I am editing my next book, Flipside and I notice I used a certain device a great deal which I no longer use to the same extent. In Flipside I don’t tell all of the story in chronological order of the events I am describing.
“Kill the lights! Kill the lights!” he hissed and jumped across me and grabbing the neck of the lamp, yanked it from its socket and hurled it across the room so it smashed against the far wall.
He bounded from the bed and went to the window, standing back against the wall beside it, peeping out and I was suddenly afraid that he might break the window to fire from it.
I could see in the light from the street lamp that he was terrified. He was saying something but I couldn’t understand a word because he was stuttering so badly.
The opening lines; but to find out who these people are and what is happening the story has to dodge back in time to the previous morning. However it does not lead from here straight back to the unexpected events in the night, but to the following morning. What happened is only gradually explained, drip-fed to the reader as the characters are established and the background to the story – that Jaz, the main character has unexpectedly quit her head of faculty job at a school in Bristol and moved North to Oldham to be with her recently widowed brother, Kiran. There is quite a bit of jumping about until there is a dramatic confrontation between Kiran and his best friend.
I used this device deliberately to spread the drama out over a couple of chapters, but also as a sort of tease to the reader so s/he would have a few surprises along the way. I do a similar thing at the beginning of the second part of the book:
I sat with my feet in the gutter, my back against the telephone box. I’d been sick down the drain by the kerb outside Miss Minnishin’s house. Now I was sitting on the opposite side of the road, trying not to think, trying not to remember. Every time the image rolled down, vividly like a photographic slide in my mind, I gagged again.
The policemen who’d arrived first had said I could sit in their car. They looked as if they needed to sit in it themselves, anyway I wanted to be outside, to feel the wind and the fine drizzle of rain on my skin. They let me stay where I was, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to go anywhere or do anything, I could barely stand, let alone wander off.
The picture clicked in my brain again and I heaved, retched violently. I wasn’t sick, there was nothing left inside and anyway I had my scarf stuffed into my mouth. My eyes flooded and streamed.
I don’t immediately explain what has happened because I want to entice the reader to go on reading, and I only gradually recount what Jaz saw which has so shocked and disgusted her.
I don’t only do this with events; the back story of the various characters is only revealed slowly, and in fact one particular secret is revealed in the last paragraph of the novel. These truths are only slowly revealed by the characters to each other, and that is normal in relationships, not everyone tells everything to a new friend or lover; sometimes for perfectly normal reasons, sometimes for other, darker, or sadder reasons, and so it is with Jaz and the people who she meets in her new school and her new town.
As a writer, however, I have to make sure that the whole thing doesn’t just develop into a muddle so the reader has no idea at all what’s happening or what is being referred to, and nor does s/he feel cheated by some unexpected and totally ludicrous piece of background information is produced to explain everything. When there is something unexpected going to be brought into the story I try to lay a trail of subtle clues, which if the reader should ever reread the book they will notice and pick up.
For some reason I don’t use this device quite so much any more, although I’m not sure why; I hope it works in Flipside though!