Stories should move forward, not backward. This might seem like a pretty basic idea, but sometimes a writer feels “stalled” on a novel.
For example, I have a novel that I looked at this week that had no less than three “Prologues,” which the author was thinking of spreading throughout the novel. Each was nicely written, but in each one we have people (some of them dead) talking about conflicts that were founded in the very creation of the world.
My questions were, “So where is the story? Where is the intriguing character living in a fascinating world who is dealing with an epic conflict?” Obviously we weren’t going to follow the creators here.
It’s sort of like the long section at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien describes the creation of Middle-earth, the rise of Sauron, the creation of the rings, and his war with the Creator. Oh, wait, that never happened.
Instead, Tolkien wisely tells the tale of a little Hobbit who gets swept up into historic events, events that he never really understands. Frodo probably couldn’t tell you who Sauron was, where he came from, how and why he forged the Ring of Power, and who he is enemies with. Most of that is a mystery, high above Frodo’s pay grade, and it’s only as the story gets going that he begins to learn a bit about the existence of the Witches of Angmar, and so on.
Yet writers seem to love to start their tale with “In the beginning.” They want to describe how their world was created and then discuss the cosmic conflicts going on in the background. This might have something to do with the Bible, which tells the creation story at least three times—once about the “spiritual creation,” followed by the “physical creation,” and later on the Apostle John begins his account of the life of Jesus by stating His role in the creation.
It kind of begins to feel like overkill.
Let me be clear: Creation stories in fantasy are cliché. I was in a writing workshop a year ago where an author started his novel with a creation myth. Several of the aspiring writers loved it. I almost didn’t have the heart to tell them that I see so many creation myths at the beginnings of unpublished novels that I want to throw down the manuscript and scream each time I find a new one. The reason that you don’t see them in published novels is simple: editors who have seen this device time and time again are sick of them.
So instead of starting your story with a prologue that starts at the beginning of your world, why not start in media res? Why not have a real character that we like and take interest in doing something that grips us?
A similar problem arises every time that you try to interrupt the story flow by moving backward. If you’re ever tempted to write a flashback scene, just be aware that you’ve just sabotaged the forward momentum of the story. It may be that you can provide some information that will raise the tension of the following scene, but you are doing it at a price, and you have to ask yourself, “Did I gain more than I lost here?”
Of course, there are a lot of other ways to stall a story. You might be tempted to write a long scene where you describe your character’s motivations, or you might spend too much time describing your setting, so that you overwhelm your audience (and bore them) with the abundance of detail. I very often see argument scenes that almost exactly echo an argument from earlier in the novel, or I see authors explaining for the third and fourth time why the protagonist does what he does.
Almost always, if you put your faith in writing a scene that fearlessly thrusts your story forward, you’re following the right impulse.
Just remember this cardinal rule: My story should move forward. It shouldn’t stall out or spend too much time revisiting the distant past, except perhaps to show how the past impinges on the story’s timeline.
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