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Handling flashbacks


BigBen

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I've got a number of stories buzzing in my head and am contemplating posting some of them, if I can get up the courage.  One of my questions is about how to tell when to use a flashback, and when to tell the story linearly.

I notice that flashbacks seem to be very common in gay fiction, such as on this site and elsewhere.  The story barely gets started, and then we are taken back to the day when Johnny met Jimmy fifteen years ago, or some   such thing.  One story I read recently began the first flashback (of several) within the first paragraph; another entered a flashback fairly early in the action, then quickly ended up in a flashback within a flashback within the original flashback.  Am I right to think this a little excessive?

I tend to work out my stories linearly.  I may have a great deal of background in mind for the characters and their world, but it tends to come out in dialogue, if it ever does.  Should I be thinking about putting some of that material into flashbacks?  Does it make sense to interrupt the current action to only go back to earlier the same day, or is that something that should simply be put in sequence?  I like to start in the middle of the action, so shouldn't events proceed for a while before I interrupt to provide background?  Might it better to forgo the background?  How much does the reader really need to know, anyway?  How do you experienced writers decide such things?

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I'm getting a start with my own writing, but I have only input one flashback in any of my works. My writing style is very slow paced (225k words only got me one month in-story time in my first book), so I dedicated a whole chapter for the flashback. I was hesitant on inserting it in the book, but as I wrote the story, I ended a chapter on such a high note, I felt that not only I deserved a break from the fiction plot but my main characters deserved one as well. Was the flashback necessary? Nope, but it fit in perfectly, and it acted as a breath of fresh air. I am anxious to find another moment to repeat my actions, as I have several side-characters that deserve a brief glimpse into their past.

Flashbacks are such delicate concept in regards to structuring in my opinion. I used the flashback as a brief side-story from a mentioned event that affected an influential character. I would be frightened to throw a flashback in the middle of a chapter, as to interrupt an important dialogue or sequence of events. I wouldn't consider myself a good source of advice, but I found that a chapter that possesses a powerful scene must come to a soothing calm. This is where I would put in a flashback lengthy enough to stand as a chapter on its own. It gives the reader a nice breather, and once it's over, they're ready to jump back into the main plot.

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@BigBen

I've moved a bit away from using flashbacks as my style has changed, but I remember why I did it in the past. For me, the approach is meant to help frame a story and develop the idea around characters interactions that led them to the current point in time or the decisions that they are faced with. To me, flashbacks have to functionally serve the purpose of identifying key details and points within a story, or are essentially the plot of the story itself sometimes.

I've re-read my old stuff, like Last Run to Mosul, where the entire story is framed in a flashback to tell you how a corpse ended up in the morgue. The flashback helped contextualize what happened and the details behind the mortal and post-mortem bullets. Four years ago, I really liked the idea of noir type stories, which heavily rely on this kind of storytelling.

To me, a flashback is required, when you are trying to create context, so if you have details that are needed to contextualize why certain events have happened or will happen soon, then you need a flashback.

Edited by W_L
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Flashbacks can definitely be overdone. As you say, it's good to start in the middle of the action, so sometimes you might need a flashback to explain something about the character or situation that couldn't easily be put into dialogue. So, for example, say you have an adult character who is terrified of thunderstorms, you might need a flashback to something that happened in his past (maybe his brother, sister or parents were killed in a thunderstorm) to explain his phobia. 

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I came across a discussion of prologues and epilogues on a writers' site the other day, and it sounded very similar to this discussion.

I remembered for some reason that Wells structured the Time Machine this way, as a story of something that had happened, framed by episodes in the "present.”

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On 2/9/2021 at 2:57 PM, Mawgrim said:

So, for example, say you have an adult character who is terrified of thunderstorms, you might need a flashback to something that happened in his past (maybe his brother, sister or parents were killed in a thunderstorm) to explain his phobia. 

As someone who wrote nearly this exact same thing, I must concur.  :P

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  • 2 months later...

Without thinking of them as flashbacks at the time, I am guilty of this, particularly in my first story (Catering With Benefits) where most characters got a chapter of their own past. 

Some stories, particularly murder mysteries, will use flashbacks to give you a clue, long after you've already decided who dunnit and then you have to think about it again. I don't like being fed information piecemeal like this, it can become annoying. 

Modern TV series are particularly fond of this. To the point where sometimes it's difficult to tell where you are in the story.

But back to writing. I don't mind using or reading flashbacks to tell a character's history or an event that shapes the person. But when it's done just to appear arty, you loose me. The question I ask myself - is it necessary to further the story, or is it just used to fill a blank page. One further observation to throw in - life is lineal but memory can be anytime.

 

Edited by Wombat Bill
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22 minutes ago, Wombat Bill said:

The question I ask myself - is it necessary to further the story, or is it just used to fill a blank page. One further observation to throw in - life in lineal but memory can be anytime.

These two sentences spoke to me. A flashback isn't worth it unless you can both further the story (or perhaps fill in blanks of the story's history) AND fill a blank page. A blank page is a blank canvass, it just doesn't look right. If you slap paint on it, then you weren't being very imaginative. Put some brush strokes and a couple twirls, maybe a well-placed smear, and you got something worth posting!

One thing that I appreciate about GA is the comments. You see where the reader's desires are, who their favorite characters are, and who's story should be expanded. These comments and flashbacks work in tandem, especially if you post as you write. Until I feel comfortable writing a novel w/o reader feedback, I'll use this concept as a learning tool. It's through these comments that I see what character deserves some attention, and a flashback MIGHT be needed. "How did this character get scars all over his back?" "Those two fought twenty years ago? We need to learn more!" 

I don't see much flashbacks as progressive for plot-building, but they are an invaluable tool for character building. If you built a character who owns a nasty personality, but you want to provide clarification on how this came to be...flashback! Make that character redeemable and provide a learning moment to some readers. 

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A flashback can be a useful way to reveal a character's backstory. It has to be handled right to make it clear that it is past event and why it's important for character development.

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I think of flashbacks as a tool in the writer’s toolkit. If you find that they aren’t your cup of tea as a reader, no need to include them as an author.

A character’s past can be authentically portrayed in other ways as well. Dialogue is a good tool. Brief memories that occur to the character while remaining in the moment can also be used instead of full length flashbacks.

I agree that flashback scenes can be used poorly and detract from the story, especially when they are confusing or convoluted. But when they’re done carefully, they can also add depth. Some of it may depend on the character. Characters with trauma may be more likely to experience a flashback to the traumatic incident, for example.

Personally I use them sparingly and try to make them authentic to what the character is experiencing in the moment I’m writing about.

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Flashbacks have to keep the story moving. You can't just hit pause and spend the time filling in stuff better covered in other ways. They have to form part of the overall structure. I quite like using them in the right context. They add depth or indeed take away things from a character. They might tell a part of the story that otherwise won't get told. One story of mine on here is centred around flashbacks. Without them and what they tell, there would be no story. 

 

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4 hours ago, northie said:

One story of mine on here is centred around flashbacks. Without them and what they tell, there would be no story. 

Flashbacks can become a complete story of their own, unfolded within the telling of a seemingly separate story that ends with a clear connection to both. I have a vague remembrance of reading such a work by a well known author at one point in my long history of reading fiction, along with the vague recollection of having enjoyed the combination, but for the life of me I can't remember more than that. Maybe more details will come to me a some point and I can add them to this post later.

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On 4/16/2021 at 2:58 AM, Wombat Bill said:

I don't mind using or reading flashbacks to tell a character's history or an event that shapes the person. But when it's done just to appear arty, you loose me. The question I ask myself - is it necessary to further the story, or is it just used to fill a blank page. One further observation to throw in - life is lineal but memory can be anytime.

Okay, this makes sense.  I suspect that if I ever succeed in getting any of my stories ready to post, they will now be better than they would have without your advice.

 

19 hours ago, headtransplant said:

Personally I use them sparingly and try to make them authentic to what the character is experiencing in the moment I’m writing about.

Ooh! More good advice.  Thanks, Gary!

 

6 hours ago, Ron said:

Flashbacks can become a complete story of their own, unfolded within the telling of a seemingly separate story that ends with a clear connection to both.

Characters telling campfire stories or narrating family history are an obvious example.  I suppose that an epistolary novel is by definition a series of flashbacks, isn't it?

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4 minutes ago, BigBen said:

Characters telling campfire stories or narrating family history are an obvious example.  I suppose that an epistolary novel is by definition a series of flashbacks, isn't it?

This is not precisely what I was grasping at. Narrating family history is a means of achieving a story within a story, as in an epistolary novel, but it doesn't quite grasp what I was trying to convey, and as for telling campfire stories you need to expand upon your reasoning...

I wish that I could have been more expansive in my earlier description. Unfortunately, my memory isn't quite the trap that it used to be.

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1 hour ago, Ron said:

Unfortunately, my memory isn't quite the trap that it used to be

Mine is, it's just a lot rustier, lol!

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