The Flashback Quagmire

Today’s entry in the first page critique roundtable brings up the issue of flashbacks. Let’s have a look, and then we’ll talk.
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Bobby was at a dead sprint when the first bullet hit him in the kidney. He went down hard face first on the concrete and fought to catch his breath. He’d never been in so much pain, but the adrenaline coursing through him forced him to his knees and back to his feet. He was bleeding badly, and his breath came in ragged gasps. He knew he was about to die but couldn’t bring himself to stop running.
The rotted corpse of Holy Cross High School, vacant for decades, loomed in front of him. If he could reach the school he might be able to hide from the men hunting him and die in relative peace. God only knew what they had in mind for him if they caught him.
Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. He knew he’d be easy to track with the amount of blood he was losing. He was growing light headed and his vision was clouding. He was struck by a sudden sadness at the thought of never seeing his family again, and wished he’d listened to his father when he told him to stay the hell out of New Orleans.
Hours earlier, Bobby was laughing and drinking beer in Johnny White’s bar on Bourbon Street. A natural extrovert, he did his best to keep a low profile but he couldn’t help chatting up some of the more attractive clientele. He never even noticed the young guy with a buzz cut watching him from across the bar.
The buzz cut didn’t miss a trick. He watched Bobby drink several beers, make time with a couple of vacationing coeds, and then settle his tab with a Kennedy half dollar. He made a note of the bartender’s name, and debated whether to include it in his After Action Report. It was handy to know who did business with freebooters in New Orleans, after all.
As Bobby was leaving the bar, the buzz cut bumped into him and apologized. It never occurred to Bobby that the stranger who bumped him planted an infrared tracking device on him. From then it was just a matter of time.
***

Let me say a couple of things about the first three paragraphs.
Our POV character in this scene is Bobby. And he’s been shot. He’s on the run. We have a chance, then, to become bonded to Bobby and his plight right away.
That’s why I need to feel a bit more of the pain and fear in Bobby. Right now I’m a little “outside” the action. Part of that is do to this passive construction: Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. We need to be in Bobby’s head. He heard another crack. Asphalt splattered in front of him. Etc.
It’s not enough to have an action opening. It’s what the action feels like to the character that’s essential. 
You’ve got a potentially arresting hook here, but for it work to the max we need that POV “heat.” See John G.’s post on Friday. Play the scene in your mind several times as if you were Bobby, then re-write it.
Okay, so now you’ve got this guy being shot at, chased and then . . . flashback!
Ahhhh!
Don’t do this. I know it feels like a little “teaser” but to the reader it’s more like a “cheater.” It’s too obvious you’re manipulating them by inserting a flashback to create an artificial cliffhanger.
So here’s a rule (even for people who say there are no rules in writing): No flashbacks in the first fifty pages! When you put in a flashback too soon it stops the action cold and jars the reader. It pulls them right out of the fictive dream you’ve been weaving. (Note, I am not talking here about a “frame story,” where we begin in the present then have the bulk of the book take place in the past. That’s another matter entirely.)
Also, you’re using an omniscient POV in the flashback. If Bobby never even noticed the young guy with the buzz cut, the only one who can see him is the author. This removes us further from Bobby. Keep the POV “hot” even in flashback scenes.
Now, what about flashbacks later in your fiction? Remember, by definition they stop the action, so you’d better have a very good reason for using one (e.g., essential character background info that is so crucial you need to dramatize it).
And if you do use a flashback it needs to stand alone as a scene, with all the sensory description and intensity of a scene from the main plot line.
Flashbacks. Handle with care. But in the opening chapters, don’t handle them at all.
***
Speaking of getting more emotional heat into your characters, that will part of My “Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” coming up June 4 & 5 in Los Angeles. 
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14 thoughts on “The Flashback Quagmire

  1. What are your view on novels built up with one scene in the present, then one scene flashback and this “layout” being true throughout the story? Both present and flashbacks are chronologically ordered. Is that the same thing, or would different “rules” apply?

  2. Great question, Malin. What’ you’re talking about is not really a flashback, but parallel plot lines, with one of those taking place in the past. A flashback (as normally defined) is a set piece that takes place at some point in a main narrative. It doesn’t take over or run parallel. It shows up, does its thing and then we’re back to the main line.

    Going back and forth from past to present is a stylistic choice that’s perfectly legitimate. My flashback discussion today is based on a traditional narrative structure–beginning at a certain point and moving on to the end.

  3. Great question, Malin. What’ you’re talking about is not really a flashback, but parallel plot lines, with one of those taking place in the past. A flashback (as normally defined) is a set piece that takes place at some point in a main narrative. It doesn’t take over or run parallel. It shows up, does its thing and then we’re back to the main line.

    Going back and forth from past to present is a stylistic choice that’s perfectly legitimate. My flashback discussion today is based on a traditional narrative structure–beginning at a certain point and moving on to the end.

  4. Good critique, Jim. Flashbacks are tricky. Do we really need them or are they just backstory for the author only. And like so many things in life, timing is everything. For me, the best way to know if something is needed or relevant is to delete it and see if the story or scene still works.

    A comment on this submission: the evil passive “was” is used 12 times in 6 short paragraphs. I would suggest finding each instance and rewriting the sentence. Here’s an example: “He was growing light headed and his vision was clouding.” Change to: “He grew light headed as his vision blurred.” Word choice is also important. Cloudy vision is usually caused by cataracts while blurry vision might be the result of becoming light headed.

    One last thing. If someone shot me in the back, I would be hard-pressed to know for sure that I was shot in the kidney or liver or spleen or pancreas or gut or . . .

  5. Joe, exactly. The first line seems like “author voice” for the reason you suggest. While it is sometimes okay to be a bit “omniscient” in an opening before dropping into a POV, here it doesn’t fit because we’re in the middle of a tense action moment. We need all the character identification we can get.

  6. Good post, Jim. I completely agree with your comments and others here. I had an issue with the kidney shot too, Joe.

    And with regard to flashbacks, in my YA novel just released I wanted to challenge myself by using flashbacks throughout it to not only reveal how my teen girl fell in love, but also shed light on a cold case murder mystery. Because my boy was in a mental hospital, catatonic in the present, the girl telling the story triggered on memories from places and things she saw in the present that revealed something from the past–an emotional journey for her. And because this story had paranormal elements, the boy was connecting with her in the only way he could, through the past they shared. It worked well and every flashback had its own scene to clearly define it. Some authors set flashbacks in all italics, but I hate reading long scenes that way, so I did mine differently by transitions from present to past through a mental trigger in my teen girl, her memories.

  7. Jim, what do you think about the argument that you should never use flashbacks because they show weak writing, an inability to drop information into the story otherwise?

  8. Jordan, that sounds like a perfectly plausible stylistic choice.

    Fletch, it’s good to consider other ways of getting the information across. I don’t agree that a flashback is always weak writing. But as I said in the post, it needs to be both necessary and as well written as any other scene.

  9. To use flashbacks effectively takes discipline and a good reason for them. In the movie, Casablanca, they were used to show how two people fell in love. In the powerful movie, Ordinary People, flashbacks became the “reveal” of the cause behind the dysfunctional family. They became the huge emotional release for the boy who had blocked out the details in the death of his brother and was suffering from survivor’s guilt, when he was the only one who had been there to tell that part of the story for the big finish of that movie.

    And in Bourne Identity, they were used effectively in fragments to show how an amnesia’s brain functions while its struggling to remember, adding tension to scenes of impending violence when Bourne fought to regain his memory and learn who betrayed him.

    Writing them is definitely a challenge, to avoid making them read like a “cheat”. But they can also have a big payoff if used judiciously and with good reason.

  10. Jordan, don’t forget about Stieg Larsson’s work. He used them extensively throughout the Millenium Series to develop Lisbeth Salander.

    I think they’re very useful. But, I’ve heard a lot of agents and editors make the argument that they will pass on a first time author’s work if they see any in it because it means the writer hasn’t really learned their craft well enough.

  11. Fletch, I know that’s a concern. We do hear agents and eds say such things on panels. That’s another reason to avoid flashbacks in the opening. A proposal is usually going to include the first three or four chapters. Why put something in that might lead to an automatic turndown? If you’re asked to submit a full MS, and your writing is strong, a well done flashback shouldn’t hurt at that point.

  12. Is there a difference between a flashback and a character memory? I use brief memories in the early scenes of my current WIP to convey the character’s state of mind in the present. The novel opens with her running into a man from her past. But there are no passages that step out of the present time to dramatize an event from the past. (BTW, the memories aren’t remnants from an early draft. I added them later for texture.)

  13. I think it was a workshop with author Angela Hunt who said to use the word “was” exactly twice when using a flashback. Once to let the reader know they’re entering one and once to exit back into normal time. This “rule” goes right along with what Joe Moore said. I noticed them too, Joe.

  14. Andrea, no, what you describe is not a flashback. I actually call them “back flashes.” It’s a great way to drop in background info in the midst of current action.

    Daniel, another word to watch out for is “had.” You can use that once to get into a flashback as well e.g., He had just come home that day five years ago.

    But then you don’t keep using it. Not: And he had found his wife in the arms of another man. but simply, He found his wife in the arms of another man. You continue to write the scene that way.

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