Once upon a time, there was a self-publishing podcast from which sprung the Facebook group The Smarter Artist. To create a platform where indie-writers could meet like-minded editors, a bunch of editors within this group of writers created the spin-off group The Smarter Artist Editors. Long story short, a dedicated few started a weekly thread sharing editing tips with the community, and we’re now ready to share these tips with the world.
Today, I’m sharing a tip from myself.
Today, I want to discuss the challenge of combining different periods of your characters’ lives into a single book.
This tip is inspired by a novel I’m currently editing. Within the novel, three moments or periods within the main character’s life are brought up. The novel starts out switching between the main character after a certain event (the boy’s experiences after that event are summed up in the title), and flashbacks leading up to that particular event. Halfway through the book, the author suddenly switches to the MC turning 18, with the rest of the book containing a few flashbacks to those earlier periods.
Why am I bringing this up? Not because it’s not done to have multiple periods or moments of a character’s life in a story. I’m bringing this up because of the way this author went about these three different periods or moments.
Humans are creatures of habit, and this is why readers will begin to expect certain patterns in the early pages of each book. Because of the way this particular story is set up (going back between right after the event and leading up to it), this is the expectation that is being created: the story will switch back between the main story and what led up to that period in the character’s life. That the reader will see that later period, the period happening right after the event, as the main story is aided by the title, since it describes that particular period in the main character’s life.
Halfway through the story, from one chapter to the next, the main character is suddenly 7 years older. That, too, isn’t necessarily not done, but because the expectation has already been created that the main story is about that phase of the boy’s life after the event, there’s a large chance this will throw the reader off. Especially since, at the very end of the story, it also becomes clear that this book is the first in a series, and that the series will continue on from where book 1 ends, with the main character being 18 years old.
In hindsight, the reader thus learns that the main story was never that period right after the event, it was always the boy being 18 years old and going on a quest to discover what has happened to him exactly when he was 11 years old. Because both periods are given approximately the same amount of pages, the question arises what the book is truly about. For this story, it would have helped if the book had set out with the character turning 18, and with flashbacks to those earlier two periods being brought in as the story develops.
Now of course, it depends entirely on what kind of story you are writing what your main story is, but the reason I’m writing this post is to remind you that there are a few questions you have to keep in mind when writing a story that includes multiple life phases:
- What is the main story within your book?
- What other phases are vital to be included? (And don’t forget to ask yourself WHY these are vital.)
- How can you best add these other periods or moments? Is a prologue the way to go, should you bring in flashbacks, are your characters haunted by memories in their dreams, do you need alternating chapters? These can all work, but keep in mind that, once you pick one (or two), that’s what the reader will come to expect.
I’m curious to hear how you deal with this challenge. Perhaps you can think of any examples from authors who do this beautifully?