Monday, May 31, 2010

You're Out of Order!: Using Flashbacks

Here's a blog post from the archives on a topic near and dear to my heart: flashbacks. 

In looking over my stories, I can't help but see a trend. I confess: I'm a flashback junkie. I'm all over the place in time; days, months, years, decades and even...*ah hem*...centuries.

Granted, there is a difference between time travel and flashback. You don't have to have flashbacks in a time travel novel and you certainly don't have to be writing a time travel novel to use flashbacks. But, in a way, flashbacks are time travel. According to Dictionary.com, flashbacks are:

a device in the narrative of a motion picture, novel, etc., by which an event or scene taking place before the present time in the narrative is inserted into the chronological structure of the work.

Yep, sounds like time travel to me. Furthermore, in writing flashbacks you likely slip briefly from the standard past tense (what we generally already write in) to past perfect (like "had done") to transition to and from the flashback time. Or, you use devices like chapter beginnings, italics or asteriks to offset the flashback.

Yes, flashbacks can be clunky in many ways. And it does get confusing to consider when or how to use a flashback. Personally, I think their "bad name" stems a bit from a case of mistaken identity and misuse. For instance, I've noticed that flashbacks are often tied to other topics like "backstory" and "prologues." This is something I've confused as well.

The question is, isn't there enough to worry about in your chronological story then to bring in complications? It's no wonder writers - - beginning writers especially - - are warned off from flashbacks. You only have to do an internet search (see list of links below -sorry, I lost track of where I found what!) to get plenty of warnings (basically, "avoid at all costs" and "almost always a mistake") and explanations of the disadvantages --and advantages, but they get pushed to the end. It's like everyone is interested (tons of articles attest to this) but feel obliged to say a few words of caution first. So, to follow the pattern...

The disadvantages of flashbacks:
  • lacks immediacy;
  • old information/already over;
  • distracts from the present or interrupts forward momentum (I think of as the "meanwhile, back at the ranch" syndrome);
  • could have a "tennis match" effect (multiple flashback confusion - think the TV series Lost);
  • or the advice that it doesn't fit the romance genre; "In the romance genre in particular, the current storytelling style calls for streamlined text mostly free of "she remembered the time-isms."
  • or, interestingly, can be a writer's way of "running away from [writing the] conflict" in the present.
Hmm. Lots of problems. But, guess what? Some of those disadvantages have appeal. I like tennis. I liked the back and forth of Lost. And I suppose I might not be writing a traditional romance. As for "running away from conflict"...well, moving on (*LOL*), I think a common thread in my writing is that my kind of writing (time travel and suspense) goes together with flashbacks like peanut butter and jelly. I'd go so far as to say I'm on my way to embracing flashbacks as part of my writing style.

So, I'm not swayed by the warnings, but I am considering where I've gone wrong a time or two (or many!). I think the main thing I'm going to have to work on is checking that my flashbacks are integrated into my story, which I found to be a common theme for what makes a flashback work. A few of the ways to integrate (from the articles):
  • Never start a flashback too early in the story. Let the present get a firm foothold. (Which makes me rethink prologues as well. It's taken me a while to be a convert, but consider: do you really want to build the beginning of the story twice?)

  • Lead into flashback from a strong scene in the present story time; no standing at the window remembering the past; includes use of triggers in the story time present that link to the flashback.

  • Flashbacks can drive a plot twist. Again the word integrated comes up, such as in integrated clues for for suspense. Something new each time is learned; which can include shocking secrets.

  • Remember the lapse of time in the story time present while in the flashback past; is it just weird to spend hours or days in a flashback remembrance when it only took a few minutes in the present? (exception: actual time travel, of course!).
And that's just the beginning! In fact, I'm looking into a method of writing flashbacks that is similar to a "formula" or "frame" that begins into a present but repeatedly goes back in time with flashbacks until a certain point when time catches up. (Did I not say I was a flashback junkie?)

So, how about it? How do you feel about flashbacks - - both writing them and reading them?

Related links:

How to Write Flashbacks into Fiction - from eHow.com

3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks - Writer's Digest by Nancy Kress

The Art of Flashback - pdf. from the Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group

On Flashbacks - by James N. Frey

Novel Writing: Dealing with Flashbacks and Repressed Memories - Lawrence Ez's blog

Flashback: Backstory told in Scene - from blog Through the Tollbooth

Time, Chronology, Flashbacks - Explore Writing (UK)

Flashback or Backstory? What's the Difference? - Timothy's Thoughts Blog

Writing the Flashback in Fiction - Ezine article by Joy Cagil

Flashbacks - Leaping and Posturing with mystery author Meg Chittenden

3 comments:

  1. I feel like flashbacks have gotten a bad rep because of the backstory issue, as you mentioned. I think they're put in a story, though, to deal with the "show, don't tell" rule. LOL God, all these competing rules, right?

    Otherwise, the characters will just "remember" how something affected them, and it isn't as powerful as when you demonstrate that, thru the flashback.

    I say you should do what works for your story, not what works for the rules. At one point, the rules were different -- they get amended as times, and readers' tastes, change. :)

    Great topic!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Donna,
    I think you pegged it when you say that the "rules" get amended as times, and reader's tastes change. Sometimes I feel like I'm out of touch with what that taste is from not reading as much in the romance genre as I use to. Other times I think ignorance is bliss. *LOL*

    ReplyDelete
  3. Melissa,

    I'm going to go with the ignorance is bliss thing too. LOL I like what I write, and I like to READ what I write. So I'm gonna stick with that, and let the rules catch up with ME! LOL

    ReplyDelete

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