Another writer and I recently had one of those lazy summer afternoon, coffee shop patio discussions. We ended up talking about how the misuse of flashbacks, back story, and dream sequences drive us crazy. Then we tried to figure out why we were both going crazy.
Often those kinds of scenes appear to be inserted for the writer’s convenience. A scene that could take place today, tomorrow, or next week will not feel urgent to the reader.
This is especially true if the dream is a one-off. Why is this night, of all nights, does the rational, logical detective conveniently have a dream that provides a clue? If the character was into dreams: kept a dream journal, had fragments of dreams scattered through the story, maybe was reading a book on dream therapy, then the single dream that unravels the mystery wouldn’t seem so out of place.
In critique groups if we’ve read a flashback or back story that didn’t work for us, and asked the writer the reason for the scene, the most common response is, “The reader needs to know this information in order to understand the character/story.”
Really? Readers get by nicely on a paucity of information. Imagine we’re meeting for coffee. You arrive and say, “My neighbor has gone missing.”
I don’t know a thing about your neighbor, not their name, gender, age, circumstances, life history, etc, but I guarantee you that my response will be shock, horror, fear, etc.
I am immediately engaged in their story because I’m reacting to what’s happening at this moment. Someone is missing. Bad things happen to people. I am fearful for another human being. I am a little fearful for myself. If it happened to them, could it happen to me?
If my response is, “Start at the beginning. Tell me everything,” you and I both know—or we should know—that I’m not asking you about when you moved next door to her forty years ago, her disastrous first marriage, her career as a bookkeeper, her cruise up the Inland Passage, or that she raises prize-winning roses. I want the story that begins when her daughter came to visit yesterday afternoon, found the front door unlocked and her mom gone.
By sprinkling in a few judicious facts — that she’s not confused, but she does take it into her head to have adventures; that this has happened before; and that a suitcase and some clothes appear to be missing, or that she is confused; it’s never happened before; and everything, even her purse, is still in the house — you set the context for whether I’m going to be calmer or more fearful at the end of your story. I still won’t either know or care about the first marriage, bookkeeping career, cruise, or roses, and that’s okay.
A good scene needs a goal, motivation, tension, and disaster. I admit that a lot of writers manage to work some or all of those elements into flashbacks and back stories, but good scenes also propel the story forward by changing a character’s circumstances. Very often characters come out of flashbacks, back stories, and dreams unchanged. What the writer expects is that the reader instead of the character will have changed.
Here are the three points my friend and I agreed made a good use of flashbacks, back stories, and dream sequences
- Provide context, a few judicious facts, and see if that will suffice.
- Especially for dreams, don’t use them as one-offs.
- Focus on what dilemmas come out of them and which choice the character makes to resolve the dilemma. What is it about the past that is finally being resolved in this scene? Perhaps the character’s circumstances was changed in the past and, now, today, another change happens. Make that new change a defining moment in the story.
Quote for the week:
Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense.
~Fawn M. Brodie (1915 – 1981), biographer and history professor