by Lori Freeland
What does it mean to tell your story forward? Whatever point you choose to drop the reader into your story, start there and move each scene forward in chronological order. The idea sounds simple, but it’s easy to think we’re doing it when we’re really not.
That’s because we don’t “count” all the places we pause the story to fit in what we think the reader needs to know about prior events.
Those pauses are cheating, and each time we use them, we drag our readers out of the present and dump them into the past. That’s sabotage we’re doing to ourselves. We’re derailing our own train.
But what about those books and movies that______? (Insert your own argument.)
There are exceptions to almost any “writing rule.” But exceptions are rare. That’s why they grab our attention. It’s like overusing exclamation points. If everything stands out, nothing stands out.
Take Pulp Fiction. Not quite told in chronological order, it challenges us to figure out “what happens when” as the story unfolds. It’s a unique device. Some of us might like it. Some of us might not. But we can probably agree that we wouldn’t want all our movies to be told that way.
When I say tell your story forward, I’m not talking about are movies like Memento where the story starts at the end and is deliberately told backward. Or Benjamin Button where the main character ages in reverse. Or Back to the Future, where Marty McFly travels to the past to save his future. I’m also not talking about dual timelines where you’re telling two stories, one in the present and one in the past.
What I am talking about are places in your WIP that...
Don’t Stop the Action
Taking a timeout from intense action or a pivotal moment is like pushing the emergency stop on a rollercoaster the second before it makes a ninety-degree drop. When we’ve spent so much effort getting our reader to the top of the “ride,” why would we want to lose all of our momentum by pulling them back at the last second? That’s very disappointing.
The door burst open, and the long barrel of a sawed-off shotgun entered the cabin first.
Jimmy lunged behind the couch as the first shot shattered the mirror behind him. It was times like these that reminded him of the survival training summer camp he attended last summer before the start of junior year. Learn to live in the wild. Learn to shoot a rifle. Learn to camouflage. What a waste of time. He’d lost an entire summer. And summers were his only free time. The only thing he didn’t regret was meeting Jenny. And their first kiss by the lake. They’d stayed up till dawn, talking for hours, and then as the sun peeked over the mountains, he’d casually leaned in and . . . Yeah, well now he knew that had probably been a mistake. A big mistake.
It's okay to laugh. Jimmy’s example is definitely over the top. But I’ve read similar passages.
No one thinks they’re actually spinning off on that much of a tangent. Only, some of you are, and probably without even realizing it.
“But I need to let the reader know about this thing that happened because they won’t understand what’s going on and they won’t get my character and why he’s doing or saying this now.”
I hear this argument a lot. No, you don’t need to let the reader know. Not in that moment. But we’ll get back to that.
Paragraphs like Jimmy’s example above grab a sprinting reader by the ankles, plant him in freshly poured cement, and force him to trudge back to what he really cares about—the action. No one likes to trudge. The only other option? Skim until they get to the “good” parts or give up on the book entirely.
Try Something Like This Instead:
The door burst open, and the long barrel of a sawed-off shotgun entered the cabin first.
Jimmy lunged behind the couch as the first shot shattered the mirror behind him. Survival camp. What a freaking waste of time. Options. Options. Options. He was out of options.
The next shot sent bullets tearing through the back of the couch, covering Jenny’s head in bits of floral fabric.
He never should’ve kissed her. Never should’ve brought her here. Throwing himself on top of her, he prayed his body would be enough of a barrier to save her.
In this version, Jimmy brings his past with him into the present without stopping the action.
Don’t Deflate Your Tension
Tension, that feeling of needing to know how it all works out, is what pulls readers along.
Writers and screenwriters who tell true stories have a special challenge. Readers already know the end. Giving away the end of your story at the beginning can steal your reader’s connection to your characters. If they know straight up that he lives or dies or that she does or doesn’t get what she wants, what’s the point in taking the journey?
That doesn’t mean you can’t open with a snapshot of the climax or a turning point. But stick with the beginning of that pivotal moment and leave the reader hanging. As they walk through the story with your characters, they’ll wonder when they’ll get to that point and how it will be resolved.
Example: The first line of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (no haters, please 😊)
“I’d never given much thought to how I would die—though I’d had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I’d had, I would not have imagined it like this.”
Example: In the movie Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene shows an old man at the Normandy American Cemetery. We don’t know his name until the end. As we watch the movie and get attached to each character, tension builds as we wonder which one will be the sole survivor.
Don’t Hold the Reader Hostage in the Past
Back to the earlier argument that your reader needs to know this or that about your character.
Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don't get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”
Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain.
“Rushing the backstory is a terrible waste. Many writers try to get too much out too soon. If the earthquake is going to happen today, don’t start your story two days ago, even though something important happened to your protagonist two days ago. Start it with the earthquake. Then, the previous two days become the backstory that will inform our hero’s actions in the ‘now’—the fight he had with his wife, the fact that he has no gas in his car (or cash), or that his kids are stuck at summer camp and he has to get to them. Tension between what the reader knows and what the reader doesn’t know will then serve to propel your reader through your story.”
Dumping the past on your reader during an in-the-moment event is the painless way out when it comes to writing. Painless for you. It can be very painful for the reader.
Picture this. As the story beckons them forward, you have a tight grip on their neck holding them back. You’ve set up an entire story world for them to travel—but then you won’t let them go in.
Slicing up chunks of backstory and sprinkling them throughout the story in the right place, at the right time, and in the right order takes skill. Sharing information about your character in a way that weaves that information into the action is hard. No one is disputing that.
So how do you actually carry it out on the page? Practice. Rewrites. Deliberate planning. And even more deliberate edits.
The first step is to admit you have a backstory problem.
If you’re not sure, check with your beta readers or critique partners. Fresh eyes are crucial. Make sure you trust the people you give your manuscript to. Know that they have your best interests at heart. And that they know what they’re talking about. For more on that, see The Up and Downsides of Critique Groups.
Once you have your people, ask them to highlight the parts they skim. Read those parts and assess what you’re doing in those sections as a writer and why.
Now you have a few options. Copy and paste the backstory into a different document and figure out where and when you can use it in smaller chunks. It helps to cross it out as you put it back in. Or you can fix your backstory dumps on the spot. Shorten/tighten/rework them to weave into what’s going on without stalling the story. It helps to think about what’s actually important for the reader to know, not what you think they need to know. If you can’t figure that out, ask your beta readers and critique partners.
Every writer deals with issues of telling their stories forward. Some are naturally good at it. Others learn to be good at it.
I’d love to hear your experiences and read some examples of what you’ve done to make sure your story doesn’t stop the action, deflate the tension, or hold the reader hostage in the past. Please share in the comments!
* * * * * *
An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.