Back and Forth

Balance was the keyword in my last post, and I’m going to explore the subject again from a different angle. That is the balance between background work and a plot. The line between past and present is always fluid in a novel, because an author frequently needs to reveal a character’s past in order to better inform why he is acting the way he is. This logic extends to larger dimensions as well, such as underlying premises for the plot. So how do you know when you’re visiting the past too much?

To answer that question, I’ll first make a remark about the different types of momentum generated by past and present. A past story already happened. By and large, it does not make the reader look forward in anticipation. The present, on the contrary, is driving toward what will happen. It generates more momentum because the reader does not know how things will play out.

Judged in those terms, the calculation becomes easier. What takes place in the background stories, and what takes place in the present? What I often find is that the back stories, filled with lore, of whatever degree you like, are more exciting. Only in the past can the equivalent of Excalibur be ripped from the stone. The forward-pushing plot, by contrast, can seem dull by comparison. Oh, the river’s too wide? Come on, let’s look for a ford.

Part of the problem is due to how compressed the two types of narrative are. A background story is told in summary fashion, delivered in a tight package that highlights only the good parts. The present is looser, filled with such structural elements as dialogue, in order that the writing is not too tight, keeping the reader at a distance. But let’s flip the coin and consider the narrative summary’s drawback. To achieve its compression, it has to be told from more of a distance. The intimacy of following a character closely is surrendered so that the past is not competing directly with the present.

The reason balance is so vital is because you don’t want a novel too filled with inert, compacted material. Inert because it already happened and compact by the nature of the telling. You need the plot to carry such loads forward. Moreover, you need lots of plot, because each time the reader stops for a back story, the forward momentum has to be geared up all over again.

Exercise: Review the manuscript chapter by chapter. Draw up two lists, side by side: past and present. Summarize in a sentence or two what happens in each chapter. When you’re done, look to see where the juicy stuff is. If there are too many on the past side, you should consider transforming some of them into events that occur in the present.

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
—Virginia Woolf

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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