As someone who’s always enjoyed reading stuff on psychology, I naturally assumed I would be at an advantage when it came to writing a psychological thriller. However, there’s a big difference between knowing about a subject and researching it in depth.
Take memory, for instance. In my second novel, the central character has no recollection of a significant event in his childhood. During the course of the story, a series of triggers causes the character to experience flashbacks of the event.
So what’s wrong with that?
The subject matter can easily become a cliché. Aside from that, the memory loss, along with the later flashbacks, must have a plausible explanation. In a previous draft, one of the viewpoint characters supplied the explanation for the loss of memory: the central character had received a blow to the head during the childhood incident.
However, memory loss due to brain injury is often, if not always, permanent, ruling out the possibility of flashbacks at a later stage, except perhaps for in exceptional circumstances. Similarly, certain drugs can prevent the brain from storing memories in the first place.
To address this, I’ve had to change the focus of the story and concentrate on the forensic history and less on actual flashbacks, although the odd fleeting recollection probably helps drive the story forward. It has also meant delving deep into the plot and allowing each characters’ motives and conflicts to determine the outcome. This brings me back to a point I made in an earlier post: back story should be as relevent and as thought out as the present day action – and, of course, as accurate in terms of resarch.
At the beginning of the week, I sent my first novel back to an editor, and was hoping to spend the next month or so on the second novel, a psychological thriller dealing with repressed memories and memory flashbacks.
However… yesterday, I switched on my computer, intending to read through chapters one to twelve, but the monitor refused to work and kept sending up the message “Out of Input Range.” I rang round several friends to see if any of them had a spare monitor, but none had. One friend, however, kindly let me print off some work on their system.
After various more attempts to revive the monitor, I conceded defeat and decided to concentrate on reading the print out of the chapters. But the monitor problem continued to play on my mind as I read – how could I possibly continue to write without a functioning computer?
At some point in the evening, I became aware that the problem was not down to hardware because the monitor worked during the initial boot up but failed at the critical moment when Windows XP loads. Attempts to reload Windows from the CD failed as well, and I couldn’t begin the computer in Safe Mode. Highly frustrating.
In one last attempt, I rebooted for about the twentieth time, pressing down F8. Finally, I was in Safe Mode. The rest of the process went smoothly: All Programs-Accessories-System Tools-System Restore.
At about ten to midnight, I had the computer working again, thanks to System Restore.
Finally sent my first novel, a psychological thriller, to an editor this morning.
From a previous post
I finally decided to stand back from the first novel and get it to the editor. For the past week, I’ve been reading through the story and making minor adjustments. I’m more or less satisfied with a lot of it, so I’ll have to see what happens next. During the six days of polishing the work, the characters came alive in a special way and I have a feeling I will miss them. I always feel sad when I get to the epilogue – in many ways, those final moments remind me of Dorothy’s farewell to Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion just before her departure from the land of Oz in the film The Wizard of Oz.
In an earlier post, I outlined some of my thoughts on using back story in fiction. Clearly, back story doesn’t always work and may leave readers feeling lumbered with unnecessary information. However, like I pointed out in the earlier post, when done properly, back story can add extra atmosphere and immediacy to a story in a way that employing dialogue might not.
I think that for back story to work, the content must be relevant at all times and should only address the central story questions. In other words, it should be kept to a minimum.
I also think that back story needs structuring like the present story with the same eight stages. Those are:
- The starting point (“stasis”)
- An inciting event (“trigger”)
- The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”)
- A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”)
- Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”)
- The consequences of the choices (“climax”)
- Consequences of climax (“reversal”)
- Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”)
More on story structure
Perhaps the best way to ascertain whether back story works is to copy and paste to a separate document and see if it feels complete.
Just some of my thoughts.
I will be sending my first novel to the editor on Monday and shall continue working on the second, which seems to be going well.
Well, the inevitable happened on Sunday afternoon…the computer has been playing up for some time. I was copying a section of writing to StoryBook (a free novel planning software package) when my computer suddenly “blacked out” for the second time in a day. And when I got the computer started again, the story file would no longer open. It was finished. I had to make a fresh copy of my work from a USB memory stick.
Further computer “blackouts” occurred that day, creating computer chaos. I’ve since taken the issue of back up to a new level. I no longer simply send work to USB sticks and online storage sites, I also copy the main file to other folders on the computer. I’ve begun using Recordable (but not Rewritable) CDs too, though never when I’ve been on the computer for long in case it suddenly “blacks out” again. If a “black out” occurs while burning files to a CD, the CD becomes permanently ruined.
Obviously, I will need to get the computer seen to, probably on Thursday. I would imagine that excess dust has gathered, causing the fans to work less effectively and resulting in overheating. In the meantime, I’m shutting down every hour or two to allow the machine to cool.
Further tips on backing up.
I finally decided to stand back from the first novel and get it to the editor. For the past week, I’ve been reading through the story and making minor adjustments. I’m more or less satisfied with a lot of it, so I’ll have to see what happens next.
During the six days of polishing the work, the characters came alive in a special way and I have a feeling I will miss them. I always feel sad when I get to the epilogue – in many ways, those final moments remind me of Dorothy’s farewell to Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion just before her departure from the land of Oz in the film The Wizard of Oz.
At some point during the month, I hope to get my first novel back to the editor. This means I’ve had to put the second novel on hold and take a final look at the first book, a psychological thriller.
I feel the overall quality of the work has improved, in particular the plot and the structure, but at times I get so frustrated by traces of previous drafts still present in the work, especially old clichés like, “She went in, her unease mounting.”
For instance, what does “unease” really mean? Different things to different people. And would most people use verbs like “mounting” in their everyday vocabulary. I don’t think so. I’m having to find new ways of bringing to life the various emotional responses.
So what are the things to look out for in a (hopefully) final polish? If the story works – and I suspect mine is beginning to – I would say:
- Dialogue. Try to keep it relaxed with each speaker’s voice as distinct as possible
- Redundant sections. Cut these
- Does the unfolding of plot always make sense? I’ve included a new paragraph about an eight-year-old child’s introduction to a pony called Bella to bring out of the oasis of a childhood that later turns sour
- Specifics. Exactly what is it that affects the viewpoint character so much?
- Easing language that has become stilted or formal, or language that intrudes into the viewpoint character’s voice.
A bit hard going, but I think the extra work is worth it.