Plot Sequence: Linear vs. Flashbacks

When I started writing The Wandering King and first outlined my plot, I decided that I wanted to start the story right in the middle of battle.  I’ve seen other authors do this and it works well.  From page one the reader is thrust into the action.  I thought this was an effective way of immediately grabbing the reader’s attention and getting them to flip the page.

By starting in the midst of a battle, I discovered that I wasn’t going to be able to talk about the events that led up to the battle, or the events of my main character Euryanax’s youth, so I devised what I thought was a clever way around this: the use of flashbacks.

The battle in the opening of The Wandering King was a small skirmish discussed in Herodotus that kicked off a series of events that led to the formation of the world’s first democracy in Athens.  This seemed the perfect way to tell the story of Athens’ democratic revolution. So the first section of the book told the tale of how the Spartans sent a small expeditionary force to Athens to free them from the rule of the tyrant Hippias.  This entire section was about one day in the life of Euryanax and a small band of 300 Spartans (the number 300 turns up a lot in Spartan history) as they fought against Hippias’ mercenaries on the plains of Phalerum.

At the end of the battle Euryanax suffers a head wound that leaves him half out of his mind.  This is strictly a plot device to be able to discuss the events that led up to the battle, The second section of The Wandering King consisted of Euryanax recovering from his wound and dreaming about various events that led up to battle.  This way i was able to inject stories about Euryanax’s youth and about his adventures wandering around the Mediterranean.

The third and final section of the book, brought the story back to the ‘present’.  Naturally Euryanax recovers from his wound and as one of the few survivors of the Spartan expedition to overthrow the Athenian tyrant, he becomes involved with the revolutionary parties inside Athens, whom he joins and helps overthrow Hippias, which ultimately leads to the formation of the world’s first democratic state. Good way to tell a story right?  Wrong.

My problems began when i completed the book and started thinking about its sequel.  Before the democratic revolution at Athens, when Euryanax was a teen, he wandered all over the Mediterranean with his father Dorieus and his army.  That’s the story I wanted to tell in Book Two of the series.  Only it meant telling a story that occurred before the events covered in Book One, and it began clashing with the flashback sequences.

Argh.  Suddenly what I thought was a neatly laid out story with a clever twist in the middle, suddenly was becoming a jumbled mess.  Analyzing my story I realized I’d goofed by inserting flashbacks into the center of Book One.  Double argh.  I knew I would be better off telling a linear story from start to finish.  Which meant that Book One could not start in the middle of the battle.  Ah well, it was a nice idea, but it wasn’t working.

Instead i decided to start the story with one the flashbacks, about when Euryanax was a young boy and competed in one of Sparta’s festivals called the Planistai, or The Festival of the Plane Tree Grove.  There would still be action in the opening, but it would be a different kind of battle, a battle between 12-year olds.

The Planistai is one of Spara’s many ritual rites of passage.  It involves two teams of young boys and girls.  In the middle of the Eurotas River that winds around Sparta’s five villages, is an island covered with plane trees, called the Plane Tree Grove.  On either side of the river are bridges that lead to the island.  On one bridge is a statue of Herakles and on the other bridge a statue of the lawgiver Lycurgus.  A team of youths is stationed on each bridge and on the signal to begin they rush across the bridges onto the little island where they proceed to fight it out with their fists, feet and teeth.  The goal of the contest is to throw the other team into the river.  Whichever side throws all their opponents into the Eurotas wins.  This was one of the flashbacks contained in my original tale, but when I realized I wanted to tell the story in a linear fashion from start to finish, I realized it was the point in the story where Euryanax was the youngest and it would make an excellent place to start my book.

Once I began re-writing, ripping out the flashbacks and placing everything in sequential order, I realized that what I thought was Book Two in my series, the story of Eury’s wandering across Libya, Italy and Sicily, was now the subject of Book One, and the story of Athen’s democratic revolution would have to get pushed back into Book Two.  Ironcially, Book Two was more than half finished, but I needed to create most of Book One from scratch.  A little frustrating as most of the work I’ve already put into the series is now residing in Book Two, but I was not about to release Book Two before Book One.

After going back to the drawing board and working feverishly on Book One, about Eury’s wandering with his father and their army, is now about 75% complete.  I’m working on the ending chapters now.  My goal is to have it finished early in 2013 and if  all goes well I’ll have Book Two out in 2014.

I’m setting all of this down in my blog simply to point out that even when you think you know your story, sometimes you don’t.  You learn as you go.  It was aggravating to think I had my book done, only to realize there was a better, smarter way to tell the story.

Although somewhat frustrating, in the end I’ll end up with a better series of books that tell the story from start to finish, rather than confusing the reader with flashbacks spliced in here and there.  Initially I thought the idea of using flashbacks was a clever plot device, but in the long run I’ve learned that because I’m writing a series of books, I’m better off telling my story from start to finish in a simple, linear fashion.

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