There are a lot of writing myths out there and you probably know a lot of them -- things that writers are told never to do and things they’re encouraged to do at every turn.
Like: Never use backstory in the first 50 pages of the novel. Or never use flashbacks at all. Or be sure to liberally sprinkle in sensory details in order to bring the story to life.
But if you stop for even one second to think about these myths, you instantly realize how flawed they are. To wit: You can open just about any excellent novel and find backstory and flashbacks laced throughout, beginning on the first few pages. And sensory details can spill all over the pages of a novel that goes nowhere.
In fact, I once listened to an editor tell a writer -- whose first page rambled on with no direction, offering nary a clue as to what was happening -- that it was missing was . . . wait for it . . . the sense of taste. “What would those eggs frying on the stove taste like?” she asked. Um, how exactly would letting the reader know about the soft saltiness of breakfast save the story from being a directionless, uninvolving mess?
And yet writers I’ve worked with have been told all of these things and more, in no uncertain terms, by well meaning instructors, by members of their writing group, by fellow writers.
I was thinking about that today because a writer in our Story Genius Workshop forum asked for support. Her writer’s group was giving her advice she felt was dubious, and she wondered whether it was accurate. It wasn’t.
What was the advice? It was something I’m betting you’ve heard before: “You’re giving too much away in the beginning. You need to hold back! That’s how you lure the reader in!”
No, it’s not. And yet, writers are often encouraged to withhold crucial info, under the theory that this will make readers curious, and motivate them to keep reading. Ironically, almost always the very info the writer withholds is what would lure the reader in. Especially if it’s the kind of internal thought that writers are also warned against, which is, in fact, what does rivet the reader, because that ongoing internal struggle is a novel’s most potent source of conflict.
The list of dangerous myths goes on and on -- which brings us to a crucial question: if these writing myths are so wrong, why do they persist?
• If backstory is laced into every story, often from the first page onward, why are writers told to avoid it?
• If flashbacks are everywhere, why would a writer be told never to use them?
• If “giving it all away” is something that lures readers in rather than sending them away, why are writers told not to do it?
• If internal thought is the most potent layer of story, why are writers discouraged from putting it on the page at all?
There are two reasons.
1. When done poorly, all those elements do derail a story. The same way doing anything poorly undermines success.
The trouble is, without them, stories are all but doomed to failure. Most successful stories have all four elements laced throughout their pages from beginning to end.
That can’t be true, you may be thinking, because writers aren’t encouraged to include these elements or taught how to do them well. That brings us to reason number two:
2. When done well, these four elements blend into the story so completely that the fact that they’re “flashbacks” or “internal thoughts” flies under the reader’s radar. Not because the reader is dumb or unobservant, but because the first job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of the brain that knows it IS a story, and so when we're lost in a great novel, we’re lost in the world’s first virtual reality. What we see there, what we experience, feels like life, and the last thing we can do – or want to do for that matter – is figure out how the writer created that sense of reality that we’re lost in. In other words, it is by design that we don't tend to see that that the novel is full of the very things that writers are told not to do. In fact those elements are what is brining it to life.
One of the primary things the Story Genius method does is crack open these writing myths, teach you why you need backstory and flashback, internal thought and a clear sense of what is happening, and how to get it onto the page.
And if you don’t believe me – if you find yourself holding onto one of these myths – try this:
• Go to your bookshelf and pull off a handful of your favorite novels.
• Grab some Post-It notes – those little transparent flags are perfect for this.
• Read the first five pages and flag anywhere you see backstory (a character’s history or primary way of thinking about the world), flashback (an actual memory or scene from a character’s past), internal thought (a character trying to make sense of her situation or her world), or information about what is going to happen in this story (where it’s heading, what it’s about, that is, what we will be tracking as we read forward).
If you don’t have flags all over those pages, email me. Seriously do. Till then, here’s to the power of story – yours!