Flashbacks can be tricky and confusing to a new writer. How to construct them is really quite simple. You introduce flashbacks with past perfect tense, then revert to simple past for duration.
For example, “She’d always known they were an item when their eyes had first met.” After that, you would go to simple past, i.e.: “She remembered that first time clearly, as it stood out so dramatically….” Continue is simple past for the duration of the flashback.
Then, when it’s over and you come back to the present story action, use past perfect again. For example, “That moment would always mean a lot as it had signaled from the start that it would be a special relationship.”
Use active voice as much as possible. If you don’t know what that means, “The boy threw the ball” is active voice. “The ball was thrown by the boy” is passive voice. Who is performing the action versus what or who is receiving the action?
Not that active voice also eliminates a preposition. The sentence is more clear and there are less unnecessary words. Tighter writing is better writing.
Another skill that separates the pros from the amateurs is comma usage. Personally, I don’t know all the specific grammar rules that apply. There are also a multitude of usage opinions. I actually had an English professor in a university level grammar class tell us they were optional! If he were still alive, I would write him a strongly worded letter regarding why he was all wet.
Granted, there are some who could be called “comma fanatics.” For example, there’s a lot of controversy over what is known as the “Oxford comma.” Most people seem to understand that the elements in a series need to be separated by one. However, whether or not to place one directly before the “and” that precedes the final item is less clear. Most readers can deal with that situation one way or another.
However, with complex sentences, commas help keep the statements from running together. Think of your dinner plate, how most people prefer to keep the meat, potatoes, vegetables, and anything else separated, as opposed to being all slopped together. Commas do this for long sentences, keeping the thoughts separated and more coherent.
Another classic example of how commas change meaning is “Let’s eat Grandma” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma.”
Without knowing all the rules, one way to tell intuitively where a comma belongs is to read your final edit aloud. Where a pause is necessary for clarity is usually a good place for one.
Redundancy is another thing that can slow a story down. One part of speech that helps avoid repetition of a character’s name is the pronoun. You don’t need to keep repeating the character’s name. This is where he, she, it, and they as well as possessive pronouns like his, hers, its, and their come into play.
If a paragraph only involves one person, by all means, don’t keep repeating his or her name. If there are two people involved of different genders, then he and she will work fine. If there are two people of the same gender, then it’s more complicated. If it’s not clear, then it is sometimes justifiable to repeat names.
I read an absolutely dreadfully written story a few years ago where the protagonist was alone, no one else within miles, yet the author repeated his name with nearly every sentence, paragraph after paragraph. It was tedious to the point of being offensive, as if the reader wasn’t intelligent enough to figure out who was doing what.
I’m amazed by how many authors don’t know how to punctuate dialog properly. I’ve seen periods instead of commas for statements, missing question marks, overuse of explanation points, lack of semi-colons, and multiple speakers in a single paragraph. Knowing these rules is an author’s responsibility. While not all readers will notice if you honk it up, experienced authors will. I remember learning this no later than high school, probably earlier. However, I’ve always been a writer at heart; that may be why that information stuck. Others, if they came to writing later in life, may have never paid attention and simply haven’t noticed it in reading.
Besides punctuation, which really ought to be obvious, the one mistake I see a lot is when one of the characters is on a long-winded speech or monologue. Visually, it’s good to break these into more than one, huge, eye-bogging paragraph. Great. So, if that’s the case. do it correctly.
The way you do that is to start it as you do all dialog with a quotation mark. However, if it goes on to a new paragraph, don’t use a close quote on the first paragraph. This tells the reader there is more to come from the same speaker. The new paragraph will start with a quotation mark, telling the reader it’s still someone speaking and not to be confused with prose.
It’s amazing how many authors don’t know this. Apparently, some editors don’t, either.
Preposition phrases are one thing that get a lot of bad press. If you had the not-so-joyful experience of diagramming sentences in school, you’ll remember that they were placed below the main subject/predicate/object line. This is a graphic illustration that they are add-ons. One way to get around them in many cases is by using possessives. For example, “the pencil’s tip” vs. “the tip of the pencil.”
You’ll be surprised how often this streamlines a sentence, not only be eliminating words, but by compacting the sentence’s meaning, making it easier for the reader to digest. Often prepositional phrases are redundant, too. Give them an evil eye when you’re editing. First see what happens when you take it out entirely. If it contains important information that needs to be included, see if using the possessive form works.
You can’t get rid of them entirely, but assessing their value and then using them sparingly gives them as well as your writing as a whole more punch.
Few writers capture all the elements that make an outstanding story in their first draft. It is comparable to the sketch a master painter uses. It capture the essence, but still requires refinement. My first draft usually is primarily action and dialog. I’ve often thought I’d make a great screenwriter, leaving the other details up to the director and producer. However, that isn’t going to work in a novel.
Granted, some genres are heavier on description than others. A Gothic Romance, for example, is likely to go on and one describing the setting, which would be beyond annoying for a suspense thriller. However, some description is required to fully engage your reader.
I use the acronym IDEAS as a reminder for what to look for when I’m editing. This stands for Imagery; Dialog; Emotion; Action; Suspense. All of these are important story elements. The balance may vary with genre, but each is essential. After you finish your first draft, these are some things to watch for and make sure you haven’t left anything out. You may have envisioned the story in your head while you were writing, but did you give the reader enough information to do the same?
We perceive the world through all of our senses. However, more often than not, the main ones addressed in writing are sight and hearing. These are only two of the five–touch, taste, and smell are just as important.
One thing to bear in mind is that the sense of smell is one of the strongest as far as triggering memories. You have probably experienced this, encountering one that’s familiar. Why do you think the smell of certain foods evokes memories so strongly? Thus, if you describe a smell that is familiar to your reader, it enhances the description tremendously. For example, the smell of autumn leaves, roses, and even something unpleasant like diesel exhaust, are familiar to most people, drawing them into the story.
Touch and taste are also important when they connect with the reader through their own experience. Be sure to use them where appropriate. They provide additional dimensions to your story and more ways to connect with your readers, making your story more memorable.
How many books have you read where you had no idea what the characters looked like? Maybe the author neglected to mention it at all, or perhaps only once in passing, when the person was introduced.
Imagery is important in a story. Thus, it doesn’t hurt to remind readers what characters look like occasionally. One way to do so without being redundant is through action, such as “he raked his hand through his dark hair” or “her green eyes burned with passion.” That hits the “refresh” button in your reader’s mind without slowing down the story and is one example of “showing” as opposed to “telling.”
Another trick is to give your characters some outstanding trait. Do some people watching the next time you’re shopping or at an event for ideas. It’s been said that people who are too perfect looking are the least memorable. This applies to fictitious characters as well.
Yesterday I pointed out that overuse of adverbs is a common mistake of new writers. Adjectives are in that same category. For example, instead of saying “he lived in a small house” try “he lived in a cottage.” What image does that evoke? How about “he lived in a shack?” Or “he lived in a bungalow?” In many cases the right word takes care of what you’re trying to say. In others, you might want to add “rundown” or “well-maintained”, but only when it’s truly required and adds something other than to the unnecessary word count. Use them sparingly and they’ll have more impact.
Being more specific and finding exactly the right word to capture the image and feeling you want to convey is a challenge, but once achieved is the mark of a true professional.