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Author Topic: Are flashbacks always bad?
rcrabtree
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I know a lot of people agree that flashbacks in a story are not an effective tool. I'm working on a short story, and trying to fit in backstory about certain character relationships, and I'm having a tough time. I'm a firm believer in show, don't tell, so I don't want to just say "Bob has always hated Jim". The strained relationship is due to specific events in the past, that I don't quite know how to convey without the use of a flashback of some sort.

Thoughts? Tips?

Best,

rcrabtree

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wetwilly
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Maybe the events could come up in conversation? Bob and Jim are fighting, and Bob has occasion to bring up how Jim has one-upped him every chance he got for their entire lives. In this case, the effect of past event on Bob and Jim is more important than the event itself.

I wouldn't necessarily write off flashbacks as automatically bad, though. I've seen stories where they are used to great effect.

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LDWriter2
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(Shoulder shrug), I don't mind them--depending how they are done, what they reveal and how they fit in the story. Usually they seem to come okay for me.
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MattLeo
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I'm going to make a philosophical point here: anything you can get away with is fine, no matter what other writers may claim. The real question is *how* can you get away with it? To answer that you need to know the pitfalls of the technique you're contemplating. And you've put your finger right on your problem: you want to use the flashback as a background briefing disguised as narrative. And if that's all the flashback does, it's bound to be every bit as dull as that sounds.

Every part of the story has to do more than impart information. It has to intrigue or entertain or otherwise engage with the reader on an emotional level.

You see the same sorry failure to engage readers I'm talking about in many clumsy prologues. They're dull because they delay the story while the author crams backstory down the readers' craws, expecting readers won't notice. That just adds insult to injury. But... many a fine author gets away with writing prologues, because they make the detour worth the readers' whiles. So prologues can work.

Flashbacks can work too, it's a matter of what you do with them and (unlike prologues) where you put them.

Think about the famous Paris flashback scene in Casablanca. Here's an interesting bit of trivia about that scene: it comes at the start of the second act of the script. So the Epstein brothers put the scene in *after* the part of the story where they introduce us to the characters and explain their problems to us. I find this is often the case; backstory goes over better *after* readers know the characters and are interested in them.

The Paris flashback also comes at a time when the story is shifting gears, so it doesn't feel so much like it's interrupting the action.

Finally the purpose of the flashback isn't to explain who Rick and Ilsa are *now*. We know that. It's there to show how they are different from who they *used to be*. That's intriguing in a way that a thinly disguised preliminary info-dump cannot be.

As long as you're thinking of the flashback as just a backstory briefing, I'd say it's not very likely to work. But it's not a capital crime to write something that doesn't work. There's no harm in writing a scene that doesn't work unless you're too stubborn to fix it.

So if you think you can make the flashback more than a background info-dump, give it a try. But be open-minded about the very real possibility that it won't work. This is where an honest, constructive critical reader is indispensable.

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extrinsic
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Flashbacks are a common and effective tool in masterful hands. Developing the skills involved are matters of practice, knowledge, and preparation.

Three principal aspects distinguish effective flashbacks: they are without exception written in reality imitation mode, show, not narrative summary or explanation mode, tell, narrator lecture, like prologues; they matter to readers when they matter to the action, at the moment and for the viewpoint agonist; they are accompanied by transitions set up and followed through and exited and followed through.

Reality imitation mode is scene writing, writing that incorporates agonal, causual, and tensional "telling details" that are emotionally relevant, that matter to the action at the moment and to the agonist and that cause emotional reactions in a natural if surprising sequence. They are sensorial scene events that stimulate emotional reactions.

Flashback setup demands transition setup, so that readers stay at least abreast of if not ahead of the action, the moment, and the agonist. They may be stepped transitions in which a sequence of steps leads from the present-now moment of the action to a past-now moment. Or the transistion may be a jump transition, though no less requires setup and follow through and exit and follow through.

Flashbacks may start at a future now, the action loop back and proceed forward until the flashback's future now action and unfolded timeline catch up to the present-now action. They may start at a past now, jump transition to a future now and proceed chronologically linearly. Flashbacks may be past, maybe future, now-action interludes that take place in the main now-action timeline.

Managing reality imitation, matters to the action, and transitions develops masterful flashbacks.

An example sketched out in summary and explanation mode, tell:

The laird of the manor decides to go visit the town ordinary. He wants to talk with commoners about work he wants done. Prior to his decision, he discusses the work with, say, his wife. She wants him to stay in, send a servant to summon the commoners to the manor, and really doesn't want the work done in the first place. Say, a new stable for mounts, the laird's passions: horse racing and gambling on the outcomes. They clash, they hurt each other's feelings, etc. The setup is already positioned in advance by the laird stating he's going into town. His real motive is to get out from under the wife's stifling helicopter hovering. She too wants something from him, and overbearingly nags him about, say, a continental and regal procession. He cuts her off and walks out.

No need for further transition. He's on his way to the ordinary. Perhaps the method of his travel matters, maybe it doesn't. In the former case, he goes to saddle his most prized horse. The horse is in the pasture though. He doesn't want the groom to catch and saddle the horse. Maybe he wants the solitude so he cools his anger or the groom favors the wife a tad too much. He doesn't want to hear the groom's grumbles. The laird spends most of the morning catching the horse, more time than if he'd just walked to the ordinary. He's a stubborn man and has his pride, won't go into town on foot or on an inferior mount when he has a horse worth more than the town.

Or the next scene could just open with the laird's arrival inside the ordinary, or any moment between then and when he leaves the wife, so long as the moment matters. That's a linear timeline though, a flashforward to an ongoing now-moment scene, actually.

The same principles apply to a future prelude or past interlude flashback. Reality imitation mode; matters to the moment, the action, and the agonist; and suitable transition setup and follow through and exit and follow through.

[ September 18, 2014, 07:39 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by rcrabtree:
I'm a firm believer in show, don't tell, so I don't want to just say "Bob has always hated Jim". The strained relationship is due to specific events in the past, that I don't quite know how to convey without the use of a flashback of some sort.

I actually kind of like "Bob always hated Jim" as an opening line:

quote:

Bob always hated Jim.

He hated the way Jim laughed -- a simpering nasal cackle he'd deliver with bared teeth and a nervous, appraising squint. He hated the way Jim talked; affecting a mush-mouthed prep school drawl that went out of style years ago. And then there was Jim's habit of using anything you said as a springboard for a rant about politics.

But most of all Bob had always hated Jim's overbearing habit of offering pretentious and off topic writing advice.

"Show not tell" is not as simple as it sounds. People don't confine themselves to a single level of semantics; they extract multiple levels of meaning from words. So here I'm *telling* you about what Bob thinks of Jim, but I'm doing it in Bob's voice even though this is third person narration. What I tell you and how I tell you shows you something about Bob's attitude toward Jim. His hatred isn't just intense dislike, it's the kind of hatred that delights in finding things to loathe about someone.
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Grumpy old guy
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I think it was in Sol Stein's book, Stein on Writing, that he advised that if you can avoid using a flashback then use every opportunity to do so. I don't think he was advising never to use them, however in his book, he gave some examples of how to bring a flashback scene into the present similar to MattLeo's excellent example.

Think outside the box and you'll be surprised at what alternatives you can come up with instead of using a flashback.

Phil.

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axeminister
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I agree with Phil, try not to, but do so if your story requires. I think the shorter the story, the more strongly you want to avoid one.

A question I'll ask is, what does the past info you want to bring forward mean to the MC?

I'll use an example from my wife's current book. A young girl, 12, if I remember correctly, witnesses a shooting. This brings to the forefront her past, her dad, who is currently in prison for killing a child.

We don't go into flashback. Perhaps because the MC, the girl, was a child (more of a child) herself when the event occurred, but we also don't have a breakaway scene, or the mom explaining the whole deal with a sidebar/chapter break.

Why? Because what matters is how that event in the past effects her now, emotionally, and how she will overcome its influence on her life. Not how the reader perceives it, or even that the reader needs the exact details.


Personally I prefer the sprinkle in approach. I assume the character(s) must overcome what you want to bring forth, so in considering how it affects them, bring it up emotionally when you need to, but keep the narrative going, while deepening the emotional stakes for the MC.

Your readers will get it, if you filter it through emotion, and make the MC struggle against what they don't want to face. But if you infodump it, then you the author is telling the MC's story. That's for them to tell, not you.

Anyway, just my thoughts.

Axe

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Robert Nowall
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I figure...since the movie Casablanca uses an extended lengthy flashback, and since Casablanca is one of my favorite movies, and since I think I should emulate my favorite literature (even if Casablanca is a movie)...then, yes, flashbacks are okay.
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AndrewR
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In one of my first stories, I stuck a flashback into the middle of the short story. I did it because the real action started after the events (when the character realized the import of some trivial action she had done at the time). So it really was important. And the story sold. [Smile]

So if you really need a flashback, I say go for it.

(Now that you mention it MattLeo, my flashback was exactly like the one in Casablanca (one of my top four favorite films). So I guess I wasn't being very original at the time... [Embarrassed] )

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extrinsic
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"Bob always hated Jim." is a transition line, a setup step as MattLeo uses it, and though to a superlative degree emotional summary and explanation, a movement into closer narrative, emotional, and aesthetic distance from expressing thought, sensation, and emotion the example MattLeo illustrates.

The example is a stasis statement expression, a state of being that began in the past and continues in the present and presumably into the foreseeable future. As a stasis expression--not static, artful stasis--the example fits after a scene, not as a beginning of a scene. The paragraphs would work best, strongest, clearest as a response to a scene event stimulation, or scene and summary, or the scene summary sequel in writing principles, that expresses the meaning of the event scene.

A strength of it is it expresses an emotional attitude commentary of one character about another, artfully developing both's personalities, traits, and identities. Through use of overstatement and hyperbole, a strong emotional reaction emerges.

Strengths of such narrative interludes is they add a variety spice, alter narrative time, slow down or suspend time elapsed, through expressing interior discourse, and reveal internal viewpoints that as a best practice contrast with external discourse and confirm suspicions of the differences between praxis and reflex, direct overtures and ironic subtexts. The irony I see from Bob is he's similar to Jim, the similarities cause their subtle differences to clash. Yet Bob thinks he's superior to Jim; his internal viewpoint demonstrates he's as flawed and frail as Jim.

I'd use my voice aesthetics, though, for one, regularization of tense coordination, omit the syntax expletive, and use a mix of understatement and a touch stronger overstatement to imply clearer that Bob is an unreliable reflector, biased, and as politically opinionated, overbearing, and pretentious as Jim, a basic human condition nature and behavior, such that readers question Bob's reporting and Jim's hate-worthiness. Leaving readers to form their own opinions of each's personalities and likeableness, all the while developing the underlaying meaning of the interlude, the scene, and the overall narrative.

[ September 18, 2014, 04:13 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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While seconding extrinsic's expert analysis of MattLeo's example, I would add that it could be expanded to give the reader more of an insight into Bob's personality than Jim's. It would be an interesting exercise to then introduce Jim to the reader and show him as having none of the faults as perceived by Bob.

Just a random thought.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Nice, Grumpy old guy, yeah, greater character dimension, three-dimensional at least from showing multidimensional basic nature and behavior traits. Narrative sequel interludes also lead into event scenes, say, Jim in action. Scene, sequel, scene, sequel, and so on. Which applies to flashbacks, flashforwards, linear timelines, and nonlinear timeline interludes.

I forgot, though akin to tell's summary and explanation conventions, MattLeo's example is reality imitation, scene as sequel, from the narrator covertly reporting Bob's now-moment reflected, emotional thoughts and sensations, events no less: show, in other words.

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shimiqua
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As a reader, I dig a good flashback, and I think there's definite value in giving the right information at the right time,even if it doesn't work chronologically. I do though think it's a good idea to never ever start with a flashback. I think that's a clear sign you are starting in the wrong place. In fact you probably shouldn't flashback for like the first third of the story. Although I'm flexible if it's done seamlessly, or a good writer goes ahead and shows me that I am wrong.

But I like them. I just read The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight, WHICH I LOVED, and she put flashbacks all over the place, like a freaking pro. My favorite flashback, as an example, was a snip of conversation that she missed on first telling of the scene, and it made sense, because the POV character Hadley didn't think that moment was important, until later, when thinking about the moment made her smile.

Each flashback pushed the story along further, it didn't take it backwards, and it was from the POV character's thoughts, not artificially shoved in to give the reader necessary information.

I think flashbacks can super be done wrong, but the only way to learn how to do them, is to practice, so even if you are a newbie writer trying to follow the rules of writing, follow your gut, and try it. You can always edit it out if it's jarring, or keep working on it until it works.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Stephen King has been known to use flashbacks on occasion, and they haven't hurt his sales, so far as I can tell.

Dan Brown had them all over the place in THE DAVINCI CODE (though not at the beginning, as shimiqua so wisely points out). He seemed to stick them in whenever the characters jumped in some vehicle or another to go to the next place, and they seemed to work okay.

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extrinsic
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Donna Tart's The Secret History first chapter opens at a later moment in the timeline. The second chapter flashes back. The action catches up to the timeline about at the two-thirds mark

Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons first chapter opens at the end of the action, a bookend sequence. The second chapter flashes back to the beginning of Cooper's life, catches up to the timeline at the end.

Stephenie Meyer's novel Twilight "preface" chapter opens at a later time and catches up to the timeline about two-thirds of the way.

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom opens with a flashback chapter. The following chapters re-cover the ground of the chapter, with a False Document "autobiography" manuscript interlude before the action catches up to the timeline about at the halfway mark.

Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions opens with an unlabeled preamble and gentles into a flashback "prologue" chapter, catches up to the timeline about the fourth chapter mark.

[ September 19, 2014, 12:26 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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JadedKit
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

Think about the famous Paris flashback scene in Casablanca. Here's an interesting bit of trivia about that scene: it comes at the start of the second act of the script. So the Epstein brothers put the scene in *after* the part of the story where they introduce us to the characters and explain their problems to us. I find this is often the case; backstory goes over better *after* readers know the characters and are interested in them.

This makes complete sense, I'm currently reading Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and the book is completely riddled with flash backs. Some of these flash backs are from years during the main character's younger years, being trained up as theif/con man. I find that if I hadn't gotten into the actual "present" story, I wouldn't really be that interested in some of the scenes of the flashback. However, I have a vested intrest in the characters and I like knowing how they acquired their particular set of skills know that I know what those skills can accomplish.

The other way this book uses flash backs, that interests me, is to answer certain questions in the present. One character asks another, how they did something...instead of the other character telling them, there's a flash back that starts the next chapter of the events that took place. It's a neat way of answering the question. There a sort of intimidate satisfaction in the flash back as opposed having a feeling of being dragged away from the story.

And I always remember something I heard on writing excuses, if it's cool, try it and see if it works. I think writing "rules" are more like guidelines.

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