writing technique

They had met a long time before

Mr Bennet

Mr. Bennet: complex and layered

“We are living in the most terrible age. I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.”

So says Colm Tóibín, for whom, as a novelist, this is of course a legitimate concern. He continues “You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, the writer taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.” And with great approval, he cites Jane Austen, who “wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.”

I don’t know about that sweeping chapter 2 claim, but I fully agree about flashbacks (though I do worry more about Brexit). But I understand the temptation: you’ve created a host of characters, and to make them believable, you need to know where they grew up, what school they went to, what their parents did, the relationships they had. I’ve just spent considerable time working on the background to Sophie, the main character in my current WIP, so naturally, I don’t want to see it go to waste.

But it won’t be wasted, even if I don’t put it in the book. Because I know my character much better now, and the way she behaves makes sense because it’s grounded in a past of which I’m aware.

Are there exceptions? Of course. This article cites several novels which make effective use of flashbacks – Underworld, The God of Small Things, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… But an author needs to know when and how to use them, and that requires experience.

Prompted by Tóibín’s complaint, I anxiously scoured my WIP. I’m happy to report that the dreaded flashback is absent. Phew! Yes, I found brief instances (two or three sentences) relating to a very recent past, when something reminds Sophie about a conversation she had previously. But Tóibín is talking more about backstory, filling in a character’s past. Of that, I found just one, which takes up 58 words.

But surely to be as categorical as Kristen Lamb (Why flashbacks ruin fiction) is excessive. One day, perhaps, I’ll make a conscious decision to construct a book with flashbacks. But I’m of the school that believes that rules need to be mastered before you can break them, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. For the time being then, I’ll stick to chronological, thank you.

And you? Have you experimented with them? Or avoided them like the plague?


12 thoughts on “They had met a long time before

  1. Christy Moceri says:

    I am not a fan of flashbacks, at least not the “fuzzy dream sequence italics” style of flashback. They pull me out of the narrative, and usually contain more information than the reader needs. I do use PTSD flashbacks for my traumatized characters, but those are generally experienced by the character in the moment… effectively the character is experiencing the present and the past simultaneously. I have a line that opens a (since scrapped) torture scene in which the character is having flashbacks as he is tortured… “Fel lay in a backstreet in Jehru smothered in darkness and pain.” He’s not literally in that backstreet, but he’s experientially there. We already know the backstory from dialog, there’s not a lot else that’s needed. I’ll give a better example later.

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  2. Christy Moceri says:

    Okay… My example of integrated flashback. Content note : Describes sexual assault.

    The POV character, Elen, is being held captive, and justifiably believes that rape is imminent. In reality, her captor is just drunk and thoughtless. My task as a writer is to bridge the gap between reality and Elen’s perception of it.

    “His words became a meaningless drone. He stretched his arm along the back of the couch, exactly the way Harris had done, when he had her sit on the cabriole sofa in her bedroom so many years ago. Harris’ breath warmed her neck, or was it the Thevian’s? The overpowering scent of alcohol rolled off his body, hard liquor instead of wine. She had to make herself not feel, that was all. But she could never make herself unfeel Harris, could not erase his hands on her body or his breath in her ear, could not unhear the sound of his flesh moving inside hers, and how many times that night she tried to shut herself down and could not. But this was… so much worse.

    Her mind became a black void. She tried to force soothing thoughts into the void, and when that failed, she went for the alcohol. She abandoned delicate sips in favor of enormous, desperate gulps. Fire lit up her center and she burst into a fit of coughs.

    “Easy.” Fel laughed, thumping her on the back. “Thellonian wine it ain’t.”

    Her throat constricted at his clumsy touch. Harris’ fingers trailed down her spine. Fel’s hand squeezed her shoulder. Elen exploded. [violence ensues]”

    Elen’s previous sexual assault is relevant both to the theme and the plot of the novel, but the context and details don’t matter. We don’t even know who Harris is yet. All that matters is that the reader understands her violent response to Fel’s relatively innocuous behavior is the result of past trauma.

    For trauma I try to focus on the character’s emotional experience rather than shocking details. For non trauma – related things, I think one or two lines is sufficient, or even better – make it a source of character conflict, put it in dialog, whatever you gotta do to avoid the dreaded italics. In my experience, the reader needs to know so much less about my character’s history than I first assume.

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    • That’s an effective way of dealing with it. As you say, it doesn’t matter at that point who Harris is – presumably that can or will be explained later. It’s the resulting emotional trace that counts – absolutely! I think if there have been a couple of mentions of that, you’ve then intrigued the reader enough to go into more detail later if you want or need to.

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  3. Of course there are exceptions, but “Don’t flashback!” is a pretty good rule of thumb.

    The last John LeCarré book that I started to read was riddled with flashbacks.  Might work in a movie, where what people wear (and how they travel and …) would be helpful hints.  But this was a plain novel where many paragraph breaks were also jumps in time.  I gave up on the damn book.  I got sick of guessing when and where the action was.

    Maybe forthright flashbacks would work in a novel: put some time and place info in an explicit section heading, tell part of the story, and mark the next jump with another explicit section heading.  Forthright flashbacks may or may not work better than just marching thru time, but at least they will not be obscurantist.

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    • I was also disappointed with the last Le Carré I read, A Most Wanted Man. I don’t recall if he used a lot of flashbacks there, but I remember it came across as a bit disjointed. And I’ve just read volume 1 of Murakami’s 1?84, which makes way too much use of flashback. I try to make it a rule of thumb to include from the past only what is germane to the plot – the characters’ present perceptions give ample room for all the telling little details.

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  4. Interesting discussion! After reading the Kristin Lamb post, I appreciated the instruction I received about the treatment of time in fiction all the more. The approach I learned was to think in terms of breaking chronology. You have the ongoing time of the story. If you break with the chronology of ongoing time, it needs to be a deliberate choice to support the story as a whole. I much prefer this approach to writing fiction, as a series of choices, than trying to follow various dictates (which are often contradictory).

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    • Choices, yes, spot on! What to put in or leave out, what order to have it in, etc. Always asking ourselves, ‘Does this work? If not, why not? Can it be made to work if done differently? Or should I scrap it?’ Just because we like a certain scene or want to include it doesn’t mean it’s effective. And making those choices involves a lot of hard thought…

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      • Christy Moceri says:

        Murder your beloved darlings. That aforementioned torture scene was one of the best things I ever wrote, until it no longer fit the narrative. I wrote several drafts in an attempt to adapt it to new continuity, but it didn’t work anymore. Now it’s in the deleted scenes pile. *sniff*

        I like your framing it as a series of creative choices. Jumping off “Kill Bill,” again, that’s a story that plays extensively with chronology, but if you look at how it’s structured, each scene builds upon the next in terms of establishing key character details. You start with the blood-spattered bride, that’s establishing motivation. The next scene is the killing of Vernita Green, which places us firmly in the domestic sphere – this is a story about women’s lives and women’s loss. We see straightaway that The Bride has her own moral code as she tries to avoid killing Vernita in front of her child. O-Ren was the first on the list to die, but that battle is saved for the climax of Volume I. The way the story unfolds supports the not only the revenge narrative but the characterization of The Bride and the surreal world she inhabits. In less masterful hands this film would have been a mess.

        I find I’m becoming increasingly less prescriptive the more that I write. But there is a grain of truth to every bit of advice. Part of the reason “no flashbacks” is a rule is because they are too-often done badly and unnecessarily. Especially for new writers, certain elements of story can be used as crutches rather than opportunities to grow stronger in writing. How do we know when our beautifully wrought flashback is an exception to all of the terrible ones other people write? I guess that’s what critique partners are for. I know I occasionally confuse the hell out of people when I try to do something innovative, and the only way you can really know is by testing it out.

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  5. Christy Moceri says:

    “All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.” – Kristen Lamb

    I’m inclined to agree, but only to a point. Readers can be incredibly hard on your characters if they don’t understand the motivation behind certain actions. And there are some things they really need to experience to understand. My character killed her fascist brother before the first draft of my story began, and no amount of explanation after-the-fact seemed to satisfy the reader. Some readers found her unsympathetic and even unreliable about her own history until I put the stabbing on the page as the inciting incident of the novel. Suddenly they have a much more positive view of her. I do believe gender was a factor in this, because it is out of the ordinary to see a woman protagonist kill and maim and bludgeon her way through a story. So I would say the more out of the ordinary or beyond social norms the action, the more readers will want the whole context.

    I’m thinking how this is expertly done, as I recently re-watched Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” which consists entirely of a woman killing and maiming and bludgeoning her way through a story – but where does the story start? At her most supreme moment of vulnerability. We viscerally feel her pain and terror and (assuming we are fans of the film) we are 100% on her side as she later cuts her way through swaths of enemies. Once that brief establishing shot of the blood-soaked bride is achieved, we are game for whatever she has to dish out.

    I don’t think it would have worked as well as a flashback. The circumstances of her injury were critical to witness right up front. It may help to consider, if you are compelled to use a flashback, and the information is *that* critical, maybe you’re starting the story too late.

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