Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Why I Don't Like Flashback

Classic student opening to a short story or novel: The first paragraph starts...Emma applied another coat of mascara and stared at her reflection in the mirror... And the second paragraph starts...It had all started last night when Emma had walked into the bar and seen Joe. 

Variations would have the character shaving, drinking coffee, looking at themselves in the mirror, settling down for a train journey while thinking about what happened last night.  It's a device to frame the story, a way of writing themselves into the situation.  What it does is lose the tension.  We, as readers start here, and then we're whisked there. But 'there' has already happened.  We know that Emma makes it home in one piece because that's where we started.  The writer set a bench mark for the narrative present, so anything else is flashback.  

As well as losing narrative tension, we have a lot of clumsy grammar - she had had, there had been etc. Plus, the action of applying mascara/shaving/drinking coffee is inherently neutral - it's like throat clearing.  Nobody's interested in throat clearing, we want to read the action.  And the action happened last night, which makes it about as interesting as hearing about someone else's dream. 

There are writers who do flashback very well, but there is always a purpose to it.  Clues are revealed to the reader which keeps their interest level high.  But generally, wouldn't it have been much better to start:  Emma walked into the bar and the first thing she saw was Joe.  

PS Can't find my glasses this morning - apologies for any grammar/spelling mistakes/infelicities etc, but it's all a bit blurred.


Jan Sprenger said...

Made me laugh...those lines sounded like the first novel I wrote, more than twenty years ago!

Interesting what you say about flashback. You mentioned it at conference last year and I scratched my head then, as it's sometimes hard to avoid, don't you think? Especially if the intention is to get right in at the action, so you don't want to spend time setting-up how the character ended up there.

If a character has a life-changing event, that propels him/her into the story, should you show that event at the outset, followed by the angst and decision making that moves them into the story, or do you start with the new life and drip in references to the life-changing event? Do we have more sympathy for the character if we see the upheaval of that event, first? Or do we want to go straight into their new life and then be drip fed the insecurities/worries that were triggered by the event...which might involve flashback?

It's a decision which often bugs me.

Sarah Duncan said...

I'm usually for the drip feed method myself, although with the WIP I've gone for your first method. What does the reader actually need to know? It's usually much less than you think.

Penelope Alexander said...

So true! But I wouldn't like to say how often it's felt comfortable just because it allows for an all-action first paragraph. Perhaps 'use sparingly' is best advice. And there's nothing like reading it all aloud later to show up the clunkiness and to make you reconsider!

Sarah Duncan said...

I must admit I feel cheated when there's an all action first couple of paras and then the next para starts with something like -

Mary sighed to herself as she patted Bob's bald head. Those days were long gone now. 'Fancy a cup of tea, love?'

Clunk, clunk, clunk!