1. John Carlo
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    John Carlo Active Member

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    Employing Flashbacks effectively?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by John Carlo, Jan 28, 2010.

    Hey all,
    I'm writing a book with a considerable amount of flashbacks. I'm a big subscriber to John Gardner's theory to not break "the fictional dream", there's just no way around it. The past is engrained in the story, basically in the form of memory. What is the most natural way of employing memory-based flashbacks that will work for the story rather than hinder it? The only idea I've come up with is to do it in dialogue as well as just designating separate chapters for the flashbacks (which might very well make the book very choppy). Any better ideas out there? The one thing I have working for me is that this is a fantasy/magical realism piece so I'm not restricted to a pure realistic option. I just need something that works.
     
  2. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Any exposition you can do through dialogue, or the thoughts of the main character/narrator will be better, as like you said flashbacks will break the flow. That's not to say that they can't work, but I think it's important to remember your medium. You're writing a novel/short story/whatever, not a film/TV episode. It doesn't really work to have a character suddenly stare off into the middle-distance like Richmond (slightly obscure British TV reference) and "remember" the flashback.
     
  3. Operaghost
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    Operaghost Contributing Member

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    Never do exposition through dialougue, its lazy and isn;t good practice, plus it creates two dimensional chracters whose sole purpose is to infodump. Sure its fine if you are Dan Brown but the majority of us are not so won't get away with it, its fine to do a flashback in a separate chapter , or even as separate paragraphs, even if it does feel choppy thats the purpose of flashbacks to break the linear flow. You could even go further and add it later, similar to the way coynan doyle wrote the sign of the four, when the background of teh "villan" is revealed almost within its own separate story, before tieing it back up to the investigation. As for the richmond reference, it is true that thsi doesn't work for film, but that was done purposely for comic relevance, books are different.
     
  4. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    The relevant past of a story need not be a "flashback." I think that's why it's called "backstory." It becomes an integral part of the storyline--and its only relevance is to support it. Yes, it takes some work and thought to provide backstory in a way that works and works more effectively than having a character or several always "remembering" their past. But that difference between backstory and flashback is what separates good fiction writers from lesser fiction writers who don't work as hard at making their story work for them.

    A real-life "flashback" is often about the same thing, over and over again, and so provides less backstory than to illustrate a character flaw. By putting your character in the position of "reflecting" over and over on a past that serves to give meaning to the present story you tell, I think you're risking the character's fictional importance and placing him more squarely in the position of being a mere mouthpiece for the author's own thoughts. I don't think you want that to happen to characters you've gone to the trouble of bringing to fictional life. But having them simply remember a past you can't think of a better way to include will diminish their importance in the story you tell.

    I'm a John Gardner fan, too. I think, if nothing else, he had a lot to say about artful writing. I can't imagine he would have preferred the flashback over an artfully interwoven backstory.
     
  5. MCWhite
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    MCWhite Contributing Member

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    If you're looking to do flashbacks rather than backstory, try reading the Sound and the Fury for guidance. Memory-based flashbacks are half the novel, and it doesn't detract from the flow of the novel at all. I think forcing it into the dialogue would be the worst way of doing it. That would be transparent to the reader, showing either a lack of effort or skill on your part. Chapters are a step up from there, but simply transitioning from flashback to current story smoothly within chapters would be best and hopefully not overly difficult. If nothing else, try different methods in practice and post them here for review.
     
  6. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Backstory is a history that is related to, but not a part of, the current story. A flashback is a means of exposing events not contained in the chronology of the story.

    If the events are necessary to te story, tey are part of the story regardless of how tey are presented. Backstory, on the other hand, is an invented body of background materila the author retains to help him or her model the characters or world used in te story.

    A flashback is a scene that occurs in the past relative to the priimary story, that is inserted out of chronology. When a flashback ends, the reader id taken again to a time that shortly follows the last scener that preceded te flashback.

    A flachback is not the only way to expose out-of-chronology scenes. You can have flashforwards as well, or you can have more complex nonlinear chronologies. You can refer to past events obliquely, throug dialogue.

    Each approach has its strengths, drawbacks, and challenges. How successful any of them are depends on your skill with the transitions.

    If it is truly backstory, leave it out of the writing. It's only a tool for the writer.
     
  7. John Carlo
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    John Carlo Active Member

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    Thanks everyone,
    I have much to chew on. I think I'm going to try shorter flashbacks within the chapter itself and just try to transition as smooth as I can. Also, I'm going to take an honest look at what is actually necessary and what is backstory rather than flashback. This should help me streamline my approach.
     
  8. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    How much will take place in flashback and how do you plan to use the device? For example, will this be heavy flashback where entire narratives are told in the flashback? (i.e. Joy Luck Club material that keeps a present thread to tie things together but most of it is taking place in the past?)

    Or, is it present-heavy with a lot of information from the past to include? If you could identify a ratio? What would that look like?
     

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