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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Question re: Long flashback dialogue from non-POV characters

   
Author Topic: Question re: Long flashback dialogue from non-POV characters
Ryan Neely
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I'm working through revisions on a Middle Grade Modern Fantasy novel about a boy whose drawings come to life and wreak havoc. The rules for the magic are very specific, but also unknown to both the reader and every character in the story ... at first (in fact, the main character doesn't even know he's using magic until almost halfway through the book -- but the reader is). Through the course of the novel, the reader and character discover the magic and its rules so, by the end, every magical event in the story has a logical explanation.

For simplicity, let me say that most of the magic is powered by the main character's intentions, both conscious and subconscious. As such, in order for the main character to draw the story's villain, he must be exposed to a good deal of information early on in the story -- in formation which will fuel his conscious and subconscious intentions while drawing the villain.

What I have discovered in running revision passes is that I have huge blocks of text, stories told through dialogue from non-POV characters to the main character. I guess I would classify these stories as a kind of flashback. (One tells the fictitious tale of a local legend about a monster who will become the story's villain, for example.) Within the first 100 pages, I have four of these types of stories. Three of them are only 250 to 500 words, but one of them spans roughly 2500 words, which is a lot.

I guess what I'm asking is ... does anyone have advice on how to handle these in-story stories told through dialogue by non-POV characters? Each are important of the main character to hear so he can use the magic properly (even if he doesn't understand that's what's happening). I guess I'm not certain if the reader must hear the stories, especially in full. I may have just answered my own question, but any suggestions would be helpful.

Thanks!

Ryan

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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How do you handle the main character's encounter with each storyteller? If they approach him, it could cause problems for you (he needs to be the actor, not the acted-upon).

If he has questions that arise from his experiences that bring him to the first storyteller, and those questions draw from the storyteller the story, that might work.

Then, if that first story creates questions that send him to the next storyteller, and his questions bring the second story out, and so on, then he is using his mind and his interest (his wants) to cause the stories to be told.

Does that make sense?

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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You might also want to separate each storytelling incident with some kind of learning experience for the main character in which what he has learned from the first story not only generates questions that lead to the next story, but also help him grow in some way, so that he needs/wants to hear the next story.

Four stories, one right after the other, can get repetitive. Break them up with action and growth. Have him try something because of what he has learned in each story, and fail in a way that helps him want to learn more.

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Ryan Neely
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Thanks Kathleen, that does help. Here's some additional information ...

The main character is Max. He and his family are on their way to their annual vacation in northern Minnesota. Max hears on the radio that there will be some extreme solar activity this week which will lead to heavy aurora activity.

First story: Max's mother tells him about his birth in the Andes under the aurora australis (prompted by the news report) -- it's important because the northern lights is part of where the magic comes from.

Time passes, there's conflict between MC and father (this is the major conflict in the story).

Then, while MC is at a gift shop searching for a souvenir he's drawn to a bear tooth pendant. The shopkeeper (a member of a native american tribe) tells him a story of how the pendant was created and how it keeps the wearer safe from harm. It's just a sales ploy for the shopkeeper, but for Max the story rests in his subconscious so, when he draws the monster, his subconscious informs the drawing that whoever wears the pendant is safe from the monster.

Time passes: More conflict with father regarding maturing, coming of age, putting aside childhood things ("being a man"), and as part of that conflict, Max chooses to stay to listen to "Story Hour" where he knows he will hear the legend of the monster he will eventually draw.

Third story: told by yet another non-POV character. This is the longest story of them all, but informs everything that goes into the creation of the monster in the next scene.

He doesn't specifically learn from each story ... yet (though he will when he finally discovers his drawings are coming to life and as he works out how to stop the monster he's created).

I suppose, in this fashion, he neither seeks out the storyteller, nor do they seek him out. (I certainly wouldn't have Pan show up out of the blue and drop some wisdom, if that was a fear.)

I'll look at the reaction/growth aspect of what you suggest and see if I can incorporate something like to break up these "stories within the story."

Thanks!

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extrinsic
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The topos (recurrent literary motif or theme across a canon or the opus) Art Initiates Life is an ancient one and one prone to derivative dilution since the unknown origins of the idea. That's a tall challenge of the type. That such a topos reinvent the idea is all but essential for narrative success. The idea has also been reinvented many times.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde; "The Oval Portrait," Edgar Allan Poe, are two examples that redirect the idea. Wilde's is Life's Wickedness Initiates Art; Poe's Art Initiates Death. A central figure of them all evolves upon the idea that art, of whatever form, portrays people and life as better or worse than they really are, most so morally better or worse.

A model or models from which to draw inspiration is worth consideration. The novel's descriptions above detail what is essentially frame-bounded nested stories. The storytellers tell the viewpoint agonist stories that shape his personal discovery journey. The frame bounds are the action that occurs between the nested storyteller episodes. The description doesn't appear to be of flashbacks so much as recollections and accounts of parables, folk tales, and fables. Many models of the type are extant across those canons: the Bible, Grimms' Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, Ovid's Metamorphoses, for examples.

Arabian Nights is a frame-bounded nested story set and the frame story is as well dramatic. The frame story agonist, Scheherazade, very much has a compelling want-problem complication that her storytelling satisfies in the end.

The matter of the stories told is secondary and congruent to Scheherazade's complication contest satisfaction. The collection, though, originated as oral tradition culture tales created and told individually from early times to teach Arabians wisdom and morality. They were later collected into volumes, scrolls, and, later yet, the frame story was appended. Aesop's Fables and Grimms' Fairy Tales do not entail such a frame story.

An essential for a frame story is the frame be at least as dramatic as its nested stories, more dramatic is best. Therefore, what does Max personally want that causes problems? Want to grow up and enjoy adulthood privileges is generic and about the mainstay of young adult fiction. Middle grade fiction's complication mainstay is first forays into unattended social life -- away from parents and guardians' supervision to a limited degree and more so among peer cohorts' social circles that are fraught with youthful vice and folly.

Still, a tangible and suitable magnitude want-problem complication and destination are warranted. An illustration, perhaps Max seeks out a dusty old tome that contains secret knowledge about the magic he later suspects he possesses. At the least, that is potentially another way Max learns about his magic ability, variant from a storyteller telling him a tale. The tome is a tangible object destination. Its intangible destination, more the journey is its own reward: he socially-morally matures on the way at some personal loss-cost, usually, for adulthood initiation tableaus, the loss of youthful innocence bliss.

The usual monster topos, too, in fact, all personas of a narrative, are dopels of a divided personality that seek some kind of reintegration into a mature whole. Defeat of a monster symbolizes mastery of humanity's wicked nature. Such a scenario then implies that each of Max's drawings that initiate life are him taking them out of himself and seeing how they act on their own, maybe gaining responsible emotional and moral control of them individually and himself collectively. The storytellers, messengers and oracles more like, too, symbolize Max's acquired and learned wisdom after the fact.

For middle grade audiences, all the above are essential matters of successful prose targeted to the age's sensibilities that will also pass parent, teacher, guardian, and other authorities' moral musters. Middle grade is a competitive prose field, as much because many writers think it's an easy in. Nope, some ways harder because of age and cognitive aptitude challenges, and because many writers think the genre is less demanding, ergo, many try their hand at middle grade that are better suited to other age audiences where morality tableaus are age-appropriate, more continuous tone shades between wicked and good extremes than middle grades' more or less duotone between one, one hung in between, and the other extreme. Primary grades, between monotone one and the other extreme.

[ January 19, 2017, 07:08 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Ryan Neely
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Thanks for your post extrinsic. There's a lot of great information there -- information which actually makes me feel better about how I'm handling these nested stories (as you call them). I hadn't heard them described in this manner before.

To answer your question ... Max's want is to attend a prestigious out-of-state art school where he can be free to draw the fantasy art he loves (something his father is dead-set against .. both the school and the fantasy art).

As for Middle Grade fiction being easy: Ha! I'd laugh at anyone who said that. This is one of the most challenging pieces I've written. I didn't choose for it to be Middle Grade, the story just arrived half-completed in my brain one morning, and with a 13 year-old protagonist, there really isn't any other place for it. (During the second draft, I tried writing it as though it were a memoir told from an adult's perspective, who was a bit jaded -- so I could make it more adult themed -- but the voice didn't fit the tone I wanted, so it's back to Middle Grade).

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extrinsic
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The more common traditional frame story is little or no drama for the frame, to establish narrator identity and authenticate the narrative, asserted, as it were, to establish the truth of the matter. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is that type of frame story.

Another type: dramatic story installments nested within a dramatic frame, like Arabian Nights.

Another, less so dramatic anecdotes, vignettes, and sketches per se interludes nested within a powerfully dramatic story. Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Have you read WATERSHIP DOWN, Ryan Neely?

There are several stories told in that novel, and it may be worth reading just to see how. (The book is worth reading anyway.)

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extrinsic
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Richard Adams' Watership Down is a more accessible powerful dramatic frame that bounds nested interlude stories than Far Tortuga's or Arabian Nights' and suits middle-grade audience fantasy modeling. The nested stories come from a variety of sources and in a variety of methods, some from a trickster dream-oracle. The nested stories' setup, follow-through, and exit transitions are especially seamless and artful. That they arise timely and dramatically, naturally when they matter to the now moment. If one model be studied, this one is more comprehensive for study of dramatic frame-bounded and nested-interlude story methods.

That Max wants to attend a far-away art school is ripe for tangible complication, problematized, antagonized, both rebellious impetus added to want and problem's subtractions from want's satisfaction, in part by his father's refusal, and, inferably, other perils and obstacles along the personal journeys exterior and interior. That school motif is also a mainstay of middle grade, a child separated from family supervision and social among nonfamily age-peers.

That Max's want is a proactive cause for separation from family, another middle grade mainstay congruent to school, is inspired, is not by happenstance or external design, is his selection self-error and design that establishes the whole action and complication satisfaction outcome end. That the school is for fantasy art is especially inspired, a deft and natural way to introduce the fantasy story type through implication without overt or rushed and forced declaration. Meantime, along with readers, Max discovers his true magic nature and the fantasy milieu of the novel.

Max's realization of his magic abilities parallels real-world youths' realization of self-reliant self-governance responsibilities and latitudes for attendant self-privileges, what the novel potentially is really about and packaged in a suitable disguise subtext. Much exquisite promise for the novel if fully realized in total, which Watership Down fulfills.

[ January 20, 2017, 04:33 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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As a narrative idea, I find this story is potentially filled with possibilities to explore middle-grader angst, such as it is. It appears to be an artful method of investigating the concepts of decision, consequence, and personal responsibility by the central character. Max finds himself confronted by two adversaries, his father and Max's desire to go to art school, and the villain he has created that I assume is engaging in all sorts of mayhem.

Generally speaking I find the concept of the nested stories as outlined a satisfactory method of moving the narrative forwards, with one exception--the first story concerning Max's origins.

Without having had the opportunity to read the opening of the proposed story, I am going to assume that the subject of the aurora and his birth comes up after the start; making it essentially a 'flash-back' hidden within dialogue in an active scene. Personally, I find the use of flash-backs, no matter how artful the attempt to conceal them, an indication of lazy writing. I am of the opinion that finding an alternative to using flash-backs always results in a better and stronger narrative. In my opinion all parts of a narrative should move the story forwards and any diversion, whether to the side, backwards, or even standing still, reduces reader engagement.

I would consider the story of Max's origin to be back-story that is 'revealed' as the story unfolds rather than recounted in an dialogue info-dump, no matter how short.

Hope this helps.

Phil.

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Ryan Neely
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Thanks, Phil. I think you'really right about Max's origin. It can either be parcelled out across the entire narrative, or (most likely) not exist at all without changing the reader's understanding of the story.

Kathleen, Watership Down has been on my TBR list for three years. I will make time to read it now. Thank you.

extrinsic: I love what you have to say here. Ithe reinforces some of my own opinions. As I've said, I will make time to read and analyze Watership Down.

Thank you all.

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extrinsic
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Meditation on the givens and implications potentials for this novel has melded several study areas for which I've burnt the midnight candle and borne fruit.

T.S. Eliot's sense of "correlative objectives" (Wikipedia), a belief serious and significant prose is both really about a human condition and of greater figurative depth than a bathtub, fantastical fiction's non-one-to-one literal to figurative and deeper subtext correspondence conventions, use of narrative models for inspiration at least to determine true design real-world analogs, plus related areas of meaning intended and expressed, gelled due to this discussion, for my current project and also a more productive general approach for other projects in my queue and languished in my trunk.

College writing program study didn't overty teach me these concepts nor their synthesis. I had said in several workshops I sought a theme or such, I don't know, some lacking feature I couldn't grasp for my own works but could touch in others' works, even if those were elusive or obtuse. Theme was the best I could lay hands on then, like an individual and nature. Requests for similar insights into my works produced refusals, along the lines of, Theme is for readers to infer, not for writers to impose on a narrative.

Inability to convey my interest area raised further otherwise pointless and refutable objections. Now, though, I know what I sought and what to do to develop a narrative's extended correlative objective, its real and true meaning and disguised subtext depths. Worth a mention that study of fantastical fiction and non-one-to-one correspondence between literal and figurative features aided the insight's realization, harder to infer than in other genres, generally, exceptions nothwithstood.

So, yay! writing discussions like these are a benefit for topic starter, writer, and contributor alike. Thank you.

[ January 21, 2017, 06:59 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Reziac
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The real question is: are these long flashbacks interesting and relevant? If so, keep them. If not (which would probably mean they're really backstory), break them up.
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