Wednesday, 14 May 2014


Start a story when something is happening. This is what I have told creative writing students in the past. Picture a woman sitting in a chair in a beautifully furnished room. The woman is unhappy you can tell because she’s wringing her hands. So far so good.

Depending on the skill of the writer this scene could be beautifully described. It could end up as a vibrant and evocative piece where the decor could reflect or contrast with the obvious feeling of unease inside the woman.

But it would not be a story until something happens.

The phone rings. The woman is startled. She goes across to it and picks it up nervously. A voice on the other end says, “I have your daughter. She is still alive and will stay that way as long as you don’t go to the police.”

Now we have a story. In a few pages we have a crime, a distraught mother, knowledge that no police are involved. We have a dilemma and the promise of intrigue and drama to come.

But in order to explain how this state of affairs came about we have to travel back in time. If you start with something dramatic you have to explain to the reader – somehow – how this situation arose. Readers know this. They expect a whole range of storytelling techniques when they open the pages of a book and they know they’ll probably do some time travelling.

There are a number of ways of doing this. Flashbacks, of course and then feeding the ‘backstory’ into the narrative via the thoughts and memories of the characters. Dialogue is also a good way; one character telling another about something that happened in the past. All these are techniques to fill in the gaps so that the present day story can move on.

Another way is to set part of the novel in the past. The novel I’m working on at the moment which is called MOTH GIRLS starts when a house is being demolished. Five years before this house was the scene of the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. The first part of the novel takes place in the weeks after the house was demolished and is seen through the eyes of a girl who was friends with those that have gone missing. Part two of the novel takes place five years earlier and is told from another character’s point of view. This means that the novel will jump forward again.

Teenage readers have no problem with this. These techniques are used in movies and television drama to great effect. Keep my fingers crossed that I can use them to great effect as well.


Stroppy Author said...

I'm sure you can. And what a great title - sounds creepy. Frustrating that we have to wait so long to read it!

Nick Green said...

She should go to the police. Those kidnappers always say 'Don't go to the police,' because they would say that, wouldn't they? Idiots, they've just revealed the one thing they are afraid of.

Anyone who would kill a hostage because you go to the police would kill the hostage for any number of other reasons. So logic alone dictates that you *always call the police*. :-) Just saying.

(To get back to the point of the post: I wonder sometimes about the vogue for 'in media res'. I sometimes yearn for those old-fashioned kinds of stories with an extended stasis at the beginning before anything really dramatic happens. Never dared attempt that myself, mind.)

Penny Dolan said...

A relevant post, here, as I'm just juggling with a story told from far more than one character's experience and point of view.

This post gives me more confidence that the mix of scenes/chapters will make sense to the youngish tv-literate reader. Thanks.

anuncios gratis said...

Yes, always call the police

Miriam Halahmy said...

Great post Anne - you put the whole process very succinctly and looking forward to the new book.

Becca McCallum said...

Agree with Stroppy Author - title sounds intriguingly creepy!

tracy alexander said...

Really useful post for me as I'm about to start a story halfway along with no real clue how the past is going to appear - thanks