So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?
Paul posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?
Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)
But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.
The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)
Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.
But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.
I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.
One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.
Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.
If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.
So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.
If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Christophe Desmecht says
After some years of absence, I’m back to haunt this blog with many many comments 😉
In the current novel I’m writing, I mix in a few flashbacks because it tells the reader more about the main character’s personality. What’s happening in these flashbacks isn’t as important as how the main character experienced it. It’s also written (like the rest of the novel) in first person POV, present tense. I feel like this adds more of an experience to the flashback. Instead of it being an artificial ‘memory’, it’s a reliving of the event.
For me, and I hope for the eventual reader, these flashbacks work.
Carenza Hayhoe says
Randy – once again you have hit the jack pot – thank you for giving us courage to follow our convictions – Carenza
Scott Miller says
In her “Valley of Choice” series Olivia Newport spends many chapters (between 1/4 and 1/3) on backstory. She presents this as a parallel tale rather than a flashback. The fore-story is set in present time, the backstory is set in the mid 18th century. The hero and heroine of the fore-story are related to one of the characters in the backstory, and the heroine is exploring her roots–so the idea is not completely insane.
In the 1st novel “Accidentally Amish” Ms. Newport gives us 6 chapters of fore-story before plunging into a chapter of backstory. For me the effect is that I cared far more for the fore-story characters than I did the backstory characters. The backstory felt like an intrusion. A couple months after my first read, I reread the story, but read fore-story and backstory separately. I remember 1 slip where something in the fore-story assumed knowledge of a backstory event. The 2nd novel of the series “In Plain View” I read in 2 parts from the start and don’t recall any slips. I’ve yet to read her 3rd novel in the series.
Amazon feedback reveals that some readers were charmed by the 2-story construction of Ms. Newport’s novels, but a few were put off by it. In an afterward Ms. Newport reveals that the backstory is her family history. In reality there is so little to tie fore-story to backstory, that the backstory isn’t needed–or could have been collected together and sold as a 4th novel.
Fun fact: Olivia Newport lives in the same city I do, but we’ve never met. We run in different writing groups. The familiar settings were a blast and her hero’s sister goes to the same university I do.
Anyway, thought some might get a kick knowing how one published author handled “extreme” backstory.
Martha Miller says
I just finished reading “The Godfather” and noticed in the middle of the book, author Puzo left the main story and gave the reader a long, long backstory on Don Corleone’s life and how he got to be Don. It amazed me that Puzo got away with it — but you can’t argue with success. What I realized was that the ‘backstory’ was so interesting I wanted to read it, even though the main story paused while Puzo went on for pages about the past.
Martha, the creation of Godfather II, the movie, was the extraction of that whole section flashback section from the original novel. . . And work, indeed it did.