First, the verb tense changes, at least initially, so the reader understands where the scene fits. If the author is using present tense, then a flashback is in past tense. If the author is writing in past tense, then the flashback begins and ends in past perfect.

Because of the repeated “had” necessary to form the past perfect, using it throughout the flashback can become distracting and cumbersome. Consequently, after a few sentences the author can revert to past tense without confusing the reader, then switch back to past perfect in the last line of the flashback to signal that the reader is about to return to the present story time.

Here’s an example from HUNTED with the flashback in boldface type:


    Ant-prickles raced up and down Jim’s arms. Not long ago he’d thought about staying behind to search the tunnels on his own, but now the idea of leaving the Abador-faithful seemed as foolhardy as the stunt he had pulled as a six-year-old kid during a family camping trip in the Colorado Rockies. Kyle and Eddie took off one morning on a big-boy hike, and Mom said Jim had to stay in camp. When she wasn’t looking, though, he snuck off after his brothers, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t catch up. He’d been too proud to call after them, too guilty to yell for help from his parents. He wandered around lost in the woods until dark when at last his dad had found him.
    Jim brushed a hand up and down his arm. Childish. He’d survived that day on his own and outgrown his fear of being alone in a strange place. If something happened to separate him from the others here in Efrathah, he could make.

In longer flashbacks, the scene may be written with dialogue just like any other scene. In the example above, then, instead of saying “Mom said Jim had to stay … ” the text would read: Mom said, “Jimmy, you stay here in camp with your father and me.”

This is the second factor that distinguishes a flashback from a memory, however short — it is a scene, not straight narrative.

Handling backstory correctly can make or break a story. Perhaps the best way to learn to weave it into the fabric of a novel is to examine how other writers integrate it. See what works and what doesn’t, then use the good as a model for your own writing.

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The Ins And Outs Of Backstory, Part 2

As we established in part one of this short series, backstory should be used sparingly, sprinkled throughout the novel, but rarely included in the opening.

Super agent and writing instructor Donald Maass explains:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down. (The Fire in Fiction, p. 208 – emphasis added).

The rule of thumb is to give backstory only when the reader needs it.

But suspense author Brandilyn Collins adds an important element to the aspect of “need.” Not only do readers need answers, they need more questions:

We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers. (“A Bit on Backstory” by Brandilyn Collins, September 22, 2005)

Raising questions in the right way makes readers curious and keeps them turning pages to find out.

The next logical question follows: what exactly is the right way?

Collins again:

When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefully written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. (Ibid.)

Author and writing instructor Hallie Ephron elaborates on ways to incorporate backstory into fiction in a recent Writer’s Digest article “6 Ways To Layer In Backstory” (May/June 2011).

The first two approaches are unique to either a first person or an omniscient point of view. The last four are helpful regardless of the perspective.

Dialogue ranks high on the list, but Ephron gives this caution: “Never force words into characters’ mouths … Use dialogue to convey backstory only when it feels natural and works dramatically.”

Maass explains this idea of backstory “working dramatically.” In examining an example of backstory in a Robin Hobbs novel, he notes that the delivery of backstory does more than give facts about the past. Instead it reveals a conflicted character. He concludes by saying, “Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work” (The Fire in Fiction, p. 210 – emphasis added).

Another way of layering backstory into a novel is to introduce a document — a newspaper article, letter, will, journal, photograph, email, title to property, bill and so on. Such items can be handled in several ways. One possibility is to reproduce it verbatim. A second is to have a character summarize the contents.

In an earlier version of my first novel, I incorporated this document technique, though slightly altered. I’ve since taken the passage out because it came in the first chapter and clearly interrupted the story, but it will serve as an example, good and bad.

In the story, the main character was standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, but the overhang under him breaks away and he tumbles toward the rocks. He’s able to stop himself and find a spot on a ledge, then this:

Easing his tense muscles, he settled against the cliff and glanced out toward the ocean where low, dense clouds bulldozed toward shore.

Ironic! If he died like this, people might suspect he had jumped. He shook his head. How would the headlines read? Something like, “Basketball star plunges to his death.” And the lead? “In a possible suicide, James David Thompson, former NBA star for the expansion Scorchers, fell to his death yesterday south of Crystal Cove State Park near Todd Point.”

Well, yes, the imagined document works to give readers information, but do they need to know this very minute what his full name is? Or even that he is a former NBA player or that he’s south of Crystal Cove? Not really.

In addition, because of the disruption and the distraction, readers may stop caring about the present action — the character perched on a cliff above rocks and an angry sea.

And where’s the tension in the backstory? Likely the article’s wrong implication would create tension for the character, but does that translate to tension for the reader? Not really, in part because the article may or may not be written, and because the reader doesn’t have a reason yet to care for this character’s reputation.

The example, then, works to show how a document, in this case, an imagined one, can be used to layer in backstory, but it also shows why backstory doesn’t belong in the beginning of the story.

There are a couple more techniques authors can use to add backstory appropriately, but we’ll save those for next time.

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