Friday 5 October 2012

There is no NOW in storyland

So there’s a comment by a reader of King of Thorns on Goodreads that says:

*flips through pages* is this whole effing book a flashback? Seriously?

And it appears that he then stopped reading and gave up on the book.

That’s a pretty extreme reaction but there’s an element of this response in a number of the reviews – typically saying that they don’t normally like flashbacks but this particular book won them over, often grudgingly. The proof of that winning over being evident here:

What interests me are the thought processes behind the response.

Question: Do we entertain any serious doubt that the sole first person narrator of a trilogy of books is going to die in book 2? It’s rare to kill a point-of-view character in any book, let alone a first person point-of-view character, let alone the only point-of-view character. Sure George Martin with his many point-of-view character epics does occasionally, to great shock and awe, off one of his herd. But no. Jorg was always going to survive into book 3. C’mon.

The tension in such books is never ‘will the character survive’ but ‘will they succeed’.

So with that out of the way, we can focus on what this special magic about ‘now’ is that somehow reduces any part of the story that is not happening NOW to unimportant interruptions.

Sure people talk about wanting to get back to what’s happening now. But how is that any different to wanting to get back to the Tyrion thread in a GRRM book when you’re reading a Sansa thread (or vice versa, depending on your tastes)? The ‘interruptions’, the ‘wanting to get back’, those are all part and parcel of having multiple threads. As soon as you have more than one thread in a book people will have favourites and in the extreme they’ll view one or more of those threads as obstructions to their main interest. Multiple threads do however offer many advantages that generally outweigh these possible drawbacks.

So I return to this oft-professed disdain for ‘backstory’, for anything that’s not happening NOW. There is no ‘now’ in storyland. Generally all the threads whether it be multi-characters or different time threads, will be written in the past tense. The book will wait for you, is waiting for you, has waited for you, was written. There’s no now, no immediacy other than that created by the author. So how does titling one thread ‘four years earlier’ rob it of importance?

Yes you can have flashbacks where the character is riding along or whatever and reminisces on some past exploit – but what I do in King of Thorns isn’t that (although there are examples of flashback as well). I have distinct clearly labelled threads. One ‘now’ one ‘four years earlier'. If Jorg has a struggle in the ‘four years earlier’ thread it isn’t somehow less important than the one in the ‘now’ thread is it? Unless you actually thought he might die in the ‘now’ thread?

Flashback and backstory are emotive words from a writing standpoint. Flashback has overtones of interrupting some ongoing action. Backstory has overtones of exposition, of lecturing you on boring history. But if the earlier period is a separate thread constituting half or more of the book ... that’s an entirely different matter.

I really liked the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. My favourite part of the whole thing was in book 4 of 7 when the hero, Roland, sits down and tells a story from his youth, decades before. For a couple of hundred pages we spend our time with the teenage Roland. There’s zero chance that he dies. But the story is engrossing, exciting, full of tension, and brilliant. It’s not backstory. It’s not flashback. It’s STORY and it’s not ‘now’ but neither is the next bit when Roland stops telling the story, gets up and walks on.

So to conclude – it's a phenomenon I'm interested in, both from the point of view of what causes it and in order to figure out how to avoid the upset without losing access to a powerful technique,


  1. It's a weird thing, but somehow a flashback does *feel* different, less "immediate" than the bit of the story that is set in the "present", even though both parts will typically be narrated in past tense. It doesn't make any logical sense, but that is how it usually strikes me (and did in King of Thorns).

    That doesn't mean that the flashback has to be less gripping or intense - that is mainly down to what is (or "was") actually happening in the respective parts of the story. For instance (without spoilers) - I was carried along happily by the whole "four years earlier" storyline, *but* really wanted to get back to the "present day" storyline, *but* really really *really* wanted to know what happened in the graveyard...

    Also: only three 1* reviews? Seriously? You haven't been trying hard enough...

  2. I'll admit that there's been times, reading A Song of Ice and Fire, that I've flipped ahead, wondering when this "Bran" chapter will end. There was a small feeling of desiring the "now" in Prince of Thorns, but later in and definitely by King of Thorns, that was gone for me. I think it's because of Jorg as well as how I came to love how the book went together. As the story went on, I was just as interested in both time lines, because Jorg is the bastard you know isn't the 'kind-hearted good-for-the-people fair Prince of Arrow sort of guy' but you love and cheer for anyway (at least I do, heh!). I wanted to know all of his story. The greatest reward was at the end - I felt the timelines came together wonderfully, a fresh way to introduce twists. When something of the past touched that present timeline, I felt rewarded and clued in, like Jorg had winked at the reader.

    So, when I went into King of Thorns, I went in with this same mindset - that it was going to come together and I was going to love it. And I was not disappointed. I wonder if this reader read Prince of Thorns?

  3. I'm not a fan of flashbacks myself, mostly because they rarely are they handled well, and often drags unnecessarily. The story is rarely more interesting that what is happening NOW, and although I agree with your stance of ‘will the character survive’ vs. ‘will they succeed’, it's been my experience that flashback plot threads can be more predictable, so even the latter goal gets spoiled.

    I like your parallel to the multi-POV element, and I agree... which is why I often complain when an author focuses on a POV that is tedious and robbing use the time that could have been spent with better characters or better story lines.

    That said, I enjoyed the flashback "interruptions" in Prince of Thorn, so I don't envision it being a problem in King of Thorns.

  4. People often blame ONE particular aspect if they don't like the whole. For example I like to play Guild Wars 1 and people who really don't get into it found a particular reason why they don't like it: Because you can't jump. This totally ruins the entire game. Interestingly they could play Diablo 3 where you also can't jump except you use special skills. So it's pretty much only a pretended and lazy argument.

    So well, you are preaching to the choir. To people who 1. like your books and 2. totally share your point of view in this matter.

    I would like to add another point why some people don't like this or that. It's a little bit arrogant, but I think it's true. One of my professors at University said there are readers and there are non-readers. They read differently. For readers the HOW is interesting. How something will happen. We have ideas what is possibly going to happen, how the characters gets constructed. "Surprising" twists are for readers as surprising as the ever same scheme in every Dan Brown book.

    Now what does a person who is not such an avid reader do at times? They really don't want to know how the book ends. Even if it is almost 100% sure that the main char of a trilogy doesn't die in book 1 or 2. It is also interesting that people tend to be more averse of spoilers the less they read regularly. People who read a lot discuss the spoilers while the non-readers tend to go nuts about it, even if they really shouldn't. Because even if they belong to the not-so much reading faction they couldn't be that dumb to get enraged about almost certain and damn obvious spoilers.

    One of my friends didn't like Prince of Thorns - too brutal. He concluded the author must have had a bad childhood after the 30-50 pages he might have read. :)

    Also, sometimes one should just stop trying to understand some comments or people. It wastes more time for nothing that they ever put into their comment or whatever they did.

  5. I think the problem is that we tend to see the progress of a story as a straight line. If in some books it's bad enough that that line doesn't progress fast enough, then going "backwards", closer to the beginning than the end, is even worse.

    Not that I personally have a problem with it, and definitely not in King of Thorns, but I can understand why some people see it like that.

  6. Personally I don't mind Flashbacks, on the contrary I happen to like them if done properly, i.e. they are related to the main plotline and build up to the final conflict (emotionally or psychologically).

    In some cases, flashbacks are a must in order to flesh out the characters and show their motivations as opposed to info dumping. For example, part of the real-time conflict would sound shallow unless you have that one piece of the puzzle, why the protagonist knew something or did something specific. I don't know if I'm explaining it right, it's that WTF moment that makes sense only if you see the protagonist's past and understand his/her turning moment. When you have the crucial backstory chapter followed by the climax chapter, everything falls into place.

    But I also could be misunderstanding the purpose of this blog entry, if that is the case, please forgive me.