The Sheen of Exotica

The draw of faraway places lures many readers to open the front cover of a book. The remote land of the Lapps—the reindeer herders—might spark curiosity in anyone with fond memories of Christmas. A novel featuring the Chechen revolt might stir the feelings of anyone who once hated the Evil Empire. No matter what the foreign culture, a writer with knowledge of it can use the thought “I’d like to find out more about that” as an enticement.

At first blush, the prospect seems so rich. If an author has personal experience with such natives, that can form the foundation for all sorts of explorations into cultural mores. The odd food these people enjoy for breakfast is only one of the fascinating facts that can be meticulously researched, filling reams of pages. “Ew!” you can almost hear the gleeful writer murmur when coming upon such a morsel.

Deeper penetration can lead to a cast of characters who emblemize the different qualities of the exotic tribe. A common pairing is a chieftain who cherishes age-old traditions facing rebellion by his cellphone-obsessed son, or the like. Scenes are drawn up using these totemic types who, after all, aren’t all that different from the rest of us.

At some point this endeavor will reach a point of reckoning. The author steps back and reads everything that has been written so far. For some reason the drama seems pallid. One suspicion that arises is: “I don’t know these people well enough, because I’m not connecting with them.” Or, “This feels like a kitchen table drama, only with exotic cereal.” The writer can react in numerous ways, and a typical pick for fledgling writers is to inject more suspense. A burning issue is inserted in order to raise the level of passion.

That fork in the road might very well produce handsome results. More often, however, it leads to a muddle. Research gets in the way of a thriller-like pace, as does all the pleasant exchanges among villagers that explicate how they are exotic. Moreover, the aims of the two novelistic pursuits are at odds. One will have to be deemphasized to advance the other.

Beyond these story concerns lies the real answer. The author must still cultivate a core cast of main characters. That’s when the magic of the reader’s involvement happens, and it is the only way to sustain the reader’s interest all the way through the book. The writer must imbibe all those cultural trappings so deeply that they form the way his main characters think.

Exercise: Facts gain more sway when they are personalized. Rather than regarding an aspect of culture as dressing for a scene, consider whether it could be internalized by a main character. Take a dream catcher, for a very basic example: what if the heroine was obsessed with a myth about them? That’s the only way they’ll rise above an object placed on a shelf.

“What we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”
―Alain de Botton

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Looping Thread

In a memoir, the foremost conundrum many authors face is the scope of the work. An interesting life can be likened to a wide-ranging tale, taking place over a period of decades. Although the events when told individually can be fascinating, the way they are lined up can make the narrative as a whole feel disorganized. It can seem like a collection of greatest hits from a career.

The main reason is chronology. Organizing a book strictly by dates poses difficulties because any person’s life is filled with so many disparate incidents. While your life may be extraordinary, that does not mean that the book will move readers. You need to provide more guidance along the way that informs the reader why you have chosen to relate such incidents.

A useful analogy is a thread running through a sewing machine. It has to be wound up, back, around, looping around this post, through that eyehole, etc., in a crazy configuration that requires a manual to follow. A reader can regard a memoir the same way. A given chapter might jump from a hiking incident to a spiritual subject and then onto a topic such as local politics. When chapters are organized in this fashion, it is easy for the reader to lose the logic of the narrative thread. What the heck did the one have to do with the next?

Start by regarding every chapter as a story unit. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It contains an opening topic paragraph, thematic bridges between each section, and a concluding paragraph. Before starting a chapter, ask yourself: what would the topic paragraph be? Through this process you will find two valuable components to any chapter: which incidents belong together, plus the thematic material that links them.

Then you can group like with like. A dramatic rescue might be linked with one that happens several years later. You don’t want to bend chronology too far, but remember, readers want to go where you are leading them. If you provide thematic material that bridges two incidents, the gap in timing is less important. Related to this technique is what might be called cause and effect. In this case, a hiking incident might be followed by a spiritual message that relates to the hiking incident. With such chapters, asking yourself what the topic paragraph is becomes straightforward. You set up a precipitating incident that then is resolved. You start off a chapter knowing that the middle will lead to the end.

Exercise: As you learned in English class long ago, a topic paragraph consists of a series of sentences that summarize the material that will be covered in a chapter (or, a paper, back in those days). Review your scenes and summarize their import in a single sentence. Put each one down on a list. Then you can review the list and pick out which incidents belong together.

“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.”
—Sidney Smith

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


In or About

When is a narrative summary sufficient to relay information from a character’s past, and when should a flashback be employed? The question turns to some degree on the sort of novel you are writing. In a literary work, plotting tends to be less linear. In a genre novel, by contrast, the forward momentum of the main plot contributes far more to the entertainment value of the story. Since a flashback itself is a plot element, it stands to reason that the more of them you have, the less forward momentum you generate in the present-day plot.

However, as in so many other considerations in writing, narrative summary may not be the best vehicle for conveying all past plot events. That’s because the summary by its very nature is more distant storytelling. It also, because it sketches the reactions of the characters involved, can verge into telling, not showing, what they are like. Put that way, you can see why talking about characters is less effective than putting them into an active scene to show what they’re like.

How do you determine which device to use? Several parameters can be considered. The first is length of a flashback. If you are worried that they will slow up the main story too much, can you relate a key moment from a character’s past without unspooling an entire scene? For instance, a half page isn’t long; many narrative summaries run that length. Could you construct a series of flashbacks that involve the same time period, place, or key characters? That way you wouldn’t need to set up the circumstances each time. Merely by cueing the reader with a lead sentence—oh, right, that crucial semester freshman year—you could tell a number of shorter snippets, maybe with past events connected to each other.

The second guideline is: importance of the event to the present-day character. The more impact a past event has, the more you should lean toward covering it in a live scene. That plunges the reader directly into the circumstances that affected the character so powerfully—making them hit the reader head-on. Again, a full-length scene can be broken up into sequential pieces, like a mystery lure in which you find out the full truth piece by piece.

The last consideration is: where is it in the book? You usually will provide the background setup for characters within the first third. That is where narrative summary can most easily fall into the error of telling about characters rather than showing—because the reader doesn’t know them very well and that info has to be filled in. When you’re in this part of the book, a full-length flashback or even a couple is not going to slow down a plot that hasn’t yet revved up that much momentum anyway. It also forces you to be strategic: how can you devise a scene that shows as much as possible what the character is like?

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
—Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.