Shelley Widhalm

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Flashbacks on Track

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

Taking a leisurely walk that culls up random memories can be similar to reading a novel with layers of flashbacks.

There is a purpose to a walk, while the memories are part of the head chatter that keeps our minds busy. Flashbacks – a sudden, brief relocation to the past before returning to the present – should not fall into this role.

I just finished a book that had flashbacks within flashbacks and whipped me around time and place that I almost put the book down, except I wanted to find out the end of the story. I had to flip back pages to reclaim where I was, interrupting the flow of my wanting to inhale the story.

Writers don’t want readers to go backwards, unless it’s to reread a beautiful passage or to review after putting the book down for a long (a very long) time.

Flashbacks should be used sparingly and serve a clear purpose, so that they don’t slow down the story. Their purpose can be to influence later events, reveal character and motivation, explain an event or add depth to the story.

A flashback interjects an incident from the character’s past. It can be presented as a reflection, a snatch of memory, a dream or dialogue. It can tell back story, or what occurred before the actual event, kept on a need-to-know basis.

Flashbacks should be avoided in the opening scene or in a major action scene, nor used if they do not relate to the current unfolding of events. Cues such as color, scent or sound can indicate the end of the flashback.

Just like with a walk.

But this time the cue returns you to reality after getting lost in thought, a nice place to be but not if it is in a novel or story.

See Zoey the dachshund’s blog on the same topic at


Subplots and Plots

In 52 Writing Topics, Plot, Shelley Widhalm on April 22, 2012 at 11:00 am

Subplots are like the minor characters in a novel: at the surface, they appear inessential, but are so to add depth, complexity and tension to the telling of a story.

Subplots are the stories within a story that support or drive the main plot. They serve as secondary plots that connect to the main plot in time, place or thematic significance.

In my novel “Dropping Colors,” Will Banks and his band, the Slingers, serve as a secondary plot that moves concurrently with the unfolding of the main plot of Kate Letts losing her art supplies in a fire.

The two plot strands will intersect at the point of Kate and Will meeting at a coffee shop where the Slingers are playing. The plot strands will diverge again as the two characters continue operating in their individual lives until they form a relationship based on their mutual passion for the arts.

The characters within the subplot – called supporting or minor characters – have to interact with the characters in the main plot at some point in the telling of the story. Otherwise, the different stories remain separate as if part of a short story collection.

What occurs in the subplots serves to complicate the life of the main character. Subplots can be about almost anything in a main character’s private, personal, or professional life, such as a budding romantic relationship or a complication in the workplace from a jealous co-worker.

Subplots (whether a single strand or several) take up less space, involve less of the action and have less significant events that occur.

Subplots connect with the main plot to add an idea, impact the novel’s resolution, introduce secondary characters or depict characteristics of the main character that readers otherwise wouldn’t see.

If there are too many subplots, they distract the reader from the main plot.

The subplots have to contrast with the plot but not repeat or compete with it.

And they are complete stories with a beginning, middle and end.

Take 2: Scenes vs. Chapters

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

In story and novel writing, it initially would seem logical that the point where a chapter ends would be the same as when a scene ends.

But it’s not so cut and dry.

A scene can carry over to the next chapter to keep the reader turning the pages unable to resist – as with a potato chip or an M&M – just one more.

Each scene tells a mini story complete with dialogue, action and descriptions. The scenes taken as a whole advance the story or move the plot forward.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that every scene needs to work as a stand-alone story and bridge to the next scene, or chapter. That way, the scene could be pulled out and stand on its own.

I simply had thought a story or novel was no more than a series of scenes strung together to create the beginning, middle and end.

Taking the advice seriously meant I had to work harder at my writing.

To do this, I try to think of each scene as a take for the stage. I ask what the purpose is for the scene and why I care about what’s happening.

There should be some kind of tension or conflict among my characters. How they act is motivated by their wants and desires, as well as their feelings and reactions to one another.

The main character of the scene should have an objective, face opposition to that objective and endure rising stakes that make his or her choices harder and harder to make.

Scenes can end in various points in the storytelling process. They can end in the middle of the action, at the point of a major decision or when there is new information.

Scene can end:

  • At a strong display of emotion.
  • When raising a question with no immediate answer.
  • When there are changes for a shift in time or place.

Avoid scenes where characters just talk without conflict, that switch between points of view and that introduce a new character’s viewpoint too far into the telling of the story.

If successful, the scenes won’t be noticed, as well as the chapter breaks, if the reader is immersed in the story, almost as if watching a movie.

Major vs. Minor Characters

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 8, 2012 at 11:00 am

Identifying the characters in a story or novel boils down to those you see a lot of and those you encounter in a few chapters, pages or even just once.

The characters you see a lot of are called the major or main characters because they play the primary role in the story’s action. The top dog among these characters is the protagonist, also called the main or the major character. If there are two or a few protagonists, they are the co-protagonists who copilot the action and progression of the story.

The protagonist should have a minor flaw; she should want something; and she has to change as a result of the experiences she undergoes.*

If there is an antagonist who acts against the protagonist, trying to prevent her from getting what she wants, this character has to have a major flaw and at least one redeeming quality.

In screenplays, the protagonist is called the hero or heroine. This protagonist has a fatal flaw tied to a need that messes up her world until she can figure things out to make them right again.

The antagonist is the villain who has many flaws and dislikable features but at least one redeeming quality.

The anti-hero is similar to a hero, but at the beginning of a movie does not act out of good and is self-serving, but ends up on the path of redemption.

In both screenplays and novels, the minor characters are not the main point of the story. They are not the major players to whom the story is happening, but they interact with or grab the attention of those main characters.

There are three types of minor characters, including:

  • Walk-ons: they serve as the background or scenery of the story and shouldn’t distract from the storyline. Examples include the waiter serving a meal, the cabdriver giving a ride or the bartender pouring a drink.
  • Supporting: the sidekick in a mystery who helps the protagonist solve clues.
  • General minor: they are momentarily involved in the action and play a minor role in the story. Examples include the protagonist’s best friend, mother or a sibling.

The minor characters, unless they are the walk-ons, should be given a name and a few quirky details. They can be made memorable by being eccentric, if they have exaggerated qualities or are obsessive about something.

Minor characters need to appear as independent people with personalities, motivations and desires of their own.

If the minor characters do not have a purpose in the story’s telling, then get rid of them.

* Note  1: I use the feminine gender to refer to the protagonist because that’s the gender I tend to use for my main characters.

* Note 2: See Zoey’s blog on her take on major versus minor characters at

Grounding Character Identity

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on April 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Like sugar to cookies, characters have essential qualities that turn them from a mass of words into living beings, at least in our minds.

To give readers those essential qualities involves telling the story and identifying the features and traits of the characters as individuals and in how they relate to one another.

The protagonist, or the main character of the story, is more fully developed than the antagonist and other minor characters. The antagonist can be a character, group of characters or an institution that serves as the principal opponent or foil of the protagonist. The protagonist has to contend or deal with this opposition to achieve his or her goal.

Before writing, I ask a few questions about my protagonist, which is Kate Letts in the novel I’m currently writing. I’m exploring how Kate deals with the after-effects of losing her home and belongings to a fire. I need to know why Kate is telling her story, what she wants and what she will learn.

I ask general questions, such as:

  • What does she want above all else, or what is her major goal?
  • What is she afraid of?
  • What doesn’t like about her situation?
  • What are her secrets?
  • Does she have a lovable quirk or a nervous gesture?
  • What is her main unlikable quality?
  • What is likable about her?

More specifically, what does this character look like and act like and how does she behave around others:

  • What is her hairstyle? What are her facial features? How tall is she? How does she dress? What kind of jewelry does she wear?
  • What are her speech patterns? What is her cultural and religious (if any) background?
  • What are her mannerisms? Her gestures? Her tastes? Her hobbies?
  • What is her job? What is her education? What does she drive? Does she bike or walk to get around? Where does she get her groceries and clothes?  

Another trick I learned is to envision a character and then try to find him or her in a magazine photo, store ad or online and cut out the image. I found magazine ads for Kate, as well as two of my minor characters, Samantha and Emma.

It’s a thrill to have turned imagination into a real image that I can refer to for inspiration as I continue on my path in the telling of Kate’s story.