story craft #4 Flashbang

Mike Grist Stories, Story Craft 7 Comments

I’ve been told I sometimes write in a flashbang style. This has manifested itself in several kinds of feedback-

– I can’t read for more than 10 minutes at a time. It’s exhausting.

– Some of the sequences left me really feeling the pain the main character felt.

– Stop hurting him and give him some happy times.

So what is flashbang? I can think of two corollaries. One- Michael Bay. *shudders*. Two- an overexcited American teenage girl delivering just a little content with a lot of verby enthusiasm- ‘so like, there was us two guys, and oh my gosh, it was amazing, like, you guys, it was sooo freakin awesome, you know, and like…’

I write like that?

The point is…

Sort of, though not quite like that. The point is that it is tiring. In my writing it has been a gravitation towards pain, suffering, explosions, and the extreme end of conflict. There are whole forests of superlative adjectives, great oceans filled with blood, volcanic eruptions of violence.**

And in all that the smaller bits and pieces that make a story palatable, enjoyable, and something you can relax into probably get lost. While the main character is gritting his teeth bravely through the horrific torture or slogging his way with one arm shattered and swollen up the side of a mountain, we the readers are leaning back and going ‘phew’. And if that is the majority of the writing, that level of fever pitch flashbangery is maintained throughout, surely we stop believing in any of it.

Life is just not that intense all the time. It would be inhuman. Most of the time there are calm moments, and we laugh, joke, love quietly, even have quiet simmering conflict. We don’t every day have the apex of emotional experience.

Why so much blood?

So why do I write like this? I suspect it’s a few things-

1- Something to do with the way I sit down to write. I put on some intense post-rock music, flex my fingers, then for a few hours do battle with the keyboard. I’m always looking to top whatever came last, and the frantic pace I write at coupled with the gravitas of the music doesn’t leave much room for mellow thoughts.

I can fix this part by changing the music I listen to. What I need is some good classical music, with a range of variations and emotional peaks and troughs. Pop music with lyrics is too distracting. I can also just make the effort to slow the pace down a bit, and include the little bits that make life worth living. Spread the flashbang moments further and further out.

2- The fact I don’t plan out my story. Now, of course I have a loose plan- bad guy, conflict, quest for something, etc… But until the story is written, I just can’t hash out a sturdy structure to follow. This results in every scene potentially being a big scene, so I write as if there’s no tomorrow. I write the hell out of that scene. I put it all on the line every time. And that’s fine for me, it’s my moment of intensity each day. But for the reader leap-frogging from scene to scene in a matter of minutes, it must become too rich, dense, cloying, to be able to stomach. Like eating only caviar every day, for every meal. Ugh.

I can fix this in the second/third draft. At that stage I know the structure of the book, and know where the high points should be, and where they shouldn’t be. So that’s what I’m doing now, in the rewrite. The first section of Dawn, that began life as a few pages saying in a tell style basically- ‘he grew up and got some awesome close friends’ is now ballooning to 40, 50, or more pages. There are lots more slow moments (I think). More gradual escalation of emotion. More bits of humor and reality. Hopefully I can fix it in future novels by just bearing it in mind. We don’t need intensity all the time. Fun times and gradual development work better.

And in the process…

In the process of doing this, padding out my character’s arc-ends with middles and beginnings, I get to know them more. I get to care about them more. When they run up against a problem they can’t fix and they can’t beat, I care for them more. It sets up a conflict gap they will long to bridge, and makes me root for them as they struggle to bridge it.

In the flashbang style, every time they came up against trouble it was like a finale, and they were already ready to up the stakes, and simply by upping the stakes they were able to overcome. But of course not everything should be a finale. Most should be a slow ramp up, filled with ups and downs. Overall it should make the characters more real, more funny, more fun to be with. And not exhausting. Like, oh my gosh, whatever.

**- That’s a little flashbang right there.

Comments 7

  1. I guess if you describe it that way, I too write in a flashbang style. Though not as intense, without the music (I think that’s the crux of the style) and not so consuming.

    Thanks for the post, Michael. And for the word ‘flashbang’.

  2. I’ve never seen the word “flashbang” before, but I can see that it fits your writing style. I’m not sure you’ve picked the best examples to illustrate the term, though. For me, Michael Bay’s flashbang is sensually exhausting, but emotionally arid. “Teen-speak” is vapid. On the other hand, your writing, even when exhaustingly intense always grabs me emotionally. That’s why it hurts so (sometimes too) much.

    However, judging by your short fiction that I’ve read on this site, that’s a good thing. I think your flashbang is more asset than liability. Short fiction should ideally be an intense, one-sitting experience. It may not be representative of real life, but if I wanted real life I’d put down the book and go do dishes.

    I can see how the style might not play so well at novel-length, but it sounds like you give pacing its due in your total writing process.

    I think the intensity of your writing is one of its charms (excepting the occassional piece that goes beyond my personal envelope of good taste). Sure, pace yourself and use it strategically when you’re writing a novel

  3. Try some Tori AMos – Scarlet’s Walk album. Chilled out and gorgeous but with a backdrop of passion and a little well thought out Tori tension. You don’t wanna go comatose on us Mikey! x

  4. Post

    Jessie- I’m not sure I can take credit for the word ‘flashbang’ used in this way, it might have originated with a writer friend of mine, also called Mike, who would generally ask me to tone my adjective-use down. “Do you really need all these words?’

    Thanks for your comment, Jessie 🙂

    David- This vote of confidence is great, thanks. I know there’s a balance to be found, it’s just finding it. This is probably what writers talk about when they say you have to find your voice. I have my short story voice, it’s the flashbang one. The novel voice will be that, but yeah, tempered with some careful peaks and troughs.

    The teen-speak and Michael Bay comparisons were more about the fatigue too much breathless intensity can cause, but I’m glad to know my writing’s not as vapid as either 🙂

    Thanks for your comment as always David!

    Al- No sooner said than done, will go look it up now. Cheers!

  5. Ever wonder what the impact of handwriting with pen and paper would have on the character of your writing? What effect would the inefficiencies have on that urge to write at frantic pace?!

    I like Alice’s suggestion of Tori Amos. Something chilled out but in different way: the Lush station on, a donation-supported Internet radio station from Toronto.

  6. Post

    Hi MD, thanks for your comment! As for writing with pen and paper, sure, that’s how I used to write, and the main result was illegibility. My letters become tiny and strung out in a line. Also I’d get frustrated that I’d still have to type everything up anyway. So I moved to PC as soon as I could.

    I tried Tori Amos, both old stuff and the newer one, but it doesn’t really work for me. It’s hard to have her on and not actually listen to what she’s singing, the lyrics, which then just distracts me. I figured classical music might work, but again it’s too familiar, and simple, and pulls my head into it.

    What I need is really just atmospheric noise. Post rock music may be the best, I’ll just vary it and find some that are not only super intense, also have some chilled bits. I wonder if techno music might work also. I’ll try Lush- thanks.

  7. Michael, you may have checked it out already but also has a couple of mostly-instrumental stations that you might consider atmospheric noise:

    Drone Zone – “Served best chilled, safe with most medications. Atmospheric textures with minimal beats.”

    Space Station Soma – “Tune in, turn on, space out. Spaced-out ambient and mid-tempo electronica.”

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