Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Flashbacks, back story, and dream sequences

Sharon Wildwind

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


Sheila Connolly said...

On a writers loop recently there was an extended discussion about the use of prologues, usually intended to introduce backstory information that the author thought was necessary. My impression was that the loop members were pretty evenly split about the value of a prologue. One regular comment was, if the information is so important to the story, why isn't it Chapter 1?

I like your suggested process for including the details--and it's worth noting that it's part of a natural conversation, not an infodump.

Sandra Parshall said...

Dreams and flashbacks are so tricky. Some readers hate them and think they should never be used, others enjoy them when used to move the story -- as I discovered with my first published novel. It's hard to write a story centered on buried memories without using brief flashbacks and bits of resurfacing memory.

Anonymous said...

I have a strong prejudice towards prologues. As a matter of course, I always skip them.

Sandra, you've hit on the real point: dreams and flashbacks have to move the story. Unfortunately, not all writers get that.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi everyone,
I think a prologue is acceptable if it relates something that took place much earlier and sets the stage for the rest of the book. That said, it might be better to dribble it out through reported thoughts and dialogue as the story moves forward.
I tend to use back story and flashbacks as breathers, but that's more important for thrillers. It wears on readers to have them sitting on the edge of their chairs forever, although readers' tolerances for pounding action are varied.
It's the age-old question for the writer: who are your intended readers and what do you know about them?
All the best,

Ruth Donald said...

I've never used a prologue before, but have chosen to use one in the novel I'm currently writing. Why? It's a scene set almost 25 years before the main story, and introduces the unsolved case that becomes central to the story. It will have the date above it as well.

I didn't think having flashbacks during the main story would be as effective, and as for using it as chapter one, I think it would confuse readers to have a short chapter set two decades before the main story when the character was a rookie cop.

I'll be interested to see how my early readers react to it when it's finished.