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Flashbacks

Uther_Pendragon

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of Astounding/Analog. He famously nurtured Isaac Asimov. Once, when Asimov described a problem he was having with a story, Campbell said, "When a good writer has that sort of problem, it's because he started the story in the wrong place, and 9 times out of 10, too soon.

I'm quoting from memory of Asimov's quoting from memory, so trust as much as you wish, but Asimov followed up by saying that you could always put the information in a flashback.

Now, many -- maybe most -- of my stories start at the beginning and end at the end of the events.

Still, I remember that line, maybe not at the right times.

Replies:   REP  PotomacBob
REP
Updated:

@Uther_Pendragon

I believe a flashback has its place in a story. I also believe that flashbacks should be limited to fairly short scenes of say no more than a chapter in length.

I am currently reading a 35 chapter story. The first 19 chapters are each labeled as occurring 'X' years in the story's past. Chapter 20 is labeled as beginning 12 years in the story's past and ending in the story timeline's present. One of the problems with the chapter is, there is no dividing line to clearly indicate when this massive 19+ chapter "Flashback" ends and the timeline's present begins.

Personally, I would say treating the first two thirds of the story as a flashback is misuse of Flashbacks.

Replies:   Uther_Pendragon
Ernest Bywater

I've used a flashback a few times, but you do have to be very careful with how you use them. The worst book I ever tried to read started off with a great scene, then the author went into a set of flashbacks that took up over half of the book. I never finished it, but someone who did said he started with the next to closing scene for more punch. I do remember reading it was the worst selling book by that author who had a number of good books, and that was one hell of a real life historical subject he was covering, just the way he wrote it screwed it up. It was the only one he wrote that way.

.....................

As to what JWC said, the impression I got from a few accounts of his editorial activity by authors he encouraged and later wrote about him, is when he told an author they started too soon was he meant they should cut out a lot of the preliminary lead in they have, go to the main story, and then include as little of the cut stuff as they can as one or two short flashback scenes.

PotomacBob

@Uther_Pendragon

What about some of the books by James Michener? The "flashback" beginning the books sometimes started millions of years ago as he included the geology of the area in which the story was set.

Replies:   Uther_Pendragon
Uther_Pendragon

@PotomacBob

What about some of the books by James Michener? The "flashback" beginning the books sometimes started millions of years ago as he included the geology of the area in which the story was set.


Technically, you can't have a flashBACK at the beginning. OTOH, I'll admit that my _Igrayne_ started it's flashback with the second sentence.

Uther_Pendragon

@REP

I am currently reading a 35 chapter story. The first 19 chapters are each labeled as occurring 'X' years in the story's past. Chapter 20 is labeled as beginning 12 years in the story's past and ending in the story timeline's present. One of the problems with the chapter is, there is no dividing line to clearly indicate when this massive 19+ chapter "Flashback" ends and the timeline's present begins.

Personally, I would say treating the first two thirds of the story as a flashback is misuse of Flashbacks.


Well, your description of the story sounds like the author -- as JWC said -- started too soon.

OTOH, my _Too Late_ is almost all flashback. The story starts (and ends with the narrator getting a call that his wife had died. The rest is the story of the courtship and marriage.
On a third hand, the story didn't get very favorable ratings.

Replies:   Ross at Play  REP
Ross at Play

@Uther_Pendragon

my _Too Late_ is almost all flashback. The story starts (and ends with the narrator getting a call that his wife had died. The rest is the story of the courtship and marriage.

Isn't that effectively starting the story with a prologue from the final scene and then telling the story in the past tense? I see nothing odd about doing that.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
REP
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@Uther_Pendragon

In most stories that provide a chronological date, the author starts with the date of the earliest event The date is then advanced to indicate subsequent events occurred after the original date. The author can use a flashback to before the original date to provide specific information relating to a current event.

The author of the story instead used a 'down counter' for the date indicating 'X' years before present. Nothing wrong with that approach, but I found it disturbing. Sort of a 'Why is he telling me all of this?" feeling that went on for 20 chapters. When he hit the 'present' and just continued on the timeline, I could see no reason for his approach. Everything just continued on to the end. My impression of the technique is the first 20 chapters was a flashback, but it did not support a specific event in the story. I suppose I could say the technique is a very odd way of dating events in the story.

AmigaClone

Do Over stories for the most part start out one of two ways. The first has a prologue scene set some time in the (alternate?) future of the the main story. The other one starts when the character wakes up some time in the past (for him).

In the second case, there might be a "flashback" scene based on the MC point of view that actually was set years (decades?) after the actual time in the story.

Replies:   Keet
Keet

@AmigaClone

In the second case, there might be a "flashback" scene based on the MC point of view that actually was set years (decades?) after the actual time in the story.

Isn't that a flashforward?

Ernest Bywater

Isn't that a flashforward?


flashforward or a backflash, both are much better than a flashback! However, you've got to admit a flashback is hot.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

Isn't that effectively starting the story with a prologue from the final scene and then telling the story in the past tense? I see nothing odd about doing that.

There's nothing odd about it at all, as many, many authors do exactly that. But technically, you can't have a flashback if you start in the past, and then flash forward. No one ever claimed that it's not a justifiable technique, merely that it's definitionally incorrect. But … it is frowned upon by many authors and editors. Still, that hasn't stopped all those who prefer it.

In short, it's NOT a rule, merely a common-sense observation.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


flashforward or a backflash, both are much better than a flashback!


Technically, a "backflash" happens in photography when the light from the flash ruins the shot, and has no relevance in discussions of literature. But other than the one term, your point is perfectly valid.

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