Friday, March 19, 2010

Things I've Learned: Flashing. Wait, What?

There are varied opinions about flashbacks floating around in the ether, so feel free to disagree with me on any and all points if you so desire. But here is my opinion about them:

I think of flashbacks as rain soaked pants falling off your story's buns.

No, I'm not going to apologize for it.

Okay, maybe a little. Sorry.

Some people like to write stories in which the crap hits the fan during the course of the narrative (I am one of those people). But some people like to write stories that take place just after the crap has hit the fan, or perhaps several months or years afterward. And those types of stories generally require some sort of discussion of the past. That's where the flashbacks come in.

The problem with flashbacks? When left to my own devices, I skim them. I don't care if they contain huge explosions or unicorns or red velvet cupcakes raining from the sky. They don't usually hold my interest.

Last year, I wrote this novella, and the climactic moment of my story involved letting the reader discover a traumatic event that had happened in my main character's past. So the novella went into this huge memory sequence and then bounced back into the main narrative and unraveled.

My writing professor told me something I'll never forget, which was "do not locate the central conflict of your story in the past."

What that means to me is: if the central conflict of your story is in the past, then maybe THAT should be your story. There's no point in situating your story in the present if the real meat of it is in the past. Makes sense, right?

You can have a painful and/or complicated backstory, but that backstory should not be unloaded on the reader in large chunks. In fact, I think there is a perfectly acceptable way to let the backstory come into the main narrative, and that is in little pieces.

Memories are often triggered by sensory stimuli like distinct smells, sounds, or images. If your character runs into those stimuli from time to time, we can get little pieces of the memory without getting Saggy Narrative Syndrome.

Let me get a little funky with this. Here is the basic shape of a story:

The story has rising action that builds to a climactic moment/scene/situation, after which the action and tension gradually subside until the story ends. (Note: there are many exceptions to this rule.) Now, if you want to have a complicated backstory, the stuff inside the story can look like this:

Yes, that's right, a spiral. It continually returns to the same information, expanding each time.

Let's say you want your MC, Jimmy, to have gotten in a nasty marshmallow explosion six months before the story starts. (Mmm. Marshmallows.) In the first few pages, Jimmy watches Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and his inner monologue says: "Mmm. I haven't had one of those since the marshmallow accident."

The reader goes: "Wait...marshmallow accident? TELL ME MORE."

Awhile later, Jimmy encounters a candy bar and thinks, "I wonder what would happen if I stuck this in the microwave? Oh wait. That's what led to the marshmallow explosion."

We've got a little more information now. Jimmy caused the marshmallow explosion via some sort of microwaving tomfoolery. (I don't know why this would happen. Bear with me.)

Awhile after that, Jimmy finds a bag of marshmallows in his pantry. His throat feels tight and he backs away slowly. He thinks: "Remember what Doctor Snippetysnap told you about running into those marshmallows again. Just forget about the sea of stickiness all over the kitchen that you had to clean up with a toothbrush. Take deep breaths and imagine yourself in a Marshmallow-Free Zone."

I think you get what I'm saying. The memories return to us periodically throughout the manuscript, which means that we understand the backstory, but we remain focused on the main narrative. You get to keep the momentum of your story while retaining the complexity that makes it unique.

To sum up, things to think about when considering flashbacks:

A. Do memories really work that way? Are you ever sitting somewhere and you just go into this zone where you re-play an entire scene of your life in vivid detail from start to finish? Because that's not how my memory works. I remember little pieces of things and continually return to them, often with different details every time. Just something to think about.

B. Are flashbacks messing with your narrative momentum? You want your reader to be propelled forward by every part of your story. The last thing you want is to remove them from the main narrative, thus deflating the tension you've worked so hard to build.

C. Is the central conflict of your story located in a past event? This doesn't mean that a past event can't be of crucial importance to your plot. It's just that the aftermath of the event should be more important than the event itself. The act of remembering the event in greater detail should do something important for your character and influence their behavior in the main narrative, rather than just providing your reader with more information. The memories have to be for the character as well as for the reader.

And there you have it. My thoughts on flashbacks.

Flash forwards, on the other hand...

(Just kidding.)


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