Linear Storytelling

One thing that a lot of people might notice about the way I tell stories is that sometimes they are not linear. In books like THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING, A SURPLUS OF LIGHT, JACOB MICHAELS IS TIRED (the whole series, really), and the forthcoming BETWEEN ENZO & THE UNIVERSE, I jump around in the timeline of events that comprise the story. It’s just a thing I do from time to time, though I am certainly not the first or last to do it.

Some stories require that you start at the beginning, tell the middle, then give the conclusion. They make the most sense this way. They require that they unfurl from the beginning to the end with no sidesteps or detours. That’s how they make the most sense and deliver the biggest impact. It’s the standard for writing a story. Or, at least, what is most common. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I write linear stores more often than not, as do most writers, I feel.

However, some stories are dependent on knowing information about the characters that might have been learned years before the actual story takes place. For example, in THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING, the story of two boys being involved in a sexual assault at summer camp intersects with the story about one of the boys dealing with the aftermath over the years that follow. The story spans the course of about 6 years. Trying to tell a story like that in a linear fashion would probably create a book that is so long no one would want to read it. Not every day or detail in those years between the assault and the road to possible recovery have to do with the story itself. Some people, regardless of the enormity of a particular event in their life, still have many boring, normal days. So…what does one do?

You hit the highlights. You touch on the things that have the most impact on a story and give it the most emotional gravity. See what I did there?

People will tell you to start at the beginning and tell a story. But a story is full of beginnings and endings. Life is full of beginnings and endings. The only true beginning to a lived life is birth, and unless your story is about the birth of a character, you can’t really use that as a focal point. In writing a story, the writer gets to decide where the beginning truly is for the character. Again, as an example, I decided in THE GRAVITY OF NOTHING to use the beginning of Tom’s recovery. I also chose to never show the true ending to the story, but that is unimportant.

I told the story of Tom’s recovery, and I went non-linear in explaining why he needed to recover. There were flashbacks and memories and false memories (Tom’s an Unreliable Narrator), leading the reader through the beginning of recovery, and what led to Tom’s need to recover in the first place, simultaneously over the course of those 6 years covered in the story. I wanted the reader to feel as confused and broken as Tom, to understand how a person gets into such a headspace in the first place. However, I didn’t want the reader to feel that it was as simple as: this happened, then this happened, then this, then that, so on and so forth. Because Tom couldn’t think in those terms, why should the reader have that luxury?

Writing in a non-linear fashion isn’t easy, but it is not incredibly difficult. If you are a Plotter, you can still easily outline a non-linear story. Outline it in a linear fashion, then jumble up the events. Tell them in the order that makes the most sense to give the reader the biggest jolt. But, whatever you do, don’t be afraid to tell a story in the sequence that makes the most sense for the characters and the plot.

Sometimes, non-linear storytelling gives your characters the respect they deserve, and your readers the experience they’ll enjoy most.

To my American readers and friends – Happy (early) Thanksgiving. I hope that you will be the spending the day with people you love and love you back…and of course, that you will eat until you nearly explode! To my non-American friends, I still hope your upcoming Thursday is full of love and delicious food!

Tremendous Love & Thanks,

Chase

How Do You Run From What’s Inside Your Head?

In the last few months, my life has gotten a little hectic. Of course, Halloween just passed us by and Thanksgiving and Christmas are upon us, so that makes things even more intense. A writer has writing/editing to worry about, day jobs, pets, partners–and I’ve been taking furthering education classes and trying to get more exercise and having more of a social life. Not to mention all of the little appointments and responsibilities (chores, doctors, grocery shopping, and whatnot) we all have to deal with each day.

Because of this, I’m constantly tired, often frustrated, irritable, and threatening to run away at any given time of the day.

That’s just life, right?

All of us writers don’t stop being human beings with lives to lead once we start writing and/or publish a book. Or two books, three books…

In a funny way, all of life’s daily frustrations and being a writer keeps me from losing my cool from one minute to the next. One second I’ll be about to blow my lid and snap at someone…and then I realize that these emotions are helping me to understand the human experience more. How is that not helpful in writing multi-layered and believable characters?

That thought always comes to me when I feel that my emotions are going to creep into “extreme” territory. Whether that is extreme joy, extreme anger, extreme frustration…feeling those things and understanding what is causing them helps me to create characters that readers feel more connected to in my stories.

It especially helps when having characters interacting with each other in scenes. Writing over the top characters (especially villains) is incredibly easy to do, but unless a writer is trying to write something over the top or campy, readers might be turned off by this. For example, Ursula from The Little Mermaid is a classic villain…but it would get old really quickly if every character was that…fabulous?

Knowing the nuances of human emotion and what causes people to experience different levels of certain emotions is integral to writing believable characters. If you haven’t lived, you probably can’t write–unless you are very good at observing others and have an innate intuitiveness that informs your writing.

If I were to give a writer advice for how to create believable characters, I would simply say: “Live.” Live especially when it hurts, when you’re angry, when you’re frustrated, when you’re in love, when your heart is broken, when you feel alone, when you feel celebrated, when you feel like a pariah…experience life in all its ups and downs. And you will know how to create any character you need.

But don’t forget what I said – Life is a uniquely internal experience. Each of us have our own version of what it means to live and what life is about. Don’t forget to (discreetly) watch and listen to other people. You will learn so much from watching and listening to people when they don’t realize you are doing it.

Tremendous Love & Thanks,

Chase

Talk, Talk, Talk

We had a big month on Chase Connor Books in October, huh? Let’s get back to talking about writing, though, shall we?

Recently, I was working on a scene for a book and I was struggling with the dialogue between two characters. These are two characters who are very familiar with each other, have shared intimacy, and are in no way strangers. Yet, I struggled to make their exchange seem natural.

When two people have known each other for years, have been intimate with each other, and know practically everything about each other, why would they struggle to speak to each other? Wouldn’t those be the easiest interactions to write? Why would two people struggle to have a normal conversation?

Okay. I know I sound insane since we’re discussing two fictional characters here, but sometimes the characters in a writer’s head step out for a cigarette and the writer finds it difficult to summon them back. I know these characters aren’t real…but they feel real. At least, a writer would want their characters to feel real to the reader.

Forcing myself to stop and consider the scene, what my characters were actually talking about, I realized that I needed to approach the scene like I would real life. If I want my characters to feel like real people to the readers, maybe I should consider how two real people would speak.

When two real, live people, who have known each other a long time, have a conversation, it is not structured like a normal conversation. For example, imagine a husband coming downstairs after a good night’s rest to find his wife sitting on the couch, cuddling their dog:

Husband: *yawns* Mornin’.

Wife: *petting dog* Good morning.

Husband: Coffee?

Wife: Not yet.

Husband: Should I?

Wife: Please. Love you.

Husband: Mm. Love you, too.

A husband and wife wouldn’t say things like “Good morning! How are you today?” and “Is there any coffee made? Do you want me to make some?” They read each other’s verbal and physical cues. They are attuned to each other’s ways of thinking and processing information, so they can communicate with minimal words.

Formal dialogue between characters only makes sense if the characters are meeting for the first time, are unfamiliar with each other, are business associates, or something similar.

So, I realized that I needed to drop the accepted rules for how two people interact in a socially acceptable, polite way. I had to throw out the rules of etiquette.

Writers often forget (for fear of what people might say) that dialogue between characters generally does not have many rules. It just needs to feel natural. Dialogue should be written the way that characters “speak” – not the way that rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling tell us they should. It is okay to write “somethin'” instead of “something,” for example.

When it comes to dialogue, make sure the reader will read it the way your characters would sound when they “speak.” It’s one of the easiest ways to get your readers to understand and relate to your characters.

Tremendous Love & Thanks,

Chase