Moving The Story Along

Shorewalker

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#1
So this is a technique that I use frequently. Things have happened, the story has moved along, but nothing is important enough to demand that a scene (and set-up) is devoted to it.

I therefore drop those events into a...reverie? reflection?...from one of my POV characters as other things are happening.

Thing is, I'm not sure whether this stalls the story, looks like an info-dump, takes us out of POV...or all three?

Here's an example. This is deep into my WiP, so everybody's known to the reader and references will be understood. The last time we saw the company, they had started the march south. Not a lot has happened...until today.

*****​


Her forearms resting on the pommel of the saddle, Jenn watched in stunned silence as the Nemlanders sifted through the charred wreckage. With a numb hand, she wiped the snow from her face.

Three days without incident and then utter chaos! Gods, this is sickening!

It had started with one of the wagons snapping an axle no more than half a bell into the morning’s march. Three days out from Black Mound, the army had been passing over the border from Nemland into north-western Venn. In the distance, Jenn had seen the moors softening into fields and pastures, the former bare after the harvest, the latter still green and even, the winter rains and snow yet to churn them.

Pollar Reith had decided he could fix the axle, but that had necessitated the wagon being unloaded, the team being unhitched and the flat-bed being turned on its side.

Unwilling to leave anybody behind, Bruine Root had called a halt, irritating Borne Long-Blade, who had wanted his Nemlanders off and into Venn, rather than standing around freezing in the bitter morning air.

Bruine Root had ordered them to remain, Long-Blade had refused and Jenn had had to get between the Fraction and the D’raishiva before matters escalated to swords being drawn.

By the time the army was on its way again, the skies had turned leaden and ominous. At what might have been noon – Jenn hadn’t been able to tell given the strange, gloomy light – snowflakes had begun to swirl around the column.

They had started out large and wet, prompting Sarlem Metag to optimistically predict that they would not settle. However, the flurries had soon become a constant sheet of small, dry powder. It had not been long before the army was tramping through a blizzard that blanketed the fields in less time than it had taken to fix the wagon.

Fortunately, the Nemlanders were no strangers to snow and jogged on without slowing or complaint. Unfortunately, the storm cut down visibility, prompting Bruine Root to send out more scouting parties and slow the pace of the main force.

All of this had been frustrating, inconveniences best dealt with through black humour. However, Jenn had found little humour to be had in the afternoon’s discoveries.

Whilst the Watch had anticipated bringing a thousand warriors back from Sarangel, they had certainly not planned for five thousand Nemlanders swelling their ranks. Whilst supply levels were not yet critical, Sarlem Metag had plotted a march that would allow them to pick up provisions, enough to keep them going if not exactly replenish their stores.

Ultimately, Jenn knew they wanted to reach the city of Kancor, three more days travel in good conditions, but Metag had assured her that they could secure enough food in the villages to get them there. There would be farmers happy to sell their crops or livestock for the right amount of coin and coin was one thing the Watch were not lacking. Jenn had learned that three millennia as a mercenary company had amassed them a fortune sufficient to buy a small kingdom.

Belmont Cree was to have been their first port of call, a village of perhaps thirty cottages with close to a dozen farms in the surrounding areas. Jenn had no real idea how many people had lived there when Metag had laid out his plan that morning, but she knew the village’s population exactly by mid-afternoon; none. Sometime earlier in the day, every man, woman and child had been slaughtered, some of their corpses now half-buried beneath the snow that covered the main street, others blackened beyond recognition in the shells of houses that had been torched or blasted to ruins.

According to the returning patrols, the outlying farms had fared no better, farmsteads, stables and barns all set alight, the owners eviscerated in their yards or burned alive.

Heart heavy and numb with grief, Jenn watched silently from Brand’s back as the Nemlanders continued searching the shattered village. To her left were the remains of an inn, the stone of the ground floor walls mainly intact, everything else a smoking ruin. She thought she had spied charred limbs jutting out from the debris at impossible angles and so she kept her gaze to the front. That, however, proved to be of little comfort, as the men made gruesome discovery after gruesome discovery along the main thoroughfare.

Even without the handful of lizard-like bodies – a few of the villagers had obviously put up some resistance – she knew this was the work of the Bard’eth Vaan. It was the Watch’s first sign of the demons since they had returned from Sarangel and matters were clearly now escalating.

“Beyond what they’ve taken for themselves, they’ve slaughtered most of the livestock,” reported Sarlem Metag, pulling in his roan stallion. The man’s usual swagger was absent, Jenn noted, his features ashen.

“We did find a herd of cattle that they’d missed the other side of a rise, so that’s something. However, they’ve also thrown bodies into the well, so the water is fouled.”

“And where are they now?” asked Jenn tersely. She had been cold for most of the day, but anger had chased the chill from her bones.

Metag shook his head. “There’s no way to tell. Whatever tracks they left are now buried beneath the snow. If this continues,” he looked to the grey heavens, from where flakes continued to fall, “any tracks they make from now on will soon be covered.”

“Why would they do this?” Arlin and Nadia sat their own horses behind Jenn and it was the Cloud Rider who spoke. Jenn thought the man remarkably calm, but then remembered what he had told her of Nalagor raids. This was not the first time he had seen a village wiped from the charts.

“So far, they’ve only been concerned with us,” he continued, “so what’s the point in random destruction?”

Metag shrugged, his moustache now thick with snow, giving the man an absurdly comical look that Jenn thought ill-suited to the afternoon’s events.

“I can’t say for certain, but I suspect they know our supplies are stretched thin and they’re trying to deny us food and water. If the well is any indication, I wouldn’t trust any watercourse from here on. It’s easy enough to taint a river or stream, but whilst it’s going to slow us, the snow will actually be a boon.”

Jenn didn’t understand but from Arlin’s nod, it was clear that he did. The Cloud Rider saw her confusion and explained.

“I’d imagine that every man and woman is currently packing skins and barrels with all the snow they can fit in. It might not be water yet, but it will be the purest you’ll ever taste once it melts.”

Metag nodded. “Root will leave a few hundred here to bury the dead, but he wants the rest of us to make camp a league or two south. There’s high ground and plenty of trees for shelter and wood for the fires. He’s sent Long-Blade and Pollar ahead with a thousand men. They’ll secure the area and sniff out pockets of Vaan, if any have lingered. We won’t be going much further this day.”

“And Root thought it a good idea to leave Pollar and the Fraction alone?”

The Armsman smiled tightly. “Nothing to concern yourself over, my lady. There’s Vaan out there and that’s all they’ll be thinking about. All differences are set aside where the demons are concerned.”

“Remarkably mature of them,” muttered Jenn under her breath. She would have preferred to have made further progress, but the day had already brought enough ill-luck. Calling a premature halt might not be the worst thing, and she could hope that a new dawn would offer better fortune.

Not for the people of Belmont Cree, though. The Watch had suffered broken wagons, bickering and foul weather. The inhabitants of the village had lost their lives to a horde of twisted demons. Jenn knew who had had the worst of it.

She looked around at the cooling corpse of the village, the slaughter and the falling snow bringing silence to what would have once been full of life. “I’ll be waiting here until they’ve buried everyone.”

Metag made to protest, but Jenn held up a gloved hand. “It’s not a matter for debate. If we fail, this is a scene that will be repeated across this breadth of this world. If the Vaan capture me, it’s likely to be repeated across the whole of Galea’s Shore. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in our own problems and forget what we’re truly facing. For their last act, the people of Belmont Cree can serve as a bitter reminder.”

Turning in the saddle, Jenn waved Nadia and Arlin forward. “Go with Metag and get settled in.”

Nadia simply glared. “We’ll be leaving when you do…and that’s not up for debate, either.”
 
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#2
The story is interesting, but for me, this piece is, in part at least, an info dump. We begin in the character's POV and then switch to narration by the author. I found the switch back to the POV character confusing.

“Beyond what they’ve taken for themselves, they’ve slaughtered most of the livestock,” reported Sarlem Metag, pulling in his roan stallion. The man’s usual swagger was absent, Jenn noted, his features ashen.
Just a small point, but words such as "noted" (and "watched") put distance between the reader and the POV character.
"Sarlem Metag pulled his stallion up alongside, his usual swagger absent, his face ashen. 'Beyond what they’ve taken for themselves, they’ve slaughtered most of the livestock.'"
 

Shorewalker

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#3
Thanks a lot, VinceK.

The 'info-dump' is actually our POV character remembering the events of the day, but I hate using 'Jenn sat and thought about what had happened...', 'Jenn thought back to that morning...'

Probably to my detriment!
 

HareBrain

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#4
The "flashback" feels quite distancing, I think. It is your POV character remembering, but it's unlikely that at that particular moment Jenn goes over all those events in her mind, in order. So it feels like narration. Also, you use pluperfect almost all the time during that section, which is technically correct, but also distancing. In a lengthy flashback, it's more conventional to use "had" a couple of times, or in one paragraph, then normal past tense, then pluperfect again a couple of times as you transition back.

I wonder, though, if you wouldn't be better off writing this in normal sequence, not as a close-third scene, but as a narrative summary. That's effectively what you've got here anyway, but with the added awkwardness of it being a flashback. Either that, or keep it in closer third and have the flashback events come out as shorter references or in dialogue. That's more work, clearly, but I think would be more effective.
 

Shorewalker

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#5
Thank you HareBrain!

This is exactly why I posted this piece and your comments are inordinately useful. A small piece of narration, bringing us up to date, before we close in on our POV would be no trouble...but is it frowned upon? They will always be events that our POV in this (or any other) scene has personally experienced, so is that acceptable? It would be our POV narrating, and then coming into close here-and-now.

Sometimes prior events can be explained in dialogue, and I'll always use that option when available, but in other cases, it would simply be stilted and unnatural. I suppose that a lot of the info is scene-setting, needed in this case to explain the growing mood...which carries over into the next scene, so is fairly important, but not important enough to actually carry its own scene.
 

HareBrain

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#6
A small piece of narration, bringing us up to date, before we close in on our POV would be no trouble...but is it frowned upon? They will always be events that our POV in this (or any other) scene has personally experienced, so is that acceptable?
It's perfectly acceptable as long as it doesn't stand out too much. If you've spent the whole book in *very* close third apart from this one section, it might feel uncomfortable for the reader, same as a single instance of head-hopping or any other authorial device. But as you said, you're not breaking POV, so I think it'll be fine.
 

Shorewalker

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#7
I have three main POVs in the book, so I use it with some frequency. It works to bring us up-to-date when we shift to a new POV. It's not always necessary, so sometimes we're just straight in and prior events can be covered in dialogue.
 

night_wrtr

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#8
I was going to say the same thing about the use of "had" so many times in this piece, that it became a distraction. It does read like a chunk of info though, mostly because it’s a long section of getting upto speed. Can it be condensed a bit, still giving us the needed info, but not drawing so much attention to it?
 

tinkerdan

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#9
I like this even though it slows things down. There really is no right way to do this kind of info exploration.
I find it difficult to fully determine when the flashback or whatever actually ends and I think that might make it longer and more grueling; however I can't tell.

As someone mentioned:
doing a few lines of pluperfect and then dropping into normal past tense for the bulk and coming out at the end with a few lines of pluperfect would help me.

However it might bear some consideration toward tightening the whole flashback. My thought is that not much happens so it really is an information dump and if it is important to understanding something in the story then it must be done; however if you can do it quick and with fewer words and still get the important information across that would help.

I'd love to guide you through it however I'd have to know what was important and even so I'd end up rewriting the whole thing just to give the example.

Also in the flashback there seems to be a shopping list of characters to whom specific actions are attributed and I wonder how important it is to know who did what--at this point in the story--and if it is important if you couldn't give a summary of events first at this point and fill in details later when the reader might need to know. Again that could be difficult for me to know since I've no idea how important this stuff is to the whole story.
My 2cents
 

Brian G Turner

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#11
My main comment is that most of the first half is effectively a big info-dump. Everything before:

Heart heavy and numb with grief, Jenn watched
is basically trying to explain the situation before the story begins - rather than the story beginning.

You also have an awful lot of character names appearing - by all means, introduce who you want, but be aware that the more names you give, the more confusing it will be to remember who is who and anything about them. You could consider having just one or two close companions she can discuss things with, which will give you an opportunity to draw these characters in memorable terms.

Also, while Jenn talks, and has visceral reactions, I'm not getting much in terms of her motivation - and I don't yet know what type of character she is: is she a knight, a commander, a wagoner?

Aside from all that, it's not a bad piece of writing - you clearly set a set and have lots of detail setting out from it - it's just that IMO it's just a case of starting the story in the wrong place, and could do with a little more shape to give it more strength.
 

Shorewalker

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#12
Just a little FYI...this is deep into the WiP...Chapter 18 to be exact...so the characters mentioned are already fully fleshed out and their actions should be hitting notes with the reader.

I'd add more, but it's my 15th wedding anniversary and I'm three sheets to the wind right now.

Still...thanks to all of you lovely people!
 

Toby Frost

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#13
I find this sort of compressed description quite difficult to write. It does seem to be necessary sometimes, especially when describing the general experience of a journey.

I’m not sure that I’d call this an info-dump as such, but I do think that it doesn’t work as well as it could. My main objection is that it’s being squashed in as a reminiscence, rather than just being told to the reader as straight description of what happened. If it was me writing this, I would put in a scene break, then describe what happened to the group in the perfect tense rather than the pluperfect (so “the wagons headed north” rather than “the wagons had headed north”). This would be from a distant third-person perspective (ie from the group as a whole) rather than from Jenn’s POV. I would then put in another scene break and move to what Jenn is doing now. Basically, it’s like zooming out and following the group moving across a map (together with dotted glowing line to show their progress), and then zooming back in and focusing on Jenn.

I realise that this is moving from one POV to another, technically speaking, but I see nothing wrong with doing that so long as the break is clear.
 

The Big Peat

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#14
Echoing the others at this point, but this would work a lot better as either

a) A straight recap, rather than a flashback after you've established there's action ahead
b) By starting with the action, then adding parts of the flashback in between paragraphs once our interest in how they came to this state of affairs has been whetted.

As it stands, its well written, but the cart is before the horse in terms of making a reader interested.
 

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