I've been told that flashbacks are never good in a first chapter. Does that rule hold true for the whole book? Is it possible to have a target audience ages 16-21? My story line starts in high school, but goes into college.
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quote:I've been told that flashbacks are never good in a first chapter. Does that rule hold true for the whole book?
I'm not a big fan of the never rules. That said, an extensive flashback right at the beginning could lose the reader's trust. It's a lot like the waking up from a dream scenario--your readers may feel tricked.
As for the rest of the book, a whole lot depends on how--and how well--you handle the flashback.
quote:Is it possible to have a target audience ages 16-21? My story line starts in high school, but goes into college.
I don't know why not. But I'd still call the novel YA.
16+ would fall squarely in YA, but there's another category I've heard some agents and editors talking about that's a little older-skewed YA. College-age or post-high-school-but-not-really-adult-world/responsibilities-yet ages.
I've heard a name for it but am completely blanking on the term. But yes, there's definitely a market for the older YA age range, but think about what your story is about and what themes you want to explore, because a story that's a "crossover" (meaning it'd appeal to others beyond the age 16-21 target) has a broader range of marketability than a story that's really specific to an age (e.g., only 16 year olds would be interested in this. Anyone not currently 16 would find it boring/too mature/too immature/whatever.)
YA can explore pretty much any theme, but if you plan to get really graphic with violence or sexual content, you'll push yourself out of the market (remember a lot of YA is bought by middle school and high school libraries and/or recommended to kids by the librarians and media specialists who work there.)
I write YA, but younger-themed, borderline middle-grade (my protags are generally 14, though, which puts me squarely in YA. Protags 13 and under are generally classified in middle-grade.) I keep my themes tame (personal desire and interest. Plenty to explore without going graphic.) I believe strongly in the market because I read heavily in it and know that there isn't a lot of what I write (YA sci-fi with girls as the main protags.)
If you're looking for an idea of the difference - you could try out some of Scott Westerfeld's books. I just read his book Peeps, which features a 19 year old protag and is in that older YA category, in my opinion. He also has a series starting with a book called Uglies (excellent book) that is straight YA, as the protag is 15 and the themes are much tamer.
Good luck to you either way. Oh, and my 2c on flashbacks - limited use, fine. But think about why you're using them and whether that information could/should be conveyed in a different way. Maybe, maybe not, but consider it carefully. I think some writers throw in flashbacks because they have some bit of boring backstory they want to tell the reader, but they know they should "show, not tell." Nice in theory, but sometimes it's faster to just sum up, or the information isn't necessary to the storytelling (but it's important for the author to have worked out the backstory even if he/she doesn't tell the reader.)
Terry, I've heard that flashbacks are frowned on in the first chapter, because it generally means that the story isn't starting in the right place.
However... I have read many stories where the first scene takes place much later on in the story and then goes back and shows how it happened. Think Wuthering Heights. That can set a tension because you know things will end badly as you go along for the journey. I.E. a good thing.
I suggest if you do want to do a flashback earlier on you spend a lot of time really showing where they are and who they are in the future. Really set it in strong, especially the negative or darker aspects, so when you go back in time and the character is naive and happy, you know something bad will happen and that hooks the reader.
And I wouldn't worry to much about the age. I know the genre you write in, and there are a lot of successful stories that do that. Anita Stansfield's Jason Woolf stories, for example, start in high school and go until he is in his late thirties.
So just write the story that is talking to you. Good luck, ~Sheena
As JamieFord asked, Can you just start the story there? I have been thinking about this and wanted posse some follow up questions. Thank you to those who stick with me.
What if you just start the story at the point you were going to have a flash back to? I have contemplated having an opening such as this but I do have some worries. If in place of a flashback you start the story in the past moment where does this leave you after the first chapter?
Plenty of times in movies and television shows you have an opening sequence followed by a "Seven years (months, days, hours) later" subtitle and we accept that and it works fine. But how well does that work in a novel?
As Shimiqua points out there are "many stories where the first scene takes place much later on in the story and then goes back and shows how it happened." But what we are talking about here is the opposite. The start in the past (flashback time) and jumping forward after the first chapter.
My big concern is one Meredith points out, that a flashback (or jump in present tense of the story) may lose the reader's trust or interest. This is not as much of a problem with the "show how it happened" style that shimiqua mentions because the tension is built in and the reader is likely to want to know how it happened. But with a first chapter in the past followed by a time jump I worry that you may run the risk of losing the reader because you essentially have to start twice.
Think about Harry Potter (a convenient and familiar example for most). The first chapter starts farther back in time with Harry being young and dropped at the Dursley's doorstep and then there is a significant jump in time to when Harry is old enough to attend Hogwarts. This seemed to have worked well enough because most people kept on reading. In my opinion the first chapter of Harry Potter reads as a prologue trying to disguise itself as a chapter.
But what if an alternative method was taken? What if the first chapter had depicted the Potter's time in hiding and eventual death at the hands of Voldermort and then we had the time jump to Harry growing up? Could such a beginning work? Or should such a disconnected beginning as one focused on the Parents be segmented off as a prologue (another contentious device)?
I realize that I have rambled on quite a bit, posed more questions than answers, and used a bit too many parenthetical asides. I hope that I have tossed some kerosene onto the brain burner. What are people's thoughts on this issue, time jump, prologue or flashback? Can any of these be a truly strong beginning? If anyone can think of a book that does this well, I would love to know.
Especially about the age. To be honest...and here I mean absolutely no disrespect to our esteemed colleagues who use and writer under the label...but I find the whole concept of "YA" to be rather assinine. Of course, I don't buy into many of the things our culture currently promotes as regards age...I don't think its nearly as important as we're lead to believe.
When I was a kid, I read a LOT and many of the things I read were (supposedly) geared toward younger readers but many, many of them were definitely not. I made and saw no distinctions.
Personally, I'd think of your target audience in terms of story-type preference, rather than age.
quote:What are people's thoughts on this issue, time jump, prologue or flashback? Can any of these be a truly strong beginning? If anyone can think of a book that does this well, I would love to know.
Of course all of these devices can be used to produce strong beginnings, but they come at a cost. As mentioned before, they make the reader go through two starts and could lose the trust or interest of the reader.
Telling a straight forward linear story is the easiest to write and easiest to read, but it is not always the best way to tell a story. However, you need to have a good reason to start your story with a time jump or with a flashback. You need to make sure that the benefit is worth the cost.
My opinion is that most stories are best told in a linear fashion with back story woven in with the narrative.
But here are some examples where I thought it worked.
Time jump forward- Twilight. I thought the short prologue which was a jump forward in time was very effective. I think it was because it focused on how going to Forks changed Bella's life and ultimately lead to her going knowingly to her death. Then chapter one starts with her going to Forks, so it tied together very nicely and didn't feel like a second start. I don't think this worked as well in the other Twilight saga novels.
Time jump backwards- The first Harry Potter. I actual think that the beginning with Dumbledore dropping Harry off at the Dursley was crucial. It set the tone for the entire series in the first chapter. It promised us an epic story about the battle for good and evil that we wouldn't have gotten if we started with Harry at age eleven living with the Durslys. It also flowed very naturally from Dumbledore dropping Harry off to Harry living with the Dursleys. It didn't feel like a second start.
I can't think of any novels starting with a flashback unless the entire novel is a flashback like Wuthering Heights or Rebecca (both excellent).
Hope this helps.
ETA: I think flashbacks that are not in the first chapter are fine, but like everything else in the novel, flashbacks should move the story forward. JMO.
[This message has been edited by MAP (edited August 16, 2010).]
One major reason why a flashback early in a book is not a good idea is that you are trying to get the reader involved enough to keep reading, and if you stop the current thread of the story to flash back in time, then whatever had them hooked by the current thread is also stopped. Why should they care about the flashback when you want them to care about what's happening in the current time of the story?
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I've got a similar issue. My novel starts off at point x (I found a really good opening line) and, a couple paragraphs in, I flash back to point "x minus 20 minutes" and it's a really intense time for the MC so it should still be on his mind. It's a bit of a lengthy flashback that ends with a jarring snap back into the present, when all hell breaks loose. I can work it out the other way but I think it reads better with the flashback. I know its a subjective thing but can anyone point out an instance where the "Insta-Flashback" works?
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One of the most common flaws we see at Triangulation (short stories, yes, but probably relevant here) is the use of a flashy opening scene followed by a (usually tedious) backflash to fill in all that necessary background information. Usually that info really isn't all that necessary, or the story would have started there.
Anyway, we began calling this structure the "start with a bang to delay the boring parts" pattern. Almost always, the backflash was much less interesting than the opening scene, and brought the story momentum to a standstill.
It seems to me the ideal goal is to write scenes and dialogue and description that do more than one thing at a time. A forward-moving scene that presents snippets of necessary background WHEN THEY BECOME RELEVANT to the POV usually works best.
Usually when the prose is designed to deliver necessary background it comes off feeling that way. When it's designed in a way that has the character reacting to story stimulus that causes him/her to interject bits of background, that prose is serving two purposes: characterizing the POV and delivering necessary background.
Hope that helps. In the end it's all about keeping the experience interesting (even compelling) for the reader. Whatever it takes to do that honestly is fair game.
quote:It seems to me the ideal goal is to write scenes and dialogue and description that do more than one thing at a time. A forward-moving scene that presents snippets of necessary background WHEN THEY BECOME RELEVANT to the POV usually works best.