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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Flashbacks - OK or not?

   
Author Topic: Flashbacks - OK or not?
TaleSpinner
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I seem to recall reading somewhere that flashbacks are A Bad Thing.

I'm redrafting a short story and the most difficult challenge is a structural one. I can fix it either by introducing an extra early scene (which I fear may dilute the story) or I can move an existing scene to later, by giving the MC a flashback.

Now I understand that MC has to flash back to naturally, with the memory perhaps triggered by an event, but so far I've been trying to avoid it in order to tell the story in chronological order.

Are flashbacks really as bad as my intuition believes?

Sorry if this is in a FAQ somewhere, if it is, I can't find it.

Thanks for any assistance,
Pat


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RMatthewWare
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With so many things that have to do with writing, the answer to whether or not you should use flashbacks is...

...it depends.

It depends on how you do it. It depends on whether you could have gotten the information in another way. It depends on whether it kills forward momentum. My advice would be to do it carefully, and not too much.

The most recent use of good flashbacks I can think of is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Most of the exposition in that book comes from flashbacks. But, when the action picked up in the end, the flashbacks stopped.

So, if you keep clear what's going on, and just do enough to make it vital, I think it should be okay.


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annepin
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Yeah, I think you have to trust your tale-spinning instincts on this one, Pat. Try it, and see if you like it.

I personally enjoy a well done flashback. It makes me feel like I get to sneak a peek into the character's mind. What makes it well done? Hm... that's hard to pin down... Just off the top of my head, I'm going to rattle of some elements I think can make a flashback good:

1. It has direct relevance to the story or the character.

2. It's like a mini-story, with a clear beginning and ending.

3. Often times it addresses something the reader has been anticipating or wondering about ("Oh goody, so we're finally going to find out how he got that scar!")

4. It adds to the sense of all the elements falling into place. (I guess this is related to 1 and 3).

5. It leaves the reader well grounded in place. I.e., it's clear we're in the past and we're somewhere else, when necessary, and we're clear when we're back to where we were when we took our little time escapade.

6. The flashback has some impact on the character.

7. The trigger for it is believable--i.e., the reader knows the answer to the question: why now? why is he thinking about this now and not five years ago or yesterday?

8. The flashback is seen through the lens of the character and coloured with whatever emotion/ thought he's going through now.

One of the best handling of flashbacks I've ever read is John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Written in first person, the book consists of the narration of a man ruminating on events that took place 20 plus years ago. Irving weaves you in and out of time masterfully. Never once did I feel lost or disoriented, nor did I feel the story was contrived. Furthermore, he manages to do it all in the perfect tense.

p.s.--I usually prefer a flashback to a "prelude" like scene that occurs way before the start of the story. Though obviously this, too, depends on how it's done.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 31, 2007).]


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Christine
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The biggest no-no is to introduce a flashback early in the story. The rule of thumb is that however long the flashback is, you should have double that length of forward narrative. So, for example, if you have a 1-page flashback you shouldn't start until you are at least 2 pages into your story. The reason is simple: Before you can get your reader interested in what happened way back when, you need to get them settled in the NOW of the story. If you have a flashback too soon, it's a key sign that you began in the wrong place.

Otherwise, go for it. I won't bog you down with any other rules. Flashbacks are one of the most common devices used in literature and I can't believe anyone would say they are always A Bad Thing.


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LordPoochie
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I agree with all annepin's points, except #2. I think a flashback can work fine as just a fragment - this is how people usually remember things anyway. Unless he's trying to tell someone else, the main character doesn't usually have a reason to think over a complete, self-contained backstory. Having a flashback with a beginning, middle and end makes the reader think: "Oh, we're in a flashback now." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on the needs of the story, but a fragment can often be effective. For example, in George R. R. Martin's books I can't think of any flashback flashbacks, but I know all sorts of things about the characters' backstories because he gets us into their minds, including bits of memory.
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annepin
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Ah, yes, Lord Poochie, I agree with you. I was thinking of longer and more involved flashbacks when I wrote my little list. You're right--there are always the fleeting thoughts memories that are, essentially, flashbacks.
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TaleSpinner
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Thanks everyone for your clear guidance, especially RMatthewWare for the advice about not killing forward momentum (there's a risk of that in this story) and annepin for a great list of factors to bear in mind. I think I had intuited most of them but had certainly missed point 8 entirely.

I'm going to draft it both ways and see how I feel ...

Pat

Edited to reduce use of the phrase 'in mind' from twice to just once. Memo to self: avoid repeating fave phrases!

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited August 31, 2007).]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited August 31, 2007).]

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited August 31, 2007).]


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InarticulateBabbler
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I don't think there's any set rule on flashbacks.

It's bad to start a story with a flashback, because it's an indication that you are starting in the wrong place.

Or as Christine said:

quote:

So, for example, if you have a 1-page flashback you shouldn't start until you are at least 2 pages into your story. The reason is simple: Before you can get your reader interested in what happened way back when, you need to get them settled in the NOW of the story. If you have a flashback too soon, it's a key sign that you began in the wrong place.



Other than the beginning, I'd have to ask myself do I need it to be a flashback? I've found many flashbacks are an attempt to foreshadow something, quickly, so it's kept from being deus ex machina; or, to info-dump from a PoV.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited September 01, 2007).]


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RMatthewWare
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Let me preface my statement: I loved Spiderman 3, I thought it was a great movie. I know some people disagree, and that's fine too.

When you use a flashback, don't use it to revise past history. In Spiderman 3 they used a flashback towards the end of the movie which revised the way Ben Parker had died. It made sense the way they did it, but they were still changing what we knew had happened.


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Brendan
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quote:

It's bad to start a story with a flashback, because it's an indication that you are starting in the wrong place.

Is that really true? I have read quite a number of stories that look back from the beginning, the opening essentially telling why they are looking back. The movie "Forest Gump" was like that. And a recent (and good) story on the hatrack boards now (Alchemy - A Monk's Story by debhoag) is another good example of that approach.

Is this what you are meaning - opening with no indication that it is a flashback, and then part way through, pulling the audience up to speed about it being a flashback. I could see that as bad form, just like opening with a dream scene is a bit dodgy.


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RMatthewWare
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quote:
Is that really true? I have read quite a number of stories that look back from the beginning, the opening essentially telling why they are looking back. The movie "Forest Gump" was like that. And a recent (and good) story on the hatrack boards now (Alchemy - A Monk's Story by debhoag) is another good example of that approach.

Is this what you are meaning - opening with no indication that it is a flashback, and then part way through, pulling the audience up to speed about it being a flashback. I could see that as bad form, just like opening with a dream scene is a bit dodgy.



I don't didn't read debhoag's story, but with Forest Gump, that's not really a flashback. What he's doing is telling his story from the present tense. A flashback is a transition to an earlier event or scene that interrupts the normal chronological development of the story. Forest Gump wasn't about normal chronological development. It's about a guy recounting his life to others.

I think what we're talking about with flashbacks is when we already have a story that's moving forward. At some point, often near the climax but not always, we need to take a look back to see what happened to get the characters where they were. Often it was something that happened long before the story started. We do this because if you started where the flashback started you can lose the tension of not knowing what was going on and the events may have occured long before the story's opening.


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Christine
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That's true, RMatthewWare. To some extent, any first person story will do this because they are writing in the present and describing events that took place in the past.

And just for the record, I've seen actual flashing back done plenty of times in published books/TV shows. It seems that many of the TV shows I watch inevitably come up with an episode that starts out with the characters in some unlikely or horrible situation and then flash back to explain how they got there...it's always cheesy, IMHO, and would work better if they told it straight.

A GOOD use of flashbacks, on the other hand, is in the TV series LOST. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.


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Lord Darkstorm
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When a flashback starts the story, it is called a frame. The reason for it is so the story can be told with a knowledgeable narrator. Since the narrator is telling the story from the end of it, they know what happens and can toss in asides like "If only we had known how bad our plan was." Which is a warning that whatever is about to happen is going to go wrong. While I have seen this done quite a bit, and I'll echo that tv tends to do it badly, you should make sure your reason for using it has some other reason than an attempt to be unique. It isn't unique. If you can tell the story in sequence without the frame, then maybe you should just do it from the beginning.

The largest problem with flashbacks is that they are done badly. The common "she thought back to the time when..." beginning makes me cringe every time I see it. Flashbacks should be seamless, not a posted event. The exit from a flashback has to be done smoothly as well. When you are moving back to current story time, it shouldn't be jarring, but it must be clear that the reader has returned.

Flashbacks are bad whenever they are done badly, and too often they are done so noticeable wrong that flashback have gotten a bad reputation as something you shouldn't do. If you can't do one right, then I agree you shouldn't do them at all. There are so many other ways to get across information that does not interrupt the story.


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franc li
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Another mistake that is easy to make is the flashback within the flashback. Spoofs of the Da Vinci code made much of this alleged tendency. And darn it if I haven't caught myself doing it.
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Elan
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I will weigh in with the opinion that flashbacks, in and of themselves, are not inherently flawed. The problem happens when the timing is wrong. A flashback can either draw you deeper into the MC character's plight or it can jerk you out of the story you were in just to thrust you into a story you didn't care about. When it comes to flashbacks, timing is everything.
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The G-Bus Man
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What about flashbacks that just appear out of nowhere, like Kurt Vonnegut style?
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lehollis
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In his book, On Writing, Steven King recommended against them, but said if you must use them to make sure there is a good reason and a good trigger. That's mostly what has been said here.

He also recommended framing the flashback (different from a frame story mentioned by Lord Darkstorm). The idea he put forth was to begin the first few lines with "had" phrases, then slip into regular past tense. Then go back to the "had" phrases when the flashback drew to a close.

So...

"He had said it would be a wet day.... "

"We went to the lake.... "

"We had thought the woman was dead after she went under, but... "

Sort of like that, anyway. I've never tried it myself, so I won't agree or disagree with Mr. King. I just thought I might mention it for something to consider. (His example was much better and more detailed than mine, too.)

[This message has been edited by lehollis (edited September 04, 2007).]


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franc li
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Oh, that's a really good idea. I hadn't conformed the tense of my whole flashback yet (the story only has one so far) but... yeah. Good stuff.
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LordPoochie
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"The largest problem with flashbacks is that they are done badly. The common "she thought back to the time when..." beginning makes me cringe every time I see it. Flashbacks should be seamless, not a posted event. The exit from a flashback has to be done smoothly as well. When you are moving back to current story time, it shouldn't be jarring, but it must be clear that the reader has returned."

I really agree with this. Flashbacks should fit naturally into the story, so they don't seem like a device. Whatever the trigger is for the flashback - someone recalling the past, writing a letter, telling a story, whatever - the "flashback" should be suited to the circumstances. For example, if a character is telling a story to another character who already knows the backstory, the first character shouldn't recount everything to the reader. It seems unnatural.

As for Kurt Vonnegut - I've only read Slaughterhouse Five, but I'd say in that novel he had a very specific purpose for his style of flashbacks that shouldn't be imitated. In that book the main character basically had PTSD, so we followed his line of memories as he jumped back and forth between times. It really worked to disorient the reader and to show the general absurdity of war. We wonder what time the main character really IS in - or if there even is such a time. But this is extremely specific to the novel, and anyone else who uses this idea is basically copying Vonnegut. So for that reason I wouldn't use it as a general example. It basically breaks all the usual rules about flashbacks. Like OSC says (somewhere), you can break any "rule" of writing as long as you're willing to accept the consequences and compensate for them.


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