Told in flashback

One of my pet peeves as a reader is the story told in flashback. Admittedly, one of the reasons I dislike it is because, having been involved with several small press and fannish projects over the years, I’ve read, in an editorial capacity, a huge number of stories written by aspiring/beginning writers. And a beginner usually doesn’t understand how to use a flashback.

The most common problem with the told-in-flashback story is simply that there is no dramatic tension. In the opening scene we meet a character interacting with some other people. The dialogue is often a bit of clever banter. Something happens in the scene which causes the main character to mention something that happened to him a long time ago… and in the next scene we are in that long ago time, and we watch the stuff happen.

The reason there is no dramatic tension is because usually the plot of the flashback portion of the story seems to place the main character’s life in jeopardy—except the reader knows that the character isn’t in real danger because in the opening scene set far in the future the character is alive. These amateur told-in-flashback stories suffer from an additional problem. Most of them all fall into the same outline:

  • Opening scene in which protagonist gives the story’s ending away by saying something like, “This reminds me of the time I almost died because of an engineering mistake…”
  • Several scenes of story in which the character gets into trouble because of said mistake, nearly dies, then survives somehow.
  • Closing scene in which we return to the opening and the other characters say something along the lines of, “Wow! That’s some story. You almost died because of an engineering mistake.”

It took me years of reading those stories or complaining about those stories before I finally realized what was going on. What is the most common way people are taught to write either informative essays in school, or to make presentations in either school or business: 1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2. Explain it in detail, 3. Reinforce their memory by summarizing what you just told them.

When I reviewed such stories in an editorial process, I always advised the same thing: drop the opening scene! It’s unnecessary and gives away the ending. Start when the character actually gets into trouble and tell how he gets out of it. If you want to then flash forward to a a point long afterward to make an additional plot or character development point at the end, that’s fine, but don’t just rehash what the reader has just seen.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some value to be had in the story told in flashback. Particularly if you have a story in which it takes a while for the plot to develop (and that while is necessary, not simply a matter of the author rambling), a scene that grabs the reader’s attention, making them strongly want to know how the character(s) got in that situation, without giving anything away, can be a good opening. There are a couple of things you have to keep in mind even thing: the opening has to be quick—don’t spend a lot of time getting the reader involved in the framing sequence before you flashback, don’t give away anything.

I know I repeated the “don’t give away anything” part, but it is so important.

I’m watching a new TV show right now, mostly a typical modern police procedural with the soap opera-ish ongoing character plots. My main reason for watching it is because one character in the show is played by an actor I like a great deal. Only four or five episodes in, I’m already at the point where I’m putting up with the rest of the show just to see the actor I like doing his usual excellent job.

One of the things I’m putting up with is that not only is the entire series told in flashback, but each individual episode is also told in flashback. Each episode begins with another scene from the future period of the original flashback that introduces the incident about to be shown. Then each episode closes with another flashforward that ends with some sort of “shocking” revelation about the future of one of the other characters featured prominently in the episode.

So far, the individual opening scenes have always managed to either a) give away a plot point of the enclosed story of police solving a case, b) telegraphed in often laughably obvious ways the shocker we’re going to get in the closing scene, or c) both!

One reason they keep doing this is because the opening scene is always too long. Worse than that, they aren’t really all that interesting. The protagonist talks to someone while they walk from one place to another, generally.

If you think you need to tell a story in flashback, keep the future scene as short as you can. Make it intriguing, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to cleverly drop hints about what’s going to happen. For a story in flashback to work, the only thing that needs to be in the reader’s mind is a single variant on this question: how did this come to be?

Anything else gives things away, which makes the entire story a waste of the reader’s time.

It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.

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