Show Don’t Tell: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

Show Don’t Tell: A Golden Rule of Writing for Aspiring Authors

One of the trickier ‘golden rules of great writing’ that can be difficult to understand and execute is the ‘show don’t tell’ rule.

Anton Chekhov wrote, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

What does it mean to show not tell?

It’s the technique of painting a picture for the reader rather than spelling out what a character is sensing or feeling.

When should we use the ‘show don’t tell’ rule?

Generally, when we’re writing about emotions and senses, showing works well. However, we need a balance of showing and telling in a text. Telling is more effective when we’re summarizing backstory or describing action.

Why should we use it?

When we show, we paint an image for the reader (like in movies) so the reader gets to interpret and feel his or her own emotional response. This is how we create rich, vivid text that is open to interpretation. It makes writing inviting, not didactic.

E.g. She was grief struck (telling) versus ‘Something cold flickered inside her, memories of her mother moved like minnows beneath a dark surface.’(showing)

When we ‘show’ we leave spaces for the reader to fill in with his or her imagination.

The movie director, David Mamet talks about ‘telling the story in cuts…through a juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected…a shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, ‘you’ll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.’ It’s unimportant that the audience should guess why it’s important to the story. It’s important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised.’

Telling robs the reader of his or her own emotional take on the situation. It flattens instead of expands the text.

‘She is lonely’ versus ‘She looks for a kind face but never sees one.’

When we ‘show’ we’re letting the reader in, we’re writing for the reader. Showing opens rather than closes the text.

‘He felt hot’ versus ‘Large half moons of sweat grew at his armpits.’

The writer Adam Robinson’s exercise for showing not telling is: drop an adjective into a sentence like this ‘He was so….. that he once.’ Or ‘the day was so cold that…’ Then delete the first half of the sentence.

Have fun experimenting.

Keep writing – the sentences you don’t write keep you where you are. The ones you do, take you places.

PS: Show Don’t Tell is just one key element of writing. For more tips and exercises to strengthen your craft, sign up for my 7 Day Free Writing Challenge.

Join the 7 Day FREE Writing Challenge

 

This writing journey over one week will serve those who are new to writing and don’t know where to begin or what to write about. As well as seasoned writers, we all need to reignite an old flame with words to see if there’s any chemistry.

Join me for my next 7 Day Free Writing Challenge and learn simple but profound writing tricks.

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Getting Lost in Our Own Bullsh*t – the Excuses We Use to Not Write

Getting Lost in Our Own Bullsh*t – the Excuses We Use to Not Write

Honestly I’ve heard them all. Hell, I’ve used them all.

I’ve had ten books published, have six or seven partially-written manuscripts saved in three different computers and dozens of journals, have mentored hundreds of writers, and even published a few through Joanne Fedler Media. There isn’t a ‘why-I-can’t-write’ excuse I haven’t cross-examined close-up.

But I’m at the stage of life where I’m over my own – and other people’s – bullsh*t.  We just don’t have the kind of time these excuses waste.

Here are some of the guises we use to duck and weave out of writing:

1. ‘And how shall I begin?

Most of us never get past the thought, ‘I’d love to write.’ Why? Because we don’t know where to start. We just want someone to point out the entrance as if there is only one. The truth is you can start anywhere. Where you start writing and where your book or story begins are not one and the same. You do not need to know where your book begins until if you’re lucky, your sixty-fourth rewrite.  I’m telling you this because you need to hear it – dilly-dallying over where to begin is your way of delaying your dream of being a writer. 

2. ‘I’m stuck.’

Anyone – and this is true – can write a good opening chapter. It’s what happens after that, that counts. We may get stuck after a couple of chapters and don’t know how to move through the sludgy bits beyond the honeymoon phase. This is where infatuation becomes real intimacy. This is where we have to navigate ‘the seven-chapter roadblock.’ First – get clear on why you’re writing. Second, connect with your character or the message of your book. Third, keep writing. Or stay stuck. It’s up to you. 

3. ‘I can’t finish this.

At the outset we don’t realise there are stages to the writing process. Finishing can be the trickiest part. Finishing is about architecture, pace, consistency, the structure of revelation and pulling the narrative threads together in a way that is satisfying to a reader. Finishing strong is as important as starting powerfully. But perhaps we don’t want to finish because it means letting go of the ‘story’ (read: pain/trauma/narrative and the identity we’ve formed around them). Not finishing can be our way of staying in the same place. This is where we take a deep breath and face whatever fears finishing brings up for us. And then we finish. 

4. ‘My writing is unoriginal and clichéd.’

Our first thoughts are usually clichés. To get to the good stuff, we have to dig a little. For this we need a shovel to dig through the fluff – the platitudes, the one-dimensionality to access what is buried, hidden and utterly enthralling.  As writers our job is to go deeper, to arrive someplace interesting that takes patience to get to. Do not make readers read something they already know, like, ‘When people we love die, we feel sad.’ Like, really? What else do we feel? What emotions are layered into sorrow, and how can we express them?

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

5. ‘I’ll never get published.

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Worrying about getting published before we’ve started writing is premature, and immature. Everything in its time. Getting published is at the ‘mastery’ end of the writing game when we are still novices. Anticipating ‘failure’ before we’ve even attempted to learn the craft or get a first draft on the page is our way of talking ourselves out of the joy of the journey. It’s like deciding not to live because someday we’re going to die. Yes, but so? Let’s not be obdurate and miss the point on purpose.

6. ‘I don’t have a big vocabulary and my grammar is terrible.’

You don’t need to be academically smart or have a huge vocabulary to be a writer. You can be dyslexic, have ADHD, be a quadriplegic or even blind and still be a bloody good writer. Great writing comes from great feeling and being willing to be vulnerable on the page. As Bukowski says, ‘Stop insisting on clearing your head – clear your fucking heart instead.’ (But – and I cannot be dissuaded on this point – there is ZERO excuse for not being a great reader, which you must be to be a writer).

7. ‘There are things I don’t want to write about.

Fine. Try and not write about them. What you will find is that they sneak under the doorway, whisper through the keyholes and trickle through the cracks in the walls anyway. Everything we resist, appears in our writing either consciously or unconsciously. It’s our choice how we want to work with our ghosts and demons. But they will insist on getting in one way or another. Remember too, that we can only take a reader as deep as we are willing to go – writers are guides, and so the writing journey is about how fearless we are able to be with ourselves. We never have to write about our pain, but we have to write from it. Which often means writing about the things we don’t want to write about either to get them out of the way, only to discover that they really are the things we need to write about.

8. ‘I can’t decide–’

… whether to write fiction, non-fiction, short-stories or poetry. I can’t choose a name for my main character or decide where or when the story takes place.

Writing is about making decisions. It demands commitment. It’s not for the wishy-washy. Make a decision and move on. You can always come back and change your mind later if your initial decision doesn’t work. Don’t get stuck because you can’t decide whether your protagonist should be called Wayne or Wilfred. Really, don’t.

What other excuses do you have?

Whatever shape they take, label them for what they are – excuses. They are bullsh*t and you are bigger than your own bullsh*t.

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Can I Show You How to Begin?

Can I Show You How to Begin?

Can I show you how to begin?

Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.
—Enid Bagnold

Some of us are better sharers than others.

I happen to be a good sharer (with limits on my capacity to share my bed, my toothbrush and a few other personal effects).

Becoming a writer – and then an author – has been ‘the answer to everything’ for me. I want to share it with as many people as I can. It arouses the same impulse in me as witnessing whales breaching and rallying passers-by to ‘Look, can you see them?’

Yet I know that many of us suffer – as TS Eliot’ protagonist in The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock does – of anxiety about where and how to begin.

We second guess ourselves, over-analyse and get stuck in the ‘how’ instead of just throwing ourselves wildly into the relationships and situations we long for.

Plato wrote in The Republic, The beginning is the most important part of the work.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Of course, without beginning, there is nothing more to speak of. Beginning, therefore, is everything.

Because I know what a big obstacle this is for many beginner writers, I’ve been working on a solution to help you navigate beyond the ‘where and how to begin’ roadblock.

Infographic | How to BeginBelow, you’ll find a map – an infographic – which will ask you to identify whether you’re working on fiction, memoir or self-help and will then guide you to the essential questions you need to tackle as a starting point for each one.

This may be enough to ease you into beginning. Just focus on answering those questions, and let the writing take you where it wants to.

If you find that you need supporting tools or materials to answer these essential questions, I’ve suggested a few different resources you can find on my website to help you. Each writing journey is unique, and depending on the book you’re writing, some tools are more useful than others.

I hope this infographic helps you to begin whatever you’ve been holding off on starting.

Begin, for half the deed is in beginning;
Begin the other half, and you will finish.
—Ausonius

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How to Write a Book: A Focus on Conviction

How to Write a Book Part 1: A Focus on Conviction

I have a friend whose ex-husband drove an Uber for a while. As soon as there was a surge, he’d drop everything, and jump into his car to take advantage of the higher fee. It caused chaos in their family life. She described it like a drug or gambling addiction. He responded to the surge notification with a dopamine hit and bolted out the door no matter whether they were in the middle of a family meal or socializing with friends.

As creative people, we have to be super vigilant about becoming reliant on externally generated dopamine hits, like the uber surge notification, to feed our creative process. Applause. Awards. Publishing deals. Facebook likes. Retweets. While it’s important to get feedback and to know that our work is connecting with an audience, I believe this validation must defer to something far more reliable. We cannot outsource self-trust, or what I call, conviction.

I know creative people who make a career out of self-doubt. They are always looking for someone else to tell them they’re good enough, or they have permission or they should give up their day job and go full tilt into their passion. Only if someone (in this case, a publishing house) tells them they can write a book, do they believe it (and not for long – this kind of feedback fetish requires ongoing maintenance – the ego, after all is a hungry ghost).

This distrust of self becomes a creative stutter.

So the first strength I teach aspiring authors who want to write and publish a book is this: self belief. It trumps so called ‘talent.’ It’s the foundation of finding your writing voice. And once you hold it energetically, it becomes a guardian of the creative process. Think of it this way: if you do not fundamentally believe you have something worth saying, it doesn’t matter how much of the craft you learn. You’ll never put anything you’ve written out there. What will people say and think?

What gets in the way of conviction is a complex matrix of self-limiting ideas and beliefs, including perfectionism, jealousy, comparison, people-pleasing, attachment to approval, vagueness and indecisiveness, playing small, taking feedback personally, hesitation, small-mindedness, feeling victimized by your life or circumstances and a fixed (as opposed to growth) mindset.

My signature Author Awakening Adventure shows writers how to self-diagnose if they suffer from a lack of conviction, and then elucidates the steps to take to harness self-assurance, a robust sense of self worth and self-esteem. I teach people to reframe ‘mistakes,’ ‘shames’ and ‘failures’ as rich repositories for their stories and their creative process. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote in his poem ‘Last night as I was sleeping,’ we have to ‘make sweet honey from old failures.’ What else could all our beautiful broken pieces be for?

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

We begin by shifting our consciousness from ruthless self-critique to radical self-compassion. Once when I was spiraling into self pity about some terrible mothering mistake I had made my husband told me to ‘stop beating myself up just because it was my fault.’ Humour is a great reframer. When we can laugh – even giggle out loud – at ourselves, we lighten up. The paradox is that it’s only when we stop taking ourselves so seriously, that we actually begin to take ourselves seriously as a creative person.

The greatest strength we develop in the creative life is self-trust.

You produce something and you feel it: wow, that works. That really works.

It requires us to engage in self celebrating behaviour. To say yes to our writing. To say no to bullshit. To burrow into our intuition and to listen to its song.

I have known traditional success (book deals, #1 Amazon best sellers, international best sellers) and I have known their ugly twins – the ‘failures,’ the ‘we’re-pulping-your-book’ emails, the shitty one star reviews on Amazon. If I were to measure my worth as a writer based on either of these, I’d be flirting with the same devil – both are false positives.

Success cannot be something we let others define for us.

One of my books, Love in the Time of Contempt: consolations for parents of teenagers sold much more poorly than I had hoped, only a few thousand copies. I was bitterly disappointed given how much work I had put into not only the writing, but the launch – I’d run a campaign called A Million Connected Parents, given away free copies of the book to early adopters – it had taken up six months of my life and I invested my entire advance into the campaign.

A year after publication, long after I had gotten over the disappointment, I received an email from a woman in Korea, who wrote:

Dear Joanne,

Hello from Korea.

I have read your book(love in time of contempt)

And I’d like to say thank you so much.

I’m a mother of 32 months’ kids.

My daughter is so far until teenager.

But I was helped you.

Sometimes I left her in another room for punishment

Recently I think It’s not good.

But I don’t know how to do

In your book, I found answer.

After reading your book, I stand beside her.

It’s very good.

Thanks, Fiona

There is no algorithm that guarantees that any book will succeed or sell. So we cannot judge ourselves or our book by how it sells.

What this has taught me is that I can’t allow others to decide what value I place on my book. Not a publisher. Not reviewers. Not even buyers. You, the author, must love your book. It must be your beloved, for whom you would do anything.

When we have conviction, we don’t allow others to define what success means. Royalties are wonderful – we all want them – and godknows, authors bloody deserve them. But a book has more than commercial value in this world if it changes someone’s life.

‘In your book, I found answer…’

If you’d like to take the Author Potential Profile Assessment to see how you score on conviction, you can do so here.

If you’re ready to take your self-belief to new heights and to join the Author Awakening Adventure, you can pre-enrol for our next intake here.

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Mistakes to Avoid When You Write a Self-Help Book

Mistakes to Avoid When You Write a Self-Help Book

I’m such a huge fan of a great self-help book which can raise our vibrational frequency if the author wrote it with energetic integrity – not from a place of ego, but rather as a transmitter of wisdom and as an act of service to the reader. A book like this is often the hard-won result of the author’s struggles, and is imbued with wisdom, perspective, insight and compassion. Such books help readers to suffer less and feel less alone in their suffering.

Writing a self-help book can be a gift to readers that can potentially transform them. I’ve read hundreds of them (some brilliant, some awful) and have read numerous submissions by aspiring authors looking for publication with Joanne Fedler Media. Based on my experience, here are some guidelines to help you write a self-help book:

  • Establish your credibility upfront: your credibility may be the result of an experience you have survived or because of your professional expertise. Tell us upfront what your story is and why and how you came to write this book. Readers want to know they are in safe hands – they want to know who the author is, what credentials we have for writing this book – professional, experiential;
  • Start with your experience, not the lessons learned: your experience has yielded your insights – so start with your experience, not the ‘lessons’ or ‘insights’ you learned from them. Allow your reader to experience your transformation with you, and allow them to journey towards your insights instead of foisting them on your readers;
  • Be clear on who your target market is and write with your reader in mind: People who are not your family will only be interested in your book if it is objectively uplifting and inspiring. It’s not enough for you to simply record what you went through – what insights or growth occurred as a result of your experience?
  • Just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it relevant to others: be sure to write about your journey in such a way that you cross the bridge between the personal (what happened to you) with the universal (why it’s relevant to your reader);
  • Let your reader walk in your shoes to get to the transformation: though you may be at the end of your transformation, remember that your reader has not traversed that path with you. Pace and structure the book so your reader has a chance to ‘catch up’ and experience the transition, walk through the highs and lows with you. Otherwise the journey you describe may seem fanciful or ‘reserved for spiritual VIP’s only.’ If your book is about grief, make sure the reader is allowed to experience the grief, otherwise the strength of the transformation is lost, or is leap-frogged over, and becomes a spiritual bypassing, which can feel unprocessed;
  • Show us your journey, don’t just tell us what you learned: show your reader what actions you took, what conversations happened, in order to show us how you ‘changed your mind’ or a had a ‘realisation’ or an ‘insight.’ It’s not enough to say, ‘I realised… I was being watched over / I couldn’t control the outcome / I had to surrender / I was in control of how I felt…’ etc. Show us the transformation (from fear to faith, illness to health, grief to acceptance) and make sure you keep your reader with you through the transition otherwise she will be unable to identify with it. Use scenes in order to show us the moments in which you changed;
Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

  • Don’t rush: in the wake of a loss or a change, writing can be cathartic and healing but it is not going to be the writing that you want to share with the world. A self-helpbook about any meaningful experience can only be written in time. I am a great believer in letting things take their time and not rushing the river, especially the river of loss and grief. Its insights are often startling, but we need patience to harvest them. A self-help book should be a wise guide by someone with expanded perspective – make sure you have given yourself enough time and space to process your experience before writing about it. A story can only be written when an experience has worked its way through us, when it has been deeply digested, richly conceived;
  • Your beliefs don’t make us trust you: what you believe is irrelevant unless it is based on your experience – so show us a story which gives us a reason to trust your beliefs. What you believe does not in itself establish credibility. As my favourite character The Dude in The Big Lebowski says, ‘That’s just like, your opinion, man.’ And you know what they say about opinions… Readers need to trust us for our opinions to hold weight;
  • Beware of self-help cliches: anyone who has done any self-help work knows the basic tenets of living a responsible, empowered life: don’t be attached to the outcome, don’t be a victim, practice kindness, gratitude, meditation, slow down, actions have consequences and so on. By focusing on the same universal truths, self-help books run the risk of repeating spiritual clichés which lose their lustre and fail to inspire us because they are so over-used. They must therefore offer something new or original to a reader– even simply a new framework or a reshaping of these ideas. When it comes to self help, a reader needs to feel the nuance of our different take even as we express the same time-honoured truths, so remember that you have enough experience and credibility to reinvent and reinterpret universal spiritual lessons;
  • Quote others sparingly: you don’t need to bolster your views with other self-help gurus: quoting Brandon Bays or Eckhard Tolle or Deepak Chopra doesn’t give your ideas more weight. In fact, quoting others dilutes the strength of your originality. Also, who cares? This is your book, not theirs. And if you do use quotes, be aware that you need copyright permission for them all if you are to publish;
  • Speak to your readers as equals not from a podium: one of the biggest mistakes I see people make in writing self-help books is in the tone or style – if it comes across as didactic, it’s easy to lose your reader. Keep the tone self-compassionate not patronizing or self-aggrandizing. Nobody likes to be lectured to or spoken down to, and even if we don’t intend this, our tone might still come off as if we’re a ‘know-it-all.’ Bring us with you, don’t preach. This will happen naturally when you find your original writing voice so spend time working towards that;
  • Be original: create your own unique framework based on your experience. No-one has had the experience you have had, and so you are in a unique position to create an alchemy from it, combined with all the spiritual reading or research you’ve done and come up with your own framework, recipe or ideas. Be creative and original. Figure out the through-line or overarching theme that ties everything together;
  • Simplify your message: boil the message of your book down to one single paragraph, then one sentence then one phrase or even one word so that you know the message of your book simply and concisely.

How to Write a Self-Help Book

Are you writing a self-help book? Do you know what the two essential elements of a self-help book are? Do you know how to structure it?

If not, this step-by-step manual will guide you through the writing so you can share your message with the world. In it I teach you the essential structure every self-help book must follow, how to incorporate the rules of storytelling into your writing to engage your audience and how to ensure that you deliver on the promise your book is making to your reader.

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On Backstory, Flashbacks and Character Memories

On Backstory, Flashbacks and Character Memories

Writing question: When and how do I use backstory, flashbacks and character memories?

To bring a character to life, to make them complex, sympathetic and richly conceived, they need context and history. We want to know where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced and witnessed. Knowing a villain was an abandoned orphan gives the reader a completely different emotional reaction to a character.

There are three tools we have as writers to achieve this:
1. Backstory
2. Flashback
3. Character memories

When we write, there are two tracks we are working with: the front story and the back story. These are two different stories and we can think of them as parallel lines, that at some point, will intersect and bring the two stories together.

So we see a character trying to do something in the front story, say, lose weight, or help her client get out of an abusive relationship, or get her daughter to talk to her after she has lost her boyfriend (examples from some of my books).

For each of these, there will be a parallel backstory: leaving a homeland to escape violence; losing a baby brother as a child; a date rape when she was a young woman. These are different stories from the character’s past and ostensibly, have nothing to do with the front story. Of course, these backstories provide our characters with their backstory wound – the piece of their history puzzle that helps the reader to understand them emotionally, their motivations, their fears, their longings. So it is vitally important that these backstories are as completely formed as the front story.

Backstory, however is often buried, and slowly revealed. This is a masterful way of releasing your character onto the page so that your reader is gently brought into emotional synchronicity with a character she or he may not fully understand upfront. When I teach writing character, I talk about each character having a ‘secret’ – this is often their backstory wound.

We want our reader to know that our character has something tucked away in his or her past that is painful, and we may offer clues, and subliminally suggest the secret through setting, or object placement or significance, or symbolism. Sometimes we don’t know yet what our character’s backstory wound is when we begin (this happened to me when I wrote Things Without A Name -I only worked it out eight months after I began to write the book.) We may not even fully comprehend what that backstory wound is when writing memoir. Often, in the writing, we stumble across a memory that we identify in the words of Leonard Cohen as ‘the place where the suffering began.’

When we write fiction, generally we want to begin with the front story – the action. The mistake many of us make is to begin with backstory or to get into backstory too soon. Think of that as ‘over-explaining.’  If we can hold off from bringing in backstory for the first few chapters, we give our readers a chance to ‘get into the story,’ to get caught up in the character’s conflict, and to care about the character’s predicament. We should aim to stay true to the front storyline for a good few chapters before we stray into history.

Often writers resort to backstory because their front story is not strong enough. So watch out for that. If the backstory is stronger than the front story, it may be your main story. Backstory is there to provide insight to the reader and to show our character’s wounding and motivation for their behaviour in the front story. This allows our readers to deeply connect with and understand our character. It is the ‘why’ of your story – why your character is the way he or she is and will be deeply connected to the themes of your book.

How can we bring in backstory? We insert it in what our character says. It slips into conversation; it pushes its way through into the front story.

E.g. ‘Ughh,’ Janet shuddered. ‘I don’t ever want to go back there again.’ Beads of sweat broke out on her brow.

‘You okay?’ Trent asked.

‘I thought I was done with that place. Happiness never had a chance there.’

At some point we will have to employ a flashback to reveal to our reader what happened to Janet ‘there.’

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are stories from the character’s past where we take our readers back into a moment from our character’s lives. They might be moments from childhood, or scenes from another relationship. They must of course be thematically linked to the plot of your front story. They must shed some light or insight into the main story. A flashback is a dedicated scene which you enter and exit. It can be a stand alone chapter.

Some flashbacks are subplots and may work tangentially to the main story. Some will be directly related to the backstory. We don’t stumble into a flashback. They are clearly employed. Flashbacks will have their own emotional arcs and may even be paradoxically inclined against the main theme. E.g. if your main theme is betrayal, we may have a backstory moment where your character trusted someone for the first time.

Example: Chapter 68 from my book Things Without A Name
Chapter 68: Suitcase

‘It’s only for a few weeks,’ my mother said to me. She was standing next to a large brown suitcase on wheels. Nonna was holding my hand, tightly, as though I was a kite the wind might rip from her grasp at any moment.
‘But that’s a long time,’ I said. ‘Seven days in a week, times by a few is about fourteen or fifteen or even more . . .’
‘You’re my clever girl,’ my mother said, kissing the top of my head. ‘I just need to go and have a bit of time to myself . . . to . . . feel better . . .’
‘Are you feeling sick?’ I asked her.
‘A little. I’ve got a sore place in my heart, and I have to go and get it better, so I can be a good mother to you and Liberty.’
‘But you are a good mother,’ I said.
My mother’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Darling girl,’ she said in a whisper.
‘Please don’t go, Mummy,’ I said. I felt Nonna’s grip on my hand tightening.
‘I have to.’
‘I promise I’ll be good if you stay . . . What if you don’t come back?’ I asked her.
‘I will be back, and when I do, I will be much stronger, and a mummy has to be strong, for her children . . . and besides, Dad, Nonna and Nonno Antonio will be here too, so you will have lots of people to look after you.’
‘Si,’ Nonna said.
I reached out to my mother, pulling my hand from Nonna’s, and clung to her. I buried my face in her skirt which smelled of the heart-break of tangerine and honeysuckle.
Gently, she untangled me. Holding my hand, she led me to the cupboard in the lounge room where she opened the chess set she had got as a little girl. She removed the black queen and held it out to me.
‘I have a very important job for you—will you look after my black queen while I’m gone? Mummy needs her black queen, it’s her lucky charm, it always helps her win. Will you keep her safe and give her back to me when I come back?’
I took the black queen from her and closed my fist around it. It felt hard and cold in my palm. I clutched it for dear life.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Character Memories

We can also employ the technique of character memories where our characters reveal themselves, their vulnerabilities, their stories through remembering their past. These moments will often happen in scenes where a character is sharing something from his or her past with another character. It’s a moment of vulnerability for our character. Our character may choose to share a secret, a story, a memory with another character. They tell us the story in their own words, using dialogue.

Here is an example from chapter 79 from my book Things Without A Name (warning, spoiler alert)

‘I also made a mistake,’ he says so quietly I wonder whether I have conjured it.

‘It was just another ordinary night out with our friends . . . We were hanging out at this bar called Friskies because we’d heard there was a team of Spanish netballers who were coming there after training. Noah was into Spanish girls. He was even taking classes. Just hearing Spanish made him horny. When you’re eighteen, you don’t think about anything except what’s under that little netball skirt. Like how many you’ve actually had, who’s driving . . . if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist . . .’

I am holding my breath.

‘I didn’t see that Merc coming,’ he says. ‘I swear to God . . . I didn’t even see it.’

I let out a sigh. I sniff.

‘I didn’t see it . . .’

‘You didn’t,’ I say.

‘Trouble with mistakes is that they’re like things underwater. You can’t tell if they’re big or small or near or far, until you stick your hand in, and what seemed far away is actually near . . . little things . . . like forgetting to indicate.’ He exhales a little puff of what could have been a laugh in a different story. ‘Most of the time, you’ll get hooted at for that. Worst case—you get called an asshole . . . I got to bury my brother . . . the one person I loved and would have died for . . . I guess that’s what they call irony . . . except it’s my life.’

I take this information in, a tainted bequest, and clasp it close like a struggling creature. It beats against the walls of my ribs. It hurts.

‘We all make mistakes, Faith . . .’

I have nothing I can give him back that words can hold so I just sit in the silence. But I reach into it, and press my unlovely fingers on the source of his bleed, and I hold them there. He is quiet. For the first time since I was a little girl sitting birdwatching with my father, silence becomes a holding place, like water where things shift in suspension and not something that happens to you, forcing itself on you so that you are never the same again.

I hear him exhale. And then he says to me, ‘Maybe it’s time for you to think about doing something that isn’t so stressful.’

‘You just don’t like my chewed-up nails,’ I say.

‘I’ll match your chewed up nails and raise you an abdominal scar.’

I chuckle.

‘I’ll come and help you to scrub it off later,’ he says.

So now we’re having a date to remove misogynist graffiti from my car windscreen.

In my world, this is what is called making progress.

*****

We can use character memories in an interesting way – we can let the character ‘tell the memory’ in one way, and then we can write a flashback where the memory is told from a different point of view or with a different interpretation. This will allow our reader to question the credibility of the character, and if the main character is the narrator, he may subsequently become an ‘unreliable narrator,’ as our readers won’t be sure whether he is trustworthy or not. Our character may reveal himself as a liar, exaggerator or victim depending on how he chooses to talk about a memory. This in itself, sheds light on the character’s backstory – who he is as a result of what has happened to him.

Have fun exploring and experimenting with these writing techniques to build up a complex character with a rich and interesting history you reveal slowly and strategically depending on the emotional journey you want to take your reader on.

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