Monday, March 21, 2022

Dear EvKa: An Open Letter

Annamaria on Monday



To readers other than the one addressed: As a regular visitor, Everett Kaser has been a part of Murder is Everywhere for many years. His frequent comments and responses on this blog contribute insight, humor, often wicked humor, and a deep understanding of what the authors who are regulars here are trying to do, both in their books and in their weekly or biweekly posts. I address him as EvKa because he long ago began addressing me as AmA. Though I know him only in this virtual world, his presence is always a plus for me. In fact, a few weeks back he made a comment on Zoe’s post that, to me anyway, requires more than a few sentences in response:



Dear EvKa, In your comment on Zoe's Post - "Diving into the Story" - you described storytelling techniques that you despise: prologues, flashbacks, and multiple points of view. I was nonplussed at the vehemence with which you described your dislikes, since I use all of these techniques when I tell a story. Not all of my novels have prologues, but some of them do. And all of them contain flashbacks and all of them are written from multiple points of view, never in the first person which you so passionately expressed as the only kind of story you really enjoy.  In this billet-doux, (and it is a love letter of sorts) I want to tell you that your comment made me think about the pitfalls of the techniques you ordinarily reject.

So I set out today, not to change your mind about what you like. De gustibus non disputandum est, after all.  I hope to demonstrate today what I gleaned from thinking more analytically about the fiction writing tools that often ruin a story for you.  The examples I will give are ones that I can easily illustrate. They very likely involve stories you have experienced.  True my examples are not on the page but on the screen. I still think they can be instructive.

Regarding prologues: here is an example of a story that starts with one. In the film, it lasted twelve minutes. Think of it as the first 12 pages of a novel, which would make it a lot longer than the average prologue in print, but you will get the idea.

As "Raiders of the Lost Ark" goes on from this beginning, it echoes things dramatized in this first scene, which portrays Indy in action and enhances not only a viewers' suspension of disbelief and understanding of his character, but also their enjoyment of the arc of the story.  We really get it when Indy encounters those snakes in Egypt. And believe it when he disarms a Nazi with his whip!

Lesson for me: if the prologue doesn't do these things it's probably superfluous. In addition to which, it must be engaging and entertaining. The best prologues, like this one, read like a short story.

Regarding multiple points of view: The second scene of "Raiders" stays with Indy's point of view. But the third one switches to Marian's, in her bar in Nepal. Even when Indy enters the bar, the focus is on Marian's point of you.  And so it goes.  The arc of the story switches points of view throughout the rest of the film, sometimes to the villains', and for a while, the camera actually follows a monkey. Why? Because the monkey's point viewpoint keeps the action fast-moving, clear, and entertaining.

Lesson for me: the point of view character needs to be the one whose actions move the story along, make the most difference in the outcome of the tale, or whose emotions are most strongly engaged.

Regarding flashbacks: They can intensify the emotions the story elicits. "Casablanca" begins with a prologue needed to engage the audience.  If it started with Rick and Ilsa in Paris, would there as much suspense?  Instead the beginning sets the scene: refugees from the war are desperate and the Nazis make their situation all the more dangerous and painful.  By the time we meet the mysterious main character, Rick, we care about the people around him and are wondering what role he will play in solving their problems.  We immediately see that he is a cynical and bitter man.  And soon we find out that his worst enemy is a love song:

At this point the audience is ready, desperate to know what really happened.  The flashback does a lot more than answer a burning question.  It sets up the suspense and greatly intensifies the emotions evoked by the rest of the story.

The lesson here I think is crystal clear.  The flashback's job is to answer questions critical to the story and to deliver those answers when they are most wanted and will have the greatest impact.

Here's lookin' at you, EvKa.  Thank you for this inspiration. In so many ways, you bring out the best in us.


  1. Thanks for these insights that really need to be thought through by any writer. My only quibble is that screen writing and novel writing are very far apart and the techniques are very different. I'v been very surprised to see that in practice with books versus screenplays. So a challenge - could you do the same illustrations with novels we know?

    1. I probably could, Michael, but which books? That was my problem. I realized that the whole thing wouldn’t make much sense without examples, and the only books I know well enough are my own books. That would’ve felt totally wrong. It’s quite possible that Everett has never read them, and I am pretty sure a lot of the followers of this blog never have either.

      Of course, to do this subject justice it would take a major segment of a one semester course, where the students were required to read the selected books, and we discuss them in class. How’s that for inappropriate? Besides, I don’t think that a screenplay and a novel are necessarily that different when it comes to the arc of the story. I may be wrong about that. See my comment to Caro.

  2. Anybody who writes prologues deserves a medal for bravery!
    As I was once asked in a panel "How do you build tension without the music? How scary would Jaws be without the Na Nas?'

  3. As usual, you made me laugh out loud. Caro! I will collect my two medals As soon as I find out whose doling them out. At some point, I noticed that in movies of thrillers and mysteries there is frequently an opening scene – brief and compelling – that shows the main character and has him or her do something that reveals what kind of person we are dealing with. I thought that that might be appropriate in a couple of the stories that I wrote. It seemed to work out OK.

    I read “Jaws” before it was made into a movie. And it was very scary, without the music. In fact, I read it on a beach vacation, shared with seven other adults and children. Everyone over 12 years old was reading that book. I have Vivid memories of two 12 year old girls sitting side-by-side in a huge arm chair. The faster reader of the two would stare into space while she waited for her cousin to be ready to turn the page! I am now surprised that we all went swimming under those circumstances. Perhaps if we had seen the movie and heard the music, instead of reading the book, we would have been too terrified to go into the water.

  4. ROFL. I'm glad my snarkiness could provide you with grist for your weekly mill. In my comment to Zoë, I was probably less specific than I should have been, but I'm not a columnist here, so felt brevity was of the essence. :-)

    The prologues I despise are the ones that introduce characters and situations that COMPLETELY disjoint from the first 2/3 (or more) of the novel, which you've completely forgotten about until they finally re-appear toward the end of the book. I'm not saying it's not a valid tool, just that it's one of the least pleasant techniques FOR ME. In Raiders and Casablanca, the opening sequences lead pretty directly into the rest of the story, and serve to introduce characters and/or situations that are pretty immediately important to the carrying on of the rest of the story. The technique I abhor is thus:

    Furball, the cat, scrambled for purchase atop the eight-foot fence, as a German Shephard pawed at the boards, growling and snapping at his tail, while on the other side of the fence, Jock and Jolly, a pair of Dobermanns raced toward the fence, launching themselves into the air like cruise missiles.

    Chapter 1
    Charles Sphincter never met a toilet he was unable to plug. This was a talent that led to much embarrassment, as well as an embarrassment of joy and riches. You see... [hereafter follows 39 chapters of the story of Charles, his trials and tribulations, finally culminating in...

    Chapter 40
    Wherein Charles rescues a stray cat from a tree, takes it home, names it Furball, who then leads Mr. Sphincter to the resolution of his amorous story with his neighbor.

    Like, what's the POINT of setting up a scene at the beginning that has absolutely NOTHING to do with the rest of the story until near the end, other than to try to mystify, entice, and otherwise obfuscate the reader. I'd rather say that this technique demonstrates (USUALLY) that the author has chosen to start their story in the wrong way, or at the wrong point, etc.

    And, yes, I've read City of Silver, and have been enthusiastically following your Vera & Tolliver books. :-)

    So, prologues (IMHO) have their place, when they lead you INTO the story, but are mere objects to despise when they're a shallow 'hook' on which the reader is left hanging in confusion for most of the rest of the story. Personal taste. :-)

    As for flashback, similar comments apply. I've nothing against flashback that's 'relatively' briefly recount story/information that is needed but doesn't fit any earlier in the telling of the story. But when 1/4 to 1/2 of the book is a 'flashback', that feels to me (again) as if the author has simply failed to properly structure the story, and usually leaves me feeling like I'm reading a series of related novellas out-of-sequence.

    Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule, but as always, we generally end up speaking in vast generalizations (to over-use a word :-).

    Great, thoughtful blog, by the way!

  5. You are the electron to my proton, EvKa, Thank you for this thorough and insightful analysis of how things go wrong in story telling. It seems to me that between my “lessons learned” and your descriptions of how you react to poorly thought out technique, we have covered the positives and the negatives of the territory. I, for one, have learned a great deal from this process. If I were teaching that course described above, I would ask you to come and help me. Just the way you have made your points here!!

  6. Ah, I've sat back watching Sis and EvKa play together, and I'm so happy it ended with neither needing stitches. Two highly talented people with strongly different opinions on an issue important to each, came together in a Kumbaya moment that brought tears to my eyes.

    Then again, it is allergy season.