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Monday, June 6, 2016

Please Don't Write this Sentence in Your Opening

I regularly read unpublished work. A lot of writers have a cool idea for their protagonist's backstory, one that is meant to create a sense of mystery for the reader. I love stories like that. I love backstories. I even love a good flashback. But I cannot tell you how many times I've read sentences similar to this one in an opening of a story:

Jasper pushed the memories away from his mind.

To the average person, there is nothing wrong with this sentence. But when you read a lot, and you read that sentence a lot, you start realizing the problems in it.

There are many variations to this sentence, or at least lead-ins to this sentence. Here are a few others:

Alice used to go the festival every fall with her sister, until her sister got in that accident. Alice shook her head and pushed the thoughts from her mind.

Milly looked at the old photograph and her eyes watered up. Don't think about it. Don't think about it, Milly thought. She filed away the memories.

 It was a border collie, just like . . . Adam pushed the thoughts away.

Now before anyone freaks out or protests--I've written this sentence before. And there are times where this sentence is fine. But if you write it intentionally in the opening of your story, you should know it's very cliche and whoever is going through the submission pile has seen it so many times that's it's more annoying than mysterious. Besides, there are better alternatives that accomplish the effect these writers are looking for, and I'll share some of them, after I talk about the problems.

Cliche. I already mentioned this, but the thing is, this might sound like a fine sentence, but thousands of other writers thought it was a fine sentence too and so there are loads of stories that have this same sentence. It doesn't spark curiosity or intrigue in the editors who have read it thousands of times. Some of you might be saying, "Yeah, but there are always going to be sentences like that." And this is where I say that there are actually other problems with doing this.

White Flag. This sentence is a sure warning signal to higher-ups that this writer doesn't know how to handle backstory on a professional level yet. I know that sounds really weird, because the sentence is punctuated correctly and seems innocent, but it's not the sentence itself, it's the fact that experience shows again and again that writers who are still learning how to weave backstory in well, use this sentence.

One of the problems with this sentence is that you are drawing attention to the fact that you are withholding important, possibly traumatic, information about your protagonist, and alerting to the reader that "Hey, this is going to be an important backstory that's kind of mysterious and I'm going to tell you about it later."

It feels a lot less mysterious when the writer is advertising the mystery that way. We've all seen this backstory structure in narratives before. We don't want to be told that it's the structure you are using, we want to notice that and figure it out for ourselves.

Some argue that this sentence is a problem solely because you are hiding important information about the protagonist from your reader, and that if the protagonist is the viewpoint character that the reader should be privy to that important knowledge by default. I actually disagree that it is always bad to withhold important information from the reader, because I believe you can do it, but it's difficult and takes a lot of talent to do well enough to get away with it. I would argue that the fact the writer is withholding information isn't so much the problem as the way they are withholding that information.

Have you ever talked to someone who is clearly trying to get you to ask a specific question about them? They might say things (out of the blue) like, "Uugh, I can't believe that happened!" wait a few seconds, then sigh heavily, and follow-up with "Now I'll never get to do X," sigh again. And you know they just want you to ask them what's wrong.

This sentence is sort of like that. The writer is broadcasting the fact they are withholding information and signaling to the audience that it will be a mystery that will come out later. They want the reader to ask, "Wow, what was that memory about"? It takes some of the power out of that backstory structure. In this way, it's kind of similar to writing sentimentally, like a talked about in this post.

I touched on this next one earlier, but this sentence is questionable because it seems to contradict the whole "I'm writing in this character's viewpoint" thing. If the character is reminded of an unfavorable memory, shouldn't we at least get some kind of flash of said memory? Or some indication as to what it is? I think that's debatable, but 9 times out of 10, the answer is yes.

Now, all this doesn't mean you have to completely chuck the whole "mysterious backstory" thing, which is the advice you might get from some, usually because most people aren't conscious of when this is done well. It's that subtle.

And that's one of the keys to fixing this. Be more subtle. Don't make the fact that your character is pushing away his bad memories as obvious--don't tell me that he's doing it. Get deep in his head and show me instead. Give me a well "told" suggestion of the memory, then show me the character consciously thinking of something else (show me what that something is). Instead of drawing attention to the fact you aren't telling me about the character's backstory, put enough in and then draw my attention away from the fact you aren't telling me. As a reader, I'll pick up on the fact the character doesn't want to remember something in his past on my own--which is exactly what needs to happen if I'm meant to feel like it's a mystery.

J.K. Rowling uses this tactic in other forms of mystery in the Harry Potter series. For example, in Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione take Scabbers to the pet store, Rowling suggests that there is something odd about Ron's rat, but almost immediately after, she draws the reader's attention away from the fact. She doesn't stay there and point at it with her sentence structure and style.

Another similar but different option is to present any suggestion of the suppressed memory as information you are giving, not information you are withholding. Don't point at the fact you aren't telling the reader everything to make sure the reader gets there is something more. Drop the hint as information. You can do it in a way that makes the reader curious on her own and makes her wonder about it more. Or you can do it in a way that the reader won't think twice about until later. You can expand on this information that you as the writer so "generously" gave as you go, until the picture and situation becomes clearer and clearer to the reader. You can use foreshadowing, instead of playing monkey-in-the-middle with your reader.

You can drop information in passing. After all, it seems to me that a suppressed memory lives in the subconscious part of your protagonist's mind, so let it surface, but be subtle about it.

And hey, if you've already done a good job at cluing me into this suppressed memory and the fact the character doesn't want to relive it then you can write that sentence, further into the story, and it won't be annoying, because I'll know the information behind it, and I've already witnessed and decided for myself the character doesn't want to remember.

I know to some this post sounds petty, but really, when you've read that sentence as much as I have, you've got to do a blog post explaining why it's annoying and how it can be handled better. And really, some of the stuff I touched on goes beyond that sentence and into how to write mystery itself. Thanks for listening.


  1. Wow..gag worthy examples of "memories". My style is to summarize (very succinctly) the memory and apply that memory to the character's present situation. https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B01HQQ7DAU&asin=B01HQQ7DAU&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_OfsSxbFZSTSRV

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  3. Great Article. Thanks for posting. Made me look at my opening paragraphs.

  4. What if the memory withheld is more of a symbol in the story than important information in and of itself?

  5. Thank you for this! I am a new writer and I keep doing this. Would you be able to share examples of characters pushing away thoughts in a way that isn't obvious?


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