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It's always amazed me that although paintings are flat, they can suggest the physical and emotional depth of reality. The same is true of stories. After all, stories are merely words on a page, completely linear, and yet they're capable of creating the experience of life's multilayered three-dimensional richness in the reader's mind. How does the writer accomplish this? By weaving ongoing subplots, relevant flashbacks, and hints of the future--that is, foreshadowing-- into what's happening in the moment.
This is crucial since subplots give prospective, foreshadowing helps shape the readers expectations, and information culled from backstory and flashbacks help the protagonist decide what to do next. It's just like in real life. We are wired to use both the past and any auxiliary info we can summon to evaluate the present. Your goal as a writer is to be sure your story has these multiple layers and then to make sure the information you're weaving in comes at the exact right moment.
So the reader sees it as necessary, rather than as one of those deadly digressions. Let's start with subplots. Subplots flesh out the story in countless ways. They can complicate the main storyline, provide the why behind the protagonist's action, plug up any other ways of gaping plot holes, introduce characters who will soon play a pivotal role, and show us things that are happening concurrently. But all subplots have three things in common.
One, they all arc, meaning they have a resolution. Everything they set up pays off. Two, they all impact on the main storyline in some way. Three, they all dovetail back into the main storyline, moving it forward. In short, a subplot's reason for being is always to serve the main storyline. The same is true of flashbacks and backstory, which are both cut from the same cloth, things that happened before the story began. What's the difference between them? A flashback stops the story and is a scene itself, usually complete with dialogue.
On the other hand, bits of backstory are woven into the present. They tend to be mere snippets, fragments of memory that run through the protagonist's mind as he experiences and evaluates what's happening in the moment. The key question is how do you know exactly when to weave in flashbacks and subplots? Luckily, there's a simple set of clear cause and effect guidelines. First, there's a specific need or cause that triggers the flashback.
The only reason to go into a flashback or subplot scene is that without it what happens next in the main storyline won't quite make sense. Second, that cause needs to be clear from the moment you ease into the scene, so the reader knows why it's relevant. Third, when the scene ends, the information it provided must immediately affect-- that is, change--how the reader sees the story from that point on.
Finally, let's talk about foreshadowing. Foreshadowing hints at what's to come, which is often what pulls the reader in. Instead of squashing suspense, foreshadowing often spurs it. For instance, starting a chapter with, "Tonight was the night I would be fired," gives the reader a yardstick by which they then evaluate everything that happens as they eagerly await what it is that will actually get the protagonist fired.
Foreshadowing is also an incredibly useful tool when you know that your protagonist will soon be doing something that's out of the ordinary, either because it's something that you would never do, or because it's physically impossible. You can use foreshadowing to make just about anything believable. Here's how: long before the story demands your protagonist do something they otherwise wouldn't or couldn't, like fly or speak ancient Aramaic, you need to let us know that they have that ability by either showing them doing it long before the story actually hinges on it, or by giving us enough clues along the way so that when they do it it's not only believable, but satisfying.
It's mastering the art of weaving in and out of subplots, flashbacks, and foreshadowing that enables you to give perspective to the story you're telling. This is a big part of what makes stories feel just like life.
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