Putting the perfect into the flashback

Because I have written (several times) and ranted (even more times) about badly used flashbacks, some people have concluded that I hate the flashback with the passion of a million burning suns.

Quite the opposite.

A flashback is the perfect tool for certain aspects of story telling. If it is done correctly.

In a recent online grumble about flashbacks, I described one good use of flashback. Open with an extremely (and I do mean extremely) brief scene of a character or characters in an strange predicament, and without giving anything away, cut to an earlier point and show how they got there. One of the most important aspects of doing this correctly: the scene you open with isn’t the ending of the story. The reader needs to carry past that scene, showing what happens after, as well as how the characters got there.

Another really good use of flashback is to provide context to a point in the “present” of your narrative. The character finds herself in dire straits, and is reminded of an event that got her here. Or perhaps a mistake she made that led to this, or even just a happier time with one of the characters here. This is most useful when referencing a piece of backstory: flashing back to a period before the beginning of your book, perhaps years before.

This is different than a technique used in film (and television, animation, et al) where a snippet of a scene from earlier within the film is shown (or sometimes only the voices from the scene) to indicate that a character is remembering something that should have been a clue or warning of what was to come. That isn’t really a full flashback. And in prose fiction, you do this usually with a single sentence or less. “I should have realized when I saw that broken latch” for instance.

That isn’t really a flashback, that’s a reference. But I do think that the way these sorts of references play in films encourages inexperienced writers to throw in more full-blown flashbacks than the story needs. You shouldn’t be repeating entire scenes of your story within your story. Just a quick reminder to the reader. I like them best in the dialog. “I did warn you not to trust any one…” or “Oh, that’s what he meant when he said…”

The Grammar Girl recently featured a post about the proper use of present tense, past tense, and past perfect tense while constructing a flashback. I don’t have any solid quibbles with it, but want to add a couple things:

First, if you want a more thorough explanation of past tense, past-perfect tense, and ways to use them in narratives particularly in relationship to flashbacks, check out Stephen Minot’s Three Genres. It is an excellent book on writing that I highly recommend.

Second, the Grammar Girl post cites Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates for the first example of how to do a flashback. The Anubis Gates won awards and is often considered a masterpiece, but it does some questionable things with flashback and other tricks of narrative structure.

I could go into detail, but will simply say that before you get to Chapter One and the example they use, you have to get through a lengthy prologue which happens to contain two flashbacks of its own. Which makes one wonder just what Tim Powers (or perhaps his editors) think the word “prologue” means.

The thing is, however, that although I am not one of the people who think the story is a masterpiece, I agree that it is a rip-roaring good yarn. Which brings me to a point I don’t remember to include in my postings about the craft of writing as often as I should:

I can’t tell you how to write.

I can tell you how I write. I can tell you things that work for me both as a writer and as a reader. I can tell you what doesn’t work for me, especially as a reader. And I can tell you why some things don’t work most of the time for most readers.

But the true test of whether something you are doing as a storyteller works is whether the audience goes along and enjoys the ride. You can create a story following strictly and to the letter all of the guidelines you find in a well-respected guidebook and still produce a lousy story. You can break some rules (as most writers do), and produce a story that makes readers write you to tell you how much they enjoyed it.

Which isn’t to say that you never listen to any advice or criticism. If the reader isn’t enjoying the story, you’re probably doing something wrong. But you have to decide what to fix and how to fix it. No one else can do that.

The value of advice from other writers isn’t as a prescription, but as a different perspective. Maybe someone will read the explanation I gave of how a certain kind of flashback makes the story boring because it tells the reader the ending a bit too literally, and even though their story doesn’t use a flashback, they realize that something else they have done in their tale gives away the ending too soon.

So, while any number of us can teach you how to write a sentence in past perfect tense, none of us can reliably write the perfect flashback. Fortunately, we can all point each other in the direction of good and better.

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