The incomparable Kristen Lamb is here today to talk about flashbacks. If you don’t know how knowledgeable Kristen is, you’ll know by the end of the post, where you can find information on her blog and craft classes, which I’m sure you’ll want to check out…
Angela and Becca were gracious enough to invite me to come guest post and lay out some truth regarding one of THE most controversial topics in craft…the flashback.
Usually when I blog on this a lot of folks wanna argue about breaking rules and non-conformity, and art, and how Such-And-Such uses flashbacks more than a Kardashian uses a Selfie Stick and Such-And-Such is a gazillionaire.
Here’s the deal. Professionals learn the rules first because we can’t break, bend or reinvent something we never even took the time to understand in the first place. Leave that to hobbyists and amateurs. Thus, before we address the flashback, I need to make something crystal clear:
Flashbacks are NOT a broad term universally applicable to every single shift back in time.
Thus, to understand the type of “flashbacks” editors like me hate and why we hate them, we must all be on the same page regarding “time travel” in fiction.
Flashbacks Versus Non-Linear Plotting
Not all plots are linear. Just because a story “goes back in time” doesn’t automatically mean the author is using a “flashback.” Often, it’s actually non-linear plotting.
There can be any number of reasons to choose a plot that doesn’t travel directly from Point A to Point Z in a neat orderly fashion. Perhaps the author wants to create an unreliable narrator as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
Another favorite? Vanilla Sky, which also used non-linear plotting as a diversion tactic for an unreliable narrator and to slowly reveal the TRUTH of what really was happening to protagonist David Aames.
Non-linear plotting is wonderful for misdirection.
Perhaps there’s an age-old mystery to be solved related to a current-day problem. Progressing linearly would reveal the culprit and “what really happened” and that the new and old are actually connected…as in James Patterson’s Murder House.
This type of plotting is highly useful in psychological thrillers, mystery and suspense…namely because you (Author God) are messing with time making it tougher for the reader to see your play. Literary sleight-of-hand, so to speak.
These plots seem to be chock full of “flashbacks”, but really they aren’t. If we cut the story up into pieces, we could line the scenes into a linear fashion and clearly see the standard three-act structure.
Flashbacks Versus Parallel Timelines
Again when I blog about the perils of flashbacks, protests like this inevitably appear in my comments:
Well, The Green Mile was a mega-hit book and movie and it was FULL of flashbacks.
The Green Mile was NOT full of flashbacks. It is what’s called a parallel timeline.
Another example of the parallel timeline structure is Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. One present story, one past story, both running parallel (like train tracks) until they converge at the point where the dominant storyline takes over and is resolved.
But remember: there is a purpose for the parallel timeline. The past is the past and cannot be changed. The current day protagonist and the problem he or she is facing, however, CAN be changed.
Thus the purpose for the past being revealed is to, in some way, solve the core story problem the current-day protagonist is facing.
A good example of this is the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Evelyn Couch (protagonist) is a doormat who’s being ignored, disrespected and bullied from all directions. Even though Evelyn is doing everything she can to please (which includes wrapping herself in cellophane to entice her hubby into romance instead of watching football), she’s roundly ignored and abused.
Then she meets Ninny Threadgoode (inciting incident).
It is ONLY through meeting Ninny Threadgoode and listening to the adventures of Idgy and Ruth and the Whistle Stop Cafe that Evelyn learns and grows and matures to where she can conquer her CURRENT problem—lack of a spine.
In fact, in this legendary cinematic scene, we witness the PRECISE moment Evelyn “gets” it and understands what her matriarchal mentor has been trying to help her understand all along.
We know Evelyn has “won” when in the end she is fresh, alive and confident instead of a simpering weenie begging to be loved and respected.
But the story isn’t just a bunch of reminiscing. The story in the past is salient to the resolution of the current story problem. The past timeline also follows three-act structure. Additionally, without the past timeline, without meeting Ninny, Evelyn would have never had the catalyst to change her present situation and escape her personal hell. If we teased the two timelines apart, we’d see a clear, linear three-act skeleton.
Training Wheel Flashbacks
Okay, so today I’ve thrown down some seriously advanced stuff on y’all since linear three act structure gets most of the attention. There are other varieties of nonlinear plotting but we only covered two of the biggies today, largely for the sake of brevity…and also because when your brains explode, it makes a mess on the keyboard.
Nonlinear plotting is NOT what editors and agents want to stab in the face when they read it. Nonlinear plotting is the sign of a highly advanced writer, not a giant red flag screaming “ROOKIE!”
The time-shift-rookie-red-flag is what I like to call the Training Wheel Flashback (TWF). I call it this because it’s most commonly employed by emerging writers who are learning to write a novel.
Now, there is no shame in learning.
We all start somewhere and training wheels are a good place to start. But eventually we need to ditch the training wheels or it’s awkward for everyone (on a bike and in a book). Kids use training wheels on a bicycle to learn to balance and get strong enough to no longer need the training wheels to stay upright and out of the hedges. Training wheels are to prop up a weak/new bicycle rider.
Same with TWFs.
Why TWFs are a red flag to agents, editors and folks like me is because it’s glaringly obvious the time shift’s sole purpose is to prop up a weak story, undeveloped characters, or “explain” that which doesn’t need explaining. (Refer to my post, STOP KILLING YOUR STORY! Why Suffering is Essential for Great Fiction.)
Past Folded INTO the Present
Editors dislike shifting time to “explain” because it’s unnecessary and it wrecks the forward momentum which interrupts the fictive dream. Plain truth is that most relevant information from the past can be blended seamlessly into the present narrative. Also, spoon-feeding the reader is not what makes them turn pages. They LIKE working for the answers. Let them.
A made-up example of past blended into present narrative:
Bonnie wandered to the empty break room, praying strong coffee might burn away at least some of the constant fog in her head. Sure, the anti-depressants helped. Kept her from unraveling, even from maybe doing something stupid or possibly fatal. Yet, at the same time, the pills also made her tired.
All she wanted was sleep. Sleep. One of many luxuries she could no longer afford. Especially not now when she was alone, back working her old job in corporate sales instead of enjoying early retirement with Tom, her husband of twenty years.
How had she gotten here? A million miles from the private beach where they’d met in 1990, the beach where they’d built a condo. How had life gone so wrong?
The buzz of her cell phone snapped her hard back to the present. It took a long moment for her to realize she’d received a text. Her boss. The one who’d only rehired her out of pity. The same boss now texting her in all caps SHE BETTER GET HER ASS TO THE PRESENTATION.
Bonnie was late. Again. Of course she was. If she made it through today without getting canned, it would be a miracle.
See how we (readers) get a LOT of information about the past…yet not really. We don’t need to go back in time to when Bonnie and Tom met on a beach in 1990 to “get” they met on a beach in 1990. Additionally, in regards to the story problem, we “could” stop and go back in time and explain that Bonnie’s husband:
a) Was killed in a freak Fry-Daddy explosion.
b) Died of a heart attack (supposedly but was really murdered).
c) Left her for that slutty barista who always gave him extra sprinkles #FrappSkank.
Any number of things could be the reason WHY Bonnie is downing anti-depressants from a Pez dispenser and feeling scared and abandoned. Thing is, we DON’T KNOW anything beyond the fact that Bonnie is in trouble and there is a problem–A BIG ONE. There are also a lot of smaller, pressing problems that make us tense and…keep reading. We don’t know the exact nature of the core problem or even WTH happened before this moment we meet Bonnie in the break room… but we want to.
Less is almost always MORE.
Anyway, this is enough for today and thanks so much Angela and Becca for having me!
Hope y’all learned a lot and will visit my blog for all you wanted to know about craft, social media, branding and more. I also teach virtual classes over at my company W.A.N.A. International. If you’re ready to take that jump and seriously up your game? I’m bringing the ADVANCED classes, and if today’s post FIRED you up? I strongly recommend my upcoming class (an ideal compliment to our topic)— Understanding the Antagonist.
For those who’d like a peek at my fiction, I have a romantic suspense novella which is part of the Falling for the Billionaire Box Set. My contribution is Deadline. My romantic suspense The Devil’s Dance will be re-released within the next few weeks so I hope y’all stay in touch!
Kristen Lamb is an international speaker, award-winning blogger and creator of the top resource for author branding in the digital age, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World (affiliate link). She’s also the author of the #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer.
Kristen has now returned to her first love…MURDER. Fictional murder. Jeez! Her debut romantic suspense, The Devil’s Dance is positive proof she watches way more Discovery ID than is probably healthy.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Barbara Strickland says
Great post. I don’t call what I do flashbacks. I call it capturing a moment in time and thinking back on it, a reflection. That’s what we do as humans, not just writers but human. We slip back to a conversation or an event because it matters, it impacts on now. True it fills in certain information but if it brings us closer to the history of the characters, the feelings and motivations then it has meaning. I have just completed a re-edit of my work and am a day or so away from re-loading. This site has and is so helpful and I have learned so much already and can’t wait to learn more. It helps clarify what we do. Thank you again for a great post.
BECCA PUGLISI says
IMO, these moments are fine as long as they’re concise. So many authors fall into the trap of trying to reveal whole events and scenes in flashbacks that pull the reader out of the story and slow the pace. Internal dialogue, when controlled, is a great asset :).
P.I. Barrington says
Hmm…I use flashbacks all the time AND I write linear! No editor or publisher has ever complained, lol! I think perhaps I use them less for explanation than for enticing readers to become vested in characters and their relations with each other and or with circumstances. Very good article Kristen and I promise not to bring up any famous, rich authors…
BECCA PUGLISI says
I obviously can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that you use your flashbacks deliberately. Too often, we just want to show something from the past, so we use a flashback without considering other options. Pretty soon we’ve got a manuscript peppered with flashbacks and readers with whiplash, trying to keep up with the changes in time :).
Kristen Lamb says
I agree. And actually I would have addressed the way you are using flashbacks in this post but it was already way long. If the shift in time is salient to the current story core problem, that isn’t something I’d call a TWF. The TWF is really obvious…kinda like training wheels. No hiding those suckers, right? If the shifts in time are used sparingly and elegantly, sure they can work to add depth to the story. Yet, too often because emerging writers don’t know the difference in the TYPES of time shifting we (the readers) all to often are left feeling like we are trapped in a car teaching a 16 year old how to drive a stick shift. NOT pleasant.
Traci Kenworth says
Great info as always!
Mark Marderosian says
This site really is one of the best for writers at any stage of their progress in their art / craft. When I get the email notices of postings in the in-box, it’s always a good thing! Thanks so much for the continually helpful information.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thanks for the kind words, Mark. I’m VERY glad you’re finding our information practical and useful :).
Cathy Brockman says
Great information I learned a lot
Kristen Lamb says
Thanks Cathy! Thrilled I could help.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Thank you for breaking down the different kinds of time shifts, Kristen. We do tend to refer to every look back in time as a flashback when not all of them are. This is super helpful 🙂
Sheri Levy says
Wonderful information. Enjoyed reading this-
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thanks for posting, Kristen. I think Flashbacks and backstory dumps can become magnets for “As you know, Bob” type scenarios. It takes time and practice to work in information in a natural way, and know what should (and shouldn’t) be shared. There’s always so much to learn with writing, but anything worth doing is worth doing well. 🙂
The Assassin Creed movie and video games uses the parallel timeline. There is 100 to a 2000 year difference in the timelines. The connection is between the two is a device that lets the descendent relive the memories of the ancestor.