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Sometimes, the talent is there, you just need the right vehicle

Crumbly Writer

For years, we've discussed flashbacks on this forum (not very often, but we have), where we've mentioned just how difficult they are to implement successfully.

I've tried occasionally, but the results were ... less than spectacular! However, an editor send me his first pass at a story, and I instantly fell in love! The story was top rate, but I didn't fall in love with the story, but with the opportunities.

It was the perfect opportunity for flashbacks. The story—as I envisioned it—begins just after a violent incident, but focuses on how the [somewhat damaged] character reacts afterwards.

With the author's permission, I took a spin at doing the story my own way, and I must say, I'm impressed (not so much with myself, as I am with just how much you can milk a particular story, and how much FUN successfully writing a flashback story can be.

The key—to this particular case, at least—is each flashback is incredibly short, and reveals a single snapshot of the characters as revealed by one isolated piece of the background, yet they don't reveal any more than a tease, and often not what the reader is askign themselves just then.

The result, is a slowly building collection of clues into the character, their nature, their situation and their motivation, all delivered without the traditional info-dump, in a fast and engaging manner.

Unfortunately, part of what makes the story work is what'll trip most (myself included) before too long. Because the character is so ... quixotic, it only seems to work with a mysterious loner. That means, there's little chance to develop the character through the normal dialogue. So, IF I continue with this little experiment, I plan to break it soon, by introducing a few additional characters who'll allow the character to open up, after which I won't be able to do quite as many flashbacks, but where I can fully develop her.

It's fun knowing the limitation wasn't yours, just the fault of your choice of stories.

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ernest Bywater

Flashbacks can be wondrous tools in an author's toolbox. However, you have to be very careful and limit their use in any one story.

I've used flashbacks to good effect, but the worst story I ever tried to read opened up with multiple flashbacks that had me tossing the story after about 20 pages. It opens up with a catchy scene involving several characters, and is then immediately followed by each of those characters having a flashback to several months earlier, follows them for a few weeks then the next character flashback to the same period, and so on. It would've been much better to have a single flashback and then a linear movement. I never finished the book, but a masochistic friend did, and said they had about 15 flashbacks through the book - sheesh.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

I've used flashbacks to good effect, but the worst story I ever tried to read opened up with multiple flashbacks that had me tossing the story after about 20 pages. It opens up with a catchy scene involving several characters, and is then immediately followed by each of those characters having a flashback to several months earlier, follows them for a few weeks then the next character flashback to the same period, and so on. It would've been much better to have a single flashback and then a linear movement. I never finished the book, but a masochistic friend did, and said they had about 15 flashbacks through the book - sheesh.

From what I observed (from this singular instance) is you need to limit each flashback in scope (both number of paragraphs, content and time), so it's easy to process. A main problem with info dumps is that, just like with paragraphs and sentences, readers can only process a single thought at a time. THey can follow complex sentences, but if you toss in other topics, you'll lose them.

Here, you use the short flashback to reveal the character's history and motivation by using their reaction to a past event, and how it illustrates their feelings about the present, so it's best to yank them out again immediately—say by needing to escape, the approach of the cops, trying to avoid someone, etc. Essentially, people only buy flashbacks if they're artificially short, where the character can't waste much time reminiscing.

Switch Blayde
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


just how difficult they are to implement successfully.


"Prince of Tides" is told entirely through flashbacks. I didn't read the novel, but the movie is filled with them and I read that the novel has even more.

I'm talking movies here, but what drives me nuts is when the flashbacks jump around time. "The Imitation Game" is a great movie, but it jumps from the present to during the war to his school years.

"Saving Mr. Banks" also has a lot of flashbacks. I didn't like it the first time I saw it, but they were necessary to explain why the author was the way she was.

Joe Long
Updated:

@Switch Blayde

The TV show Arrow has always used flashbacks to fill in the backstory of the main character. It's been done in the style CW describes, quick scenes usually illustrating how the character has reacted earlier to similar situations.

I use that technique in my book without the use of flashbacks, rather with prequel/sequel pairs. The character may find himself in a situation, or say a certain thing, then chapters later a similar situation arises. The sequel has similarities but also differences. The point is to establish precedent or to have the reader consider the situation before it comes up the second time.

I have one flashback that's expressed in dialogue. There are a few strongly emotional but cryptic references to a unseen character. About midway through the book the protagonist has an emotionally weak moment, asks his love interest, "Do you know about my cousin Kathy?" then tells the story in a few hundred words.

Ross at Play

@Switch Blayde

I'm talking movies here, but what drives me nuts is when the flashbacks jump around time.

When professionals often stuff up entire works by getting this wrong, it may be an unwise technique for amateurs to attempt ... but CW may have identified the scope where it's relatively safe for them: AFAIK, CW suggests limiting to something very short and things illustrative of an adjacent scene in the central timeline of the narrative.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
docholladay

Each flashback has to be a separate story within the story. If they repeat a story it will definitely harm the main story. And usually I find the so-called flashbacks work best when those short stories are told by different characters. Most that seemed to work for me as a reader are those told by someone other than the main character.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


I'm talking movies here, but what drives me nuts is when the flashbacks jump around time. "The Imitation Game" is a great movie, but it jumps from the present to during the war to his school years.


Stay away from HBO's Westworld then, they jump back and forth at least a few decades in some cases. But hey, when some of your lead characters are robots that don't age. :)

Of course, on that count, at least they only really have two time periods they've paid much attention to, with very brief(mostly obvious) visits to others. Then again, this is borderline spoiler material in some respects, in an almost 6th Sense kind of way, at least for season 1.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

When professionals often stuff up entire works by getting this wrong, it may be an unwise technique for amateurs to attempt ... but CW may have identified the scope where it's relatively safe for them: AFAIK, CW suggests limiting to something very short and things illustrative of an adjacent scene in the central timeline of the narrative.

My main takeaway from this, is that you can't force flashbacks on a story (or a script). Rather, you only use them IF the story suits the technique. The key, are these discussions where you remember the keys to look for. Then, when you stumble upon one, you jump on it.

Typically, my stories all start slowly, build a bit at a time. Those won't work with flashback stories. You've got to jump into the action (in my editor's story, I started at chapter 2, ignoring chapter 1 other than to take bits and pieces for the various flashbacks). You also don't reveal any more than just a taste of what the character is dealing with to keep the reader interested in learning more. Too much, and they'll no longer care about their flashbacks.

Crumbly Writer

@docholladay

Each flashback has to be a separate story within the story. If they repeat a story it will definitely harm the main story. And usually I find the so-called flashbacks work best when those short stories are told by different characters.

I've observed the opposite. I prefer the 'quick snippets', rather than the 'separate story' approach, because, again, it yanks the reader out of the story, asks them to become invested in an older story, and just as they're getting into it you rip them out of that one, dumping them back in the original one.

Using the 'snippet' approach, the transitions aren't so painful, aren't as difficult to adjust to, and are easier to remember. Remember, these types of flashbacks aren't for relating backstory, only for revealing snippets. Then later in the story, when the character reaches a crisis point, you can resolve everything by having them hash the details out (for me, I prefer doing that in dialogue anyway, so a little romance followed by a heart-to-heart should do wonders).

All that said, I'll let you know how my experiment works out.

Crumbly Writer

@Not_a_ID

Stay away from HBO's Westworld then, they jump back and forth at least a few decades in some cases. But hey, when some of your lead characters are robots that don't age. :)

Of course, on that count, at least they only really have two time periods they've paid much attention to, with very brief(mostly obvious) visits to others. Then again, this is borderline spoiler material in some respects, in an almost 6th Sense kind of way, at least for season 1.

In the case of the robots, since they don't age, those 'previous lives' are essentially just a previous visit by yet another group of tourists. Each flashback, though it may be 'years' before, fits into my 'snippet' model. They're short, revealing, and make the readers more curious without exhausting them.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Crumbly Writer

In the case of the robots, since they don't age, those 'previous lives' are essentially just a previous visit by yet another group of tourists. Each flashback, though it may be 'years' before, fits into my 'snippet' model. They're short, revealing, and make the readers more curious without exhausting them.


Well, some of those "flashbacks" weren't much in the "flash" department. Almost entire episodes, or significant portions thereof, were happening in the past.

Of course, within the context of the story, it makes a kind of sense. Each "host" (Robot + AI driving the robot) in Westworld runs through a specified script, and once it has run its course, it resets(and they have no further active memory of it) and it starts over again. For some this could be daily, for others this could be over the course of days or even weeks, depending on the nature of their "story arc" or what their "role" within the park may be. (Such as a particular group of bandits that evidently rob the Saloon at the guests drop-off point approximately every week or so)

Except they pushed an update during the 1st episode that is causing the AI's to access previously deleted memories(that haven't been overwritten/fully removed from their memory matrix) and things are going haywire with some of them...

The flashbacks in many cases are the relevant AI's "remembering" some of those past experiences.

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