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.