Flashbacks

Not the acid type, the storytelling tool.

I’ve been wrangling with this short story, and it’s 90% there. Interesting plot, creepy villain, turning a lovely, sweet thing horrifying. All good!

But…

Part of it is told in flashback.

The first book I read in 2016 was Hugh Howey’s Shift, a prequel-cum-sequel to his gripping (but overlong) Wool. He’s wonderful at world building, old Hugh Howey, and I’ll not spoil the two books for you by delving into plot. However, something I found very irritating with Shift was its overuse of flashbacks. I suppose you could argue that they weren’t flashbacks, simply two parallel stories, but for the reader there’s always an A and a B story. And in Shift there is a LOT of B story.

Now, I know was HH was thinking here because I was thinking the same thing when writing my short story: Hey, this is great. It gives us really deep insight into the character and it rounds the story nicely. 

As the reader, I’m thinking: When the fuck is this flashback bullshit going to end?

And I realise now that it’s important to view the story as a reader, not a writer. If you think something you’ve written is amazing, it probably is. But there’s the slight possibly that it might detract from the story.

And even though I hate to admit it, sometimes it’s useful to put the James Patterson hat on. Drivel it may be, but it’s irritatingly digestible drivel. That guy writes purely for the reader. He doesn’t care about trivial shit like character or scene-setting. 

I don’t want to write crap like Patterson, but I do want to engage the reader. What’s the middle ground?

And any advice on flashbacks?

At the moment I’m staggering them one line at a time through the action. Here’s a rough example (guy recounting a murder as his car crashes):

Twenty meters ahead, a shape, roughly human, stepped out into the road. I sped toward it. Grappling with the steering wheel, I swerved. The shape, which, as I grew closer, became a contorting shadow, bled into the midnight black and vanished.

But it was too late.

My belt around his neck.

I put my foot down.

Choking. Thrashing.

The brakes screamed.

A lifeless, dead weight. 

I got the idea from The Force Awakens. At the end, there are two huge action set pieces working in tandem (I won’t spoil them for you if you’ve been living under a rock for the last month). And I thought That’s very exciting. 

Of course, I don’t have the deft storytelling skills or the $200m budget of Mr Abrams. I’ve got a MacBook and Scrivener, though. I guess that’s a start.

Thoughts muy apreciado.

In other news, Dry January lasted eight days. I’ll take another stab at it in 2017…

17 comments

  1. Quiet like this idea – personally think flashbacks/analepsis is best when varied. Imagistic flashbacks work for action like you’ve done here. Longer explanations almost need to work like dialogue to get the balance of scene/narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Used well in a short story, flashbacks can help move things along at a good pace, where unfolding events in chronological order might slow them down. They are definitely a very useful device in all storytelling, and have been used since since the art began. Flashbacks, in the sense you mean, often mirror the actual way we view the past in retrospect.

    We rarely recall past events sequentially but in seemingly random order, as one event might remind us of an earlier event that happened in childhoond, and that might lead to another that happened the other day. I think many readers identify with flashbacks, even though it might be subconsciously.

    Starting off thinking of the reader too much can be inhibiting, but thinking of how the reader might see things, when you come editing, is essential for the writer seeking an audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Bryan. Yeah, I’m editing right now, which is why it’s sticking out and saying “Trim me!”
      I see what you mean by mimicking the way the human thought recollection process works. Interesting.

      Like

  3. I agree with Bryan, using flashbacks is a great way to move the story along especially in a piece of short fiction where explaining the history or dragging it out in bits of conversation, or heaven forbid a long monologue, would bog the story down. Flashbacks good.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Here’s a thing I’m struggling with: how to reveal part of the story without the main characters’ knowledge. In other words, this information is the sole possession of the reader until the end when the MCs uncover the information. I need to slowly reveal or else I’ll have total info dump at the end. I’m staring blankly at my screen. Suggestions?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Can you drip-feed it in between scenes or chapters, so the reader slowly pieces it together and by the end has the whole story? That way you don’t have a mass of exposition in one place and it keeps the story moving.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Right, that’s what I’m trying to avoid. I originally planned on telling the historical part of the story through correspondence but it feels contrived. The information I want to reveal wouldn’t be contained in a letter. A diary, maybe? Too Victorian? Gah, I’m afraid I’m painted myself into a corner. Thanks for listening.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My own opinion (and what other opinion could I have?) is that flashbacks in contemporary fiction (and we can’t write them in anything else) should only ever be used when absolutely, screamingly necessary.

    So if you can think of a situation in which they qualify, good luck!

    Parallel stories or time-slipped juxtapositions are another matter, of course. But flashback? I think it’s as weird to the reader nowadays as “fade to black” between scenes in a film would be.

    Although, as The Scribble Bug wrote above, those quick insertions in your action scene have a certain functional currency. Perhaps that’s the only way it would really work these days, and that probably because of its filmic, visual quality.

    Nice post and rich in food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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