Jul 14 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Looking Backwards

Published by at 8:56 pm under Plotting,Writing Articles

Don’t have your characters spend too much time musing about events that have already happened in the story.

When characters are preoccupied with something that’s already happened, the author has probably lost track of where the story is going. You can give your story forward momentum by drawing our attention to what’s just around the corner. If someone tried to kill the protagonist yesterday, we will care more about what the assassins are planning for tomorrow than what the character thinks about the attack today.

If you are interested in building on what has already happened in the story, it will probably be more effective to try to have your characters investigate the mystery. But an investigation is very different than just musing with your friends and confidantes. An investigation will add evidence, either by looking for clues or trying to get witnesses to talk. Investigations are superior to musing because the search for information adds more to the story than just talking about what has already happened. (There’s also more potential for conflict, particularly if someone’s trying to sabotage the search).

Here are a few common scenarios that frequently lead to characters musing about the past.

  1. Musing about the death of a loved one, particularly one that  sacrificed himself to save the protagonist.
  2. Romantic failures.
  3. “Why me!?!”

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid Looking Backwards”

  1. Bretton 04 Oct 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Can musing ever work? For example, I intended to have Alex at one point go into a depressive phase when he spends a great amount of time thinking about his failure with Amorelia. At the same time however, he’s constantly dealing with new threats. I’m not going to overdo it (I think Alex will never muse for more than a page at once, and never ever a full chapter), but I think his brooding says something about his psyche.

  2. Cadet Davison 04 Oct 2008 at 9:15 pm

    I hate to say never. Musing is sometimes dramatically or comedically effective. For example, one of Soon I Will Be Invincible’s best lines was a musing. The villain has pulled his first heist and he has a dilemma. He can either turn himself in and get out of prison after a year or two, or he can move forward as a supervillain and throw everything away that he’s ever known. He explains why he demurs with a few lines of musing. “If you’re different, you always know it, and you can’t fix it even if you want to.”

    Effective musing tends to be very short. Readers won’t mind that the story isn’t progressing very quickly if the pause is brief. Unfortunately, musing tends to create pauses that are so long that readers get disconnected from the plot. So, how long is too long? I suspect that the reader’s attention span will be affected by several factors: readers will probably grant you more leeway if the scene is funny, if the story is marketed as deep or introspective rather than action-packed or exhilarating, if the characters are interesting, and/or if your observations are insightful. It’s hard to give a rule of thumb for an issue with so many variables, but I’d be very careful about going beyond 2-3 pages (500-750 words). At that point, the reader will probably notice if the scene is dragging. In contrast, readers will probably slip past a momentary pause without feeling that the story is moving too slowly.

  3. JVKJRon 21 Dec 2012 at 11:04 am

    What about thinking of something that happened before the story began? One of my characters tends to think of a few things which had happened years prior, and is one of his primary motivations.

  4. B. Macon 21 Dec 2012 at 12:11 pm

    If it is necessary to understand what he’s doing and/or why, I think it could be helpful. I’d still recommend keeping it short, though, and handling the content in a more active way than just musing. For example, a confrontation about the past would be more promising than a character idly reminiscing about that time when [X] happened.

    I’d generally recommend making sure that the stakes are high. For example, on The Mentalist, the main character starts rethinking his interactions with everybody he’s met in the last 5-10 years because he has learned that one of them is actually the main villain*. Suddenly, minor interactions with side-characters might be critically relevant to the central plot here and now.

    *Hilarious touch: his journal listing things which could make them more/less plausible as the killer, like this:
    Dr. John Luck:
    +: Coroner — morbid curiosity
    +: Forensic expert
    -: Dead (?)

  5. Nayanon 21 Dec 2012 at 8:26 pm

    The story of my comic book starts with the protagonist suffering from severe depression. At some point, I have to show the past incident which caused the depression. The incident is important to the climax of the story. So, how can I show that effectively? I am planning to do it through a nightmare of the protagonist (1 page long).

  6. Nayanon 24 Dec 2012 at 8:29 pm

    So can anyone help me solving the problem which I described above?

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