Flashbacks: Can You Handle Them?
“There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, no can agree on what they are.”
One of the rules that I learned when I first started writing was to stay in the “now” of the story. Cut as much backstory as possible, don’t recap events and, for certain, don’t indulge in long flashbacks as they take away from what’s happening in the present.
But then I grew fascinated with several television series that inserted flashbacks and did it so well that I was as much, if not more, interested in the past story than in the present.
My gold standard for flashbacks is the first season of Lost and the best of those episodes is the one focusing on John Locke. For most of the series, Locke has been insisting that the island is magical and has a better, more positive attitude than any of the other survivors. This confounds the others because, after all, they’ve been in a horrific plane crash and are stranded far from home.
Locke’s flashback episode deals with why he feels that way and has a revelation at the end that completely changes how I felt about the character. Perfect.
Person of Interest uses flashbacks in much the same way, doling out bits and pieces of how Finch and Reese’s partnership in their quixotic quest to save people developed. Instead of the flashback story being played out for several episodes, it plays out in bits and pieces, sometimes over a season. That can be somewhat frustrating and I keep hoping for some enterprising person on the web to string all the pieces together so I can see how they all add up instead of having to remember myself. But I still love them.
And then there’s Arrow, whose story is split between the main character’s past on a not-quite deserted island (what is it with deserted islands?) and the present where Ollie Queen is trying to rebuild his life after five years away and become a hero. Sometimes the flashbacks are great, particularly when they focus on how Ollie learned a particular skill or how Ollie has matured. But sometimes the flashbacks only give us a longer version of something we know already in the present. And that means sometimes the flashbacks are dead boring.
With these examples at the back of my head, I began to write a classic hero/heroine reunion story last fall. And it wasn’t working. The heroine was too bitchy, the hero was wishy-washy, and I just got bogged down in explaining why they’d broken up. So to help me get through that, I started writing the story of how they’d met. That was so much a help to me that I decided to take the plunge, break the rule about keeping the story in the present day and tell a flashback story that runs concurrently with the what’s happening in the now.
To make sure the flashback story was interesting and effective, I studied the three televisions and came up with my own guidelines for flashbacks. (I hestitate to call them rules. J )
Guideline One: Don’t cut away from a cliffhanger in the present day to jump to the past. It’s annoying and it breaks the reader’s interest in the story.
Guideline Two: Use the flashbacks to illuminate something that’s just happened in the present day story. Locke’s story is the classic example. It has so much power as a revelation, much more so than if he’d just told people in the present day.
Guideline Three: The flashback has to be interesting all by itself. It needs to be a story, with conflict, and with rising tension.
Guideline Four: Weave the revelations contained in the flashbacks in the present day by referring back to them for the reader. For example, in the story I was writing, the hero makes the heroine an origami bear after their first adventure. After that past scene in the book, the hero finds that heroine has kept that origami bear despite their painful break-up.
I’d written my past and present day stories separately and I spent over a day dropping the chapters of the flashback story very carefully into the present day story, keeping these rules in mind. For instance, the first reunion sex of the hero/heroine immediately is followed by a flashback sequence detailing how they first met. The very last scene of the past story details their break-up and that is placed just before they make a major step toward a lasting bond.
Would I encourage others to break the rule about staying in the now? Considering I view the rules as more of guidelines, yes, but with always keeping in mind what the story loses and what the story gains by telling it in an unorthodox manner. I guess the true test in when this book, Phoenix Inheritance, comes out next March.
Because the one rule of writing I’d hate to break is to lose the reader.