I started reading a novel the other day and choked on the first three paragraphs, which were a kind of double-flashback sequence filled with ‘had beens’. I paraphrase:
“…it was now…there had been…had been…had abruptly…had been…had they…had… had been…had they…he would…he had not…had grown…had happened…had summoned…”
It didn’t get going with the immediate action for which all this was a loooooong setup until the fourth paragraph, which should have been the first because it was grippier. But by then my interest as a reader was already gone. I persisted through more ‘had beens’ and other flashbacks but finally gave up.
The problem was that the author hadn’t mastered the technique of scene-setting, in which it’s better to let the action unfold by ‘showing’ it. The background can be intruded into that if needed, but the secret is to find a way of grabbing the reader and setting the scene without ‘telling’ them all the background in one vast vomit of information that is likely to be as confusing as it is informative.
Even info-dumps have to ‘breathe’.
The other problem with them is the persistent ‘had’ aspect – the relentless past tense (mixed, in the example I read, with mangled past-future tense of the ‘was to be’ variety) – which is an absolute killer for tension.
We live in the present tense. Your stories need to as well. That doesn’t mean writing in the present tense, though that can be a very powerful technique. But the sense of being ‘in the moment’ has to be there, otherwise reader attention is going to disappear.
That’s true of non-fiction as well as of fiction, actually. Thoughts?
And, if you do want to check out a way of writing immediacy into non-fiction, have a look at my book Italian Odyssey, jump across to Amazon – it’s available on Kindle. Free to Amazon Prime users in 2016.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016