1. Joe King
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    Joe King Member

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    Flashbacks

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Joe King, Apr 19, 2015.

    Sorry if this question has been asked a ton but what's the general consensus of flashbacks? Are they good for helping further character development? I can see how they would be for instance if you wanted to show the reader something from the character's passed or future but then I could also see how it may take a toll on the story and slow it down in a way. So what are the general thought's on this? If I were to say write a story and have each character have a little flashback to show how they got to where they currently are would that be interesting and a good way to give them character or would it just interrupt the story and ruin the flow?

    Cheers.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    It would annoy me, especially if every character had a flashback--that would feel mechanical. This sort of thing works better in video than in writing, I think.
     
  3. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Ooh, that's a toughie. I've struggled with my own penchant for flashbacks when I wrote my novel.

    My first draft contained lots of them. Unfortunately, the desire to 'start with a bang,' by dropping my characters into an action scene, meant I had to do lots of flashbacks later on. This was clunky, and didn't work, big-time.

    I got so frustrated trying to get this right that I eventually resorted to sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors. I chopped my first chapter MS into separate scenes, then arranged them on the floor in chronological order to have a look. Obviously I had to create new transitions between them, but I could see right away that the story flowed much much more smoothly without flashbacks at all. Of course I had to come up with a new way to begin the story ...which I did. The 'bang' start got ditched, and I came up with a more thoughtful way to begin, a scene that ties into something that happens near the end of the book. I feel it's intriguing enough without the bang, as it presents an unusual situation. The result is a huge improvement over my original draft.

    I have kept a few flashbacks that occur later in the story, but I've tried to present them as either a story-within-a-story, or as just a few sentences, carefully attributed, so there is no confusion. The lengthy story-within-a-story works, if one character tells another character of something that happened earlier. I can segue from her beginning to tell her story with dialogue, then I do a scene break. The next scene is the flashback story itself. Then another scene break. The next scene resumes with dialogue as the character finishes telling her story, and the other characters react to it. That device seems to work, but I wouldn't want to do it too often.

    In general, lots of flashbacks mean you're starting your story in the wrong place. However, I would never say 'never'. Just keep in mind that flashbacks can be annoying and confusing to read. Just dating a chapter or a scene isn't enough, because it means the reader has to remember what the PREVIOUS chapter or scene date was. I've seen authors doing this, and it really doesn't work. You realise partway through reading that you've got the whole thing wrong, and then you have to start backtracking to figure out what the author has done. If you're going to use flashbacks, make sure it's absolutely clear, from the writing itself, what the time-frame is.
     
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  4. Jak of Hearts
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    Jak of Hearts Member

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    What I've been told in my Creative Writing Classes (as we did a specific segment on flashbacks), is that flashbacks are a cheap gimmick to tell a part of a character's story that doesn't need told. Flashbacks are expository in nature. They don't drive the story forward, they pull it back. Think for a minute, is the information in the flashback something that has to be said? 99% of the time its something you can cut out of the story and the story won't change, or its something you can show us through the character's actions instead of flashbacks.
     
  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think there's a time and a place for flashbacks, but it sounds like you might be over-using them a little? If the content is vital, you could probably work it into your current narrative.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Whoa, I'd hate to have that teacher. A better approach in a class would be to discuss how one can use them, what they can be used for, and maybe warning people to be careful they aren't using the flashback as a backstory dump.

    One hears, don't use flashbacks, they pull people out of the story, and don't start with a prologue, over and over as if they were holy mantras. Then you notice in a lot of books that you actually enjoy reading there are prologues and flashbacks galore.

    The first question is, why are you using them? If it's to introduce each character, then one might question if there isn't a better way to reveal these characters to a story than a bunch of flashbacks.

    But suppose you decided on an interesting story style where the flashbacks were pieces of the story puzzle that showed each character eventually arriving at the same place? You could be introducing characters and telling the story at the same time.

    There needs to be a reason that goes beyond just introducing characters.

    I'm pleased with how flashbacks are working in my story. My protagonist's younger years are part of the story, not just backstory. So I wrote two timelines, past and current and I'm weaving them together. It's working out very nicely.

    I also added a one paragraph prologue, more symbolic than story and that's looking good as well.
     
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  7. Cappy and Pegody
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    Cappy and Pegody Member

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    We try to keep them short and disguise them as day dreams while traveling, dreams, and even stories told around a fire or tavern table. "Remember that time" or This reminds me of the time, etc. Also telling some one about someone else, like giving a new character and the reader some back ground on the hero and how they got where they are. Back stories are just like any aspect of writing anything can be over done or done boringly. The secret to writing is the same as the secret to life. All things in moderation.
     
  8. jaebird
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    jaebird Active Member

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    I've got something very similar going on in my story, but it's giving me problems. How are you weaving the two separate "stories" together in a way that makes them fit together smoothly?
     
  9. GingerCoffee
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    First I started just writing scenes (chapters). I wrote a lot of the younger years first as my character developed. Then the current story got going. It wasn't quite clear how I would merge them, so I recommend not worrying about that until the story is more fully fleshed out.

    As my story developed I actually split both time frames up, putting them in separate files. That way I had the complete younger years and I'm close to having the complete current story. Then I had to decide, would I jump around in the past or put the past in chronological order. I went with the latter. But that only became clear after a lot of the story was written

    For example, my character scales a prison wall to escape. So should I match that with the cliff climbing scene in her younger days, or match the cliff climbing scene with being alone which was actually the more important element of the childhood scene? After seeing the scenes fleshed out, chronological made more sense.

    Now I've begun merging them: Current chapter/past chapter/ current/past/current/current/past ...

    And I'll be going on like that, mixing up the sequence a bit so it isn't current/past/current/past in a way that would be monotonous. It allows more leeway in structure though I'm pretty sure I won't be doing any past chapters adjacent to each other.

    I make sure in each transition it's very clear the story jumped so the reader doesn't get confused.

    What kind of trouble are you having?
     
  10. Macaberz
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    Macaberz Pay it forward Contributor

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    I am not a big fan of Flashbacks. When there are a lot of flashbacks I get confused and it pulls me out of the story because I am not spending time reading, but rather trying to sort all the events in my head. I'd much rather read what the MC's current problems and what he/she is doing to tackle them. Flashbacks, in my view, are only valid if they provide better insight or put a twist on events, if it's just character backstory, I wouldn't be too interested.
     
  11. jaebird
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    jaebird Active Member

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    Like you, I chose to do my flashbacks in chronological order, which for this story, I think works better to keep them from being too confusing. But I'm having trouble lining up the flashbacks with events in the present that trigger them, like your wall scaling example. I've got several points within the story that I've got matched up past/present that I feel are crucial, but it's making it harder to line up the rest without having to shove a ton of flashback in one section and little to none in another. Plus, the flashback scenes have a lot more time in between, so the MC may be two years older than he was in the last one, which is making it harder to get the flashback in there without feeling like I just dropped it on the reader out of nowhere.

    I like your idea of writing them separate first, and then worrying about fitting them together. I never thought of doing it that way, and I think that would help the flashbacks seem more like their own story instead of chopped up bits of stuff thrown in there for good measure.
     
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  12. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Avoid flashbacks in a direct fashion. I use them a fair bit, but use the character's voice in relating what happened, rather than a flashback being shown as 'four years earlier' or whatever. If in first person, tell the reader directly. If in third, tell another character through dialogue. Or, either way, bring it into play when describing an incident and relate it to what's happening. For example, character gets into a beaten up old car, then explain how it got beaten up, how they crashed it getting away from some bad guy they are now on the hunt for, how they burned the seat with a cigarette another character dropped, a character they thought was a friend at the time... so basically, make it back-story, not a 'flashback'.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2015
  13. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    It was writing them as two separate stories that led me to not use the style of tying one scene in the past to another in the current time frame.

    It also helped me see some mistakes in the character's voice I was making. In one scene my character is 10, but in the related scene only a couple days later, I had her voice too much older. I might not have seen that as readily if I were weaving the two stories as I went along.

    I also found today (because I am at the stage of weaving and I worked on it today), that I need to have longer stretches of current time to make the flow less disruptive. I bring the earlier time frame in right away in chapter two, but from there I'm going with longer stretches of current time and bringing in the younger years in at natural pauses in the action.
     
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  14. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Your teacher is an example of the danger of an author forgetting how to read like a reader. A reader does not identify the narrative techniques in a book, apply a preconceived opinion like "I dislike flashbacks; therefore, I dislike this flashback", and then judge the book based on those opinions. Instead, a reader experiences the story, thinks about how enjoyable that experience was, and then starts picking the book apart to investigate why it was or was not enjoyable.

    (Same for any craft. You watch a movie, form an opinion of it, and then, if you are interested, watch the behind-the-scenes video. You do not watch the filming of a movie, form an opinion of the equipment, and then judge the movie based on whether you like the equipment they used.)

    A teacher should know better than that. I expect a teacher to know when to reason from the concrete to the abstract instead of reasoning from the abstract to the concrete.

    As a reader, I noticed long ago that many of my favorite moments in fiction, especially long novels and TV shows, happened to be flashbacks. Too many to be plain coincidence. After thinking about it, I figured these are the times when the author cherry-picks the most interesting pieces of a character's past and artfully weaves them together with scenes in the present in an order that maximizes the impact rather than plain old chronological order.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2015
  15. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    The other consideration is: why do you need a flashback? Is there another way to explain the relevant details or information. How is something that occurred in the past relevant, why do we need to know, and why do we need an in depth explanation beyond that of the characters finding out? These are the questions that should be asked before using a flashback. Also, if there is enough bulk to a flashback, it isn't a flashback, it's story set at a different time.
     
  16. GingerCoffee
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    I agree these are important questions to ask yourself about the story. In my case I thought carefully about it and decided that it wasn't backstory, it was story. Just as the current story was story, my protagonist's story did not start in the current situation she found herself in. Her story started years earlier. So in my version of the story, it wasn't backstory, it was story. And as I re-read the chapters, I still hold that view.

    The problem I had was, I wanted the story to be about a 17 yr old girl, not a 10 yr old. But the story started when she was younger. So either I confused the reader as to what the story was, or I included the younger years as a parallel story.
     
  17. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    If not a flashback, it's either a prologue (which people also hate), an info dump with the character remembering it in a monologue, or the character doesn't get as fleshed out.
     
  18. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm an outlier but I don't mind flashbacks if done correctly. If done wrong (like anything else) they fall flat. If you want to write flashbacks, look at how integral they are or aren't, and then maybe look at how other writers get away with it. I recently did a chapter-length flashback sequence that most of my writing group loved, despite the fact that a lot of them don't like flashbacks, and I did it by doing a good lead in and lead-out from it so it worked with the plot. I also tried repeating the trick, and DID NOT get the same result (either from my point of view as an author or from readers) because it wasn't as integral to the plot and upset the forward movement.

    So, if you do it, you're giving yourself a challenge, and you have to put work into making it work.
     
  19. nippy818
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    nippy818 Active Member

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    My MC suffers PTSD and several of the chapters open with flashbacks to the war. Whether or not the flashbacks happen is important to the story and his emotional attachment to the female lead.
     
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