On Pacing, Flashbacks, and Bad Guys Being Bad: An Email Response

I recently received an email from a fellow reader/writer who had her fingers crossed that I’d answer a few “on writing” questions. Some authors would ignore these, after all, there are so many online sources that you could easily see what others are saying about the topic at hand, but I’m a sucker for replying to those who take the time to reach out to me in the first place. I love the idea of helping fellow writers reach their creative goals, and I know how scary and frustrating it can be to work on a project without anyone “in the know” in your corner. That being said, this fellow writer, who I’ll refer to as Dee, has allowed me to share her questions here in hopes of helping other writers like herself.

Dee writes:

Because (I’m writing) a thriller, does the story have to (get a) “heart pounding, sweating” response from the reader every word of the book? If I slow it down a bit… will that be my story ruin?

God, no! I don’t think such a book exists, and if it does, it probably has a million one-star reviews. It’s all about pacing. Every story–be it a novel, a short story, a movie, or even a TV show–has highs and lows. Let’s just take TV as an example. Have you ever noticed how each segment of an episode plays out between commercial breaks? The episode begins with a hook so that you want to sit down and watch it for an hour. Then it lulls, and right before the commercial break it delivers a punch that tells you, “you don’t want to stop watching… you can’t, we’ve got you.” Novels are like that as well. You have highs and lows, like the swells of a tide. You start out with a hook. You capture your reader’s attention, shake them by the shoulder, tell them “look, you HAVE to read this… you NEED to know what happens to this character.” Then, that intensity lulls until you reach the end of a chapter, where, it picks up again and says “hey, you have to read chapter two, look what happened at the end of chapter one!” Rinse and repeat. Here’s a good article about pacing: 7 Tools For Pacing A Novel


Dee writes:

I have heard friends (not authors) say that I should not have any writing in (my book) that would refer to a time before the time when the actual scene is taking place… is that true?

I believe what they’re referring to are flashbacks. Flashbacks get a bad rap because they’re often done really poorly. Many authors use them as a crutch, and a lot of the time they make the story very “telly” rather than “showy”. You know the “show don’t tell” rule, yes? Rather than saying “the swamp was hot and muggy” you say “the swamp sweltered with the scent of rot and decay”. The same goes for flashbacks. You don’t want to have your character sitting at a bar, drinking his troubles away, and segue into “Joe remembered how Mary slapped him in the face last night.” You ease into it, finesse it. “Joe stared into his glass of bourbon, his image in the mirror above the bar reflecting the hand-shaped red mark still bright and angry against his left cheek. Mary had got him good. She had reeled back and swung like a batter hitting a home run.” And suddenly we’re in yesterday. Joe is remembering what happened during a time before the actual scene is taking place. This is, technically, a flashback, but it doesn’t feel like one because you’ve eased the reader in, not dropped them into a different time and place. You can’t have a story where you don’t refer to the past. It’s virtually impossible. To do so is to have a character so flat and unappealing, nobody would read your story anyway. The past is what makes us who we are. When someone asks you what makes you you, you don’t say “well, I’m drinking coffee and reading an email right now.” You think back and recall the moments in your past that molded you. The same goes for your characters. To keep them forever in the present is to doom them to not really existing at all.
And a note about taking writing advice from your not-author-friends: don’t take writing advice from anyone who isn’t a writer. That, however, doesn’t mean that your not-author-friends don’t know a good story when they read one. A friend can tell you “this part of the story doesn’t work for me”, and you take that to heart and figure out how to fix it. But if a friend ever tells you “this part doesn’t work, you should do THIS instead”, don’t listen to the tail end of that suggestion. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but never allow someone else to dictate your story for you.

Dee writes:

Is it harmful for my main character (villain) to have “human” moments although she is very sadistic?

Villains having “human” moments is absolutely key to making a villain real. If you have a chance, pick up my book titled The Neighbors and pay attention to Harlow Ward. Harlow is sick, twisted, terrible… but at the end of the book, during her most horrid, the main character (and hopefully the reader) actually end up momentarily defending her horrendous actions. A lot of readers hate being made to feel bad for a character that’s supposed to be evil, but I love doing it. One rule to remember about villains is that they don’t know they’re the bad guy. Every character has to have motivation, and the bad guy’s motivation (unless you want your bad guy to be a cartoon cliche) is never “I’m going to destroy the world”. The dude who wants to blow up the Empire State Building is doing it not because he wants to kill a bunch of people or throw New York City into turmoil; he wants to do it because he’s been wronged, because he has a chip on his shoulder, because be believes he DESERVES to see the Empire State Building go down in flames. Something happened to that villain to make him want to do what he wants to do. It all boils down to emotions, to feeling like he’s been slighted, and that’s a very human response.


So, there it is. If you yourself have writing questions, feel free to email them to me at ania@aniaahlborn.com. I’m always happy to answer, as long as you’re happy to let me share my answers with others.



2 thoughts on “On Pacing, Flashbacks, and Bad Guys Being Bad: An Email Response

  1. Well said. I feel that the scariest (human) villains are the ones you can relate to. A book that can make you care about the antagonist is a well written book indeed.

  2. Hey Ania,

    (sorry for my poor English, I’m from Germany)
    Maybe you’ve already seen it, but nevertheless I wanted you to know that somebody left a comment at the bottom of the “The Birdeater”-product-page (Kindle-Edition) on Amazon.com, with a link that probably leads to pirated copy of your book. 😦 Maybe you should get in contact with APub an request them to delete this st**** comment.

    Kind regards,

    Daniel Dersch

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