So we have spent a couple posts talking about “flashbacks” and I need to take a moment to expound on something. I was a naturally good editor. It’s how I got my start. But I would cut things out or change things because in my gut they didn’t work. And, I was pretty much always correct because I did have solid story instincts.
But I also have a passion for teaching. In my mind, it did NO good to cut something or change something for a writer (even if it made the story BETTER) if I had no way of articulating my instincts, of explaining WHY it didn’t work and HOW to do it better.
I, personally, found our “writing vocabulary” too broad. I mentioned the term antagonist last time. There was no such word as Big Boss Troublemaker until I coined it. I had to find a way of explaining the concept to a new writer who might not naturally be good at plotting. I had to be able to explain that there would be ONE antagonist responsible for creating the story problem, and this antagonist was not necessarily “bad.” I made up a term so the writer could keep that particular and necessary antagonist separate from all the other “types” of antagonists in the story.
For instance, in Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT, yet she has only several minutes of screen time. She is responsible for the entire story problem because had she wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never have been taken. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict is actually ALLY, Dori. Dori wears the “antagonist” hat most of the movie, but she is NOT the BBT.
I have found the same phenomena in this notion of “flashbacks”—ONE umbrella term to include every single instance of shifting back in time which we talked about last time. And, since many of the prestigious writing instructors will say flashbacks are a no-no, I sought (through this series) to be more specific with the term training wheel flashback.
The training wheel flashback is the flashback editors will cut because they are pieces that obviously detract from the story. They are used to prop up weak writing and they are very easy for a skilled editor to spot. Think training wheels. You look at a bike and training wheels are pretty hard to miss. They stick out like, like, like….TRAINING WHEELS.
The training wheel flashback is the one that writing teachers will seek to take away because, if we rely on them, our writing will remain weak. Again, training wheels. If we leave those suckers on, we never learn to truly ride a bike.
Then, there is simply bending time which can be done any number of ways and I will add some other invented vocabulary words because I can 😀 . Again, to my knowledge, the term “bending time” did not exist in this context until Monday of this week. This (in my mind) is when a flashback is used properly as a literary device.
For me, it helps to have semantics distinguish the flashback that will be cut and the bending time that will work.
Of course we can go back in time and we will talk about ways this is done well.
But maybe I am not all that bright or maybe I have the ego of
God a writer and feel it is okay for me to create completely new teaching terms for literature as we know it. It helps me keep them straight because if we use the same terms for everything? It just gives me a brain cramp and it makes it tough for me to teach how time-shifting is done well and explain to a newbie writer why, on Page 3, she really didn’t need to go back and explain why the bride chose to do the wedding in Mexico and not Napa.
Things to Remember About “Flashbacks”
So in the comments and even on Facebook, I have had people mention books or movies that were great and won awards that shifted backwards in time. I agree! Some of my favorite movies shift in time. It’s why I have spent a year studying time shifting to articulate how Pulp Fiction differs from the stuff I have cut over the years (and I have seen thousands of pieces of writing in all genres).
But what I want to point out is that these books or movies aren’t using training wheel flashbacks. The works that DID use training wheel flashbacks met with a slush pile or were rejected or were self-published and buried in bad reviews from confused readers.
If we are seeing a novel on the NYTBS list and it goes back in time? The author did it WELL. But what can happen is we see all these finished stories and popular stories and then use those successes as a basis for why “flashbacks” are fine. Unless you have worked as an editor, it is unlikely you’ve experienced the thousands of training wheel flashbacks that were AWFUL and derailed the story.
Another thing to remember about “bending time” in a movie versus a novel is in a movie, the experience is far more passive when we watch film. We see different actors so it is easier to keep up. In a book, when we only have black letters on a white page, this is much harder mental work for the audience. Again, it CAN be done. We simply need to be aware that the mediums are different and take that into account.
Also, and I will reiterate, anything CAN be done. My goal is not to hammer rules into your heads so you never break them. My goal is to hammer rules into your heads so that if and when you break them it is with intent and it is to support strong writing not prop up weak writing.
We must learn the rules to break the rules. Yes, Jimi Hendrix reinvented music as audiences knew it, but he kind of had to learn how to play the guitar first 😉 .
For the sake of brevity, today we are only going to look at a type of standalone flashback I am going to call the Easter Egg Flashback. In gaming, designers will insert a hidden video game feature or a surprise that will be unlocked by completing certain game tasks or techniques and that is called an Easter Egg. Thus, I am pilfering this idea and creating my own definition.
In fiction, we see these when we encounter only one flashback or maybe just a few flashbacks. Easter Egg Flashbacks aren’t part of a true parallel timeline. They are short and sweet and intriguing. Usually, we have been in the story a while and the story will go back to another time and place and it will offer some kind of information we don’t yet understand but intrigues us. It isn’t until we complete the story that we unlock the Easter Egg Flashback.
This is used in all genres, but pretty common in thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.
For instance, I am writing a scientific thriller that incorporates voodoo. In Act One I shift back in time for a handful of pages. A main character (who is NOT my protagonist) is remembering when he was a boy trekking through the bayous of Louisiana with his father who was a missionary and a bible salesman.
On one of their journeys to bring supplies to a remote area, they run across a girl who was buried alive and clawed her way out of a shallow grave and is out of her mind and dangerous. She is screaming bible versus in Latin…backwards. Nature is also affected by this girl. Millions of coffin flies follow them as they carry this strange girl to a nearby Mambo (Voodoo Priestess) for help.
Then I go back to real time for the rest of the book.
This is the only time I ever shift from the present timeline. In isolation, this is an interesting scene. What does it have to do with a White Hat hacker (my main character)? Why would a Christian missionary seek help from a Mambo? Who are these people in the bayou? Was the girl affected by voodoo or something else?
It is only toward the end of the story that the reader finds out why that girl was so vital and understands the story problem was actually created by HER.
It is (hopefully) an Easter Egg that is unlocked. That only by unraveling the entire mystery do we finally know why it was essential to travel back in time to the swamps of Louisiana.
This was information that was essential to the story. In my mind, it wouldn’t work as a prologue. It also would have lost power if told in narrative or dialogue. But, why (I hope) it works is it is deep enough in the story that it doesn’t ruin the hook. Secondly, it is short. Thirdly, it is clearly set apart. I am not in the middle of a scene where the character has a goal and then WHAMMO…we shift backwards.
It also poses far more questions and answers none.
Easter Egg Flashbacks work great for adding mystery. The best example I can think of off-hand is Dean Koontz’s What The Night Knows. Throughout the story, we have small snippets of another time and place relayed through the Journal of Alton Turner Blackwood.
***Ya’ll get a twofer here, a flashback and a journal done well 😀 .
But the journal flashbacks don’t explain anything, they add information, intrigue and mystery to the current timeline. The reader does not and cannot understand the significance of these entries until almost the end of the story where the Easter Eggs are “unlocked.”
Training wheel flashbacks would actually make the story clearer whereas the Easter Egg Flashbacks do exactly the opposite. They actually pose more questions, questions that must eventually be answered.
Remember the litmus test I gave last time about how to tell a good “flashback” from a needless training wheel? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).
In stories by Dean Koontz, or John Stanford or Lee Child we might see snippets of the past. But using a blanket term flashback is inadequate. These authors are going back in time so yes *rolls eyes* it is technically a flashback. But WHY are they going back in time and what are they doing there?
They are hiding Easter Eggs.
There is some THING about the character or the plot or both that will eventually be unlocked once the story reaches fruition.
And THIS is why I laugh at people who think writing is easy. What we do is vastly complex and I hope y’all are enjoying the discussion and that it is becoming clearer why some “flashbacks” are awesome and others fizzle.
Also, when someone on-line says, “Kristen Lamb hates all flashbacks and says you should never use them under penalty of death,” y’all can say, “No, Kristen Lamb hates training wheel flashbacks.” Huge difference.
Next time, now that we have removed training wheels, we are going to discuss how to clip playing cards to the wheel of your bicycle so it sounds like a MOTORCYCLE (non-linear plotting) 😀 .
What are your thoughts? Questions? Does this new definition of an Easter Egg Flashback help? Can you now see the difference I am referring to, how the scenes form another time actually were being hidden in the prose waiting to be opened?
Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE.
Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .
I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages. Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.
Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.
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I like the terms you use. Nice distinction is the core of evocative writing, I think.
Great terminology. Maybe these training wheel flashbacks stem from people struggling to figure out where page one of their book is? I know I had to lop off a good 100 pages from the beginning of the first book I ever wrote to peg page one, but that’s how writing works. Get ideas down on paper, complete that first draft!
They do, and that’s why teachers and editors slay flashbacks. BUT, what I am trying to do is expound beyond, “Flashbacks are bad.” Even I have been guilty of this, so maybe adding some precision to the vocabulary will help.
It helps 🙂
The fog of how to “write good” clears a bit more with each of your posts.
Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance.
I love this post. Thanks for helping us! I’ve been struggling with just this concept. Now, maybe I can complete this first draft and unlock my own secrets. I cannot thank you enough.
Couldn’t that also fall under foreshadowing and/or subtext? I guess more foreshadowing… I do like Easter eggs, but I know others use the term Easter eggs in writing to refer to subtle in-jokes that people won’t get unless they have read a certain thing, know a certain song, played a certain game, etc.
But, it’s a great way to explain how to do it! 🙂
Well, that is why it is an Easter Egg FLASHBACK ;). And yes, they can be foreshadowing or subtext, but that is the PURPOSE of the flashback.
I read this post with great interest and was relieved to find that in my first ever book I appear to have created an Easter Egg flashback sequence. Thank you for your confirmation that I am on the right track.
Great stuff. Allow me to elaborate. Many years ago before the internet, before I knew what I know now, I was ignorant of many concepts about writing. That has all changed. I scan a blog and all becomes clear. The past, the present, the future of my writing melt into one. And once again I dive into my past life where I find myself sad and alone against the great odds that would prevent me from being a writer. I jump again to my present where I have no such misgivings, the world is my oyster. Any problem can be pushed aside with only a push of a key and google will find me the answer. So different from when I had to complete that essay on “Why disparity existed.” There I was with no dictionary, no word, no spell check, Sunday night, the essay due Monday morning, and Bonanza yet to be watched. Now I just grab a scotch, and ask, “What would Kirsten have to say about this?” Ah, I love the present. Well, I love the past because it emphasizes all the cool things we have now. Oh, heck with it, I love them both.
Next paragraph – the future
I love that evil-overlord-easter-bunny!
I also love foreshadowing (time-slipped and otherwise).
This explanation makes me feel better about a book I abandoned halfway through. I abandoned it because of a lack of ability to research a major plot point (I literally need a lawyer’s help), and since it has a flashbacks in the ever dreaded journal form, I wasn’t sure if I should bother picking it back up. But from this definition that you’ve provided, I realize that the way I use the journal (from the Civil War) is in Easter Egg form because what is slowly discovered in it moves the modern day plot forward. 🙂 Now I just have to find a lawyer who will be kind enough to help me get through my plot snarl. 😉
By the way, did you know that the term ‘Easter Egg’ used in this way likely comes from The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Apparently, the cast and crew had an egg hunt on set and forgot to remove a few of them before filming resumed. 🙂
Reblogged this on Sunflowers for Moira and commented:
Writing lesson for the day: “The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).”
I LOVE the NASA image! And this post is wonderful. Your use of Finding Nemo helped immensely in really nailing down the BBT. I also really like the tiny snippet of your story you included. It sounds great!!!
I think the Easter Egg flashback definition is spot on!!! Great teaching tool.
Thank you for your wisdom 🙂
This series on flashbacks has been so helpful. Just ripped two chapter’s worth of training wheels flashbacks from my current WIP. Many thanks.
Really enjoying this series on flashbacks. Didn’t realize there was so much to flashbacks. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next! 🙂 (Sounds to me like the beginning of a book.)
What is wild is I just started with the standard, “WHY FLASHBACKS SUCK” but then, like you said, I really started pulling them apart and am all, “This could be its own BOOK!”
Love your invented vocabulary and it serves a good purpose. I got a clear picture of concepts that have often confused me. Big Boss Troublemaker – really liked that one because now I know all the lawyers I supervised in my divison weren’t really calling me names, after all. They were probably writers learning to differentiate between the main villain and the person who created the story problem. I feel better now.
Seriously, your BBT term helped me recognize a character that I hadn’t been giving any credit to because they didn’t appear in the movie or in the book for a significant amount of time. I’ve struggled in the past when there has been a BBT, and now I realize that my own story has a BBT. I’ve been spinning my wheels but getting nowhere because I was looking for a solution I didn’t even need. I’ve been trying to find ways to give my BBT more of a starring role, but it never seemed to work out. Now I know that she can do her thing and create the overall story problem without having to also be my main antagonist or villain. Thanks for that big Aha moment.
I’m looking forward to your story. I hope you are close to completing it. You hooked me with your Easter egg flashback – the kid trekking through the swamps and bayous in Louisiana. I grew up trekking through the cool and eerie Louisiana bayous ( not dead) so I’m eager to read your finished book.
I have a question about Easter egg flashbacks. What about the use of a trial transcript. Let’s say my MC, a lawyer is stumped about a murder conviction and believes she is on to something like a cover up – someone framed for murder. While trying another case, she reads a trial transcript from a past case. The reason she reads it will be clear, she is looking for impeachment evidence for a certain witness. What she reads, however occurred in the past . It occurred years ago and the incident is shown through the transcript she reads. It’s three pages of technically – flashback. My MC is reading the transcript for a current purpose that moves the story forward. While reading it we learn something that won’t seem
Important or significant at the time, but will
Become crucial to solving the current murder and discovering who the murderer was years ago and how the two crimes are connected. This won’t be evident until the last quarter of the book. Is this an Easter egg flashback? I was worried about including it because it creates more questions that won’t be answered right away. But, after reading your blog post and what you wrote about Koonz’s Easter egg flashback, I feel better about it and I got so excited I have my notebook and laptop open now – ready to revise my drafted flashback scene.
I was hoping you could tell me ( and I realize you don’t have nearly enough to go on to give me an in depth answer, but could the MC reading a trial transcript – which goes back and is then shown as if happening in the present , could be an Easter egg scene.
Thanks. I enjoyed this post and leaned quite a bit.
This is a very valuable lesson, Kristen. Thank you. Together with the past two posts It is something to keep in mind.
I’m glad you’ve decided to make up your own definitions and terms. You make sense out of a lot of generic and vague “how-tos” that don’t make any sense to me.
Well, I enjoy them, LOL. And YOU enjoy them, so there is at least US 😀 .
Do you like “Easter eggs” that are popped into fiction as a random thing? I know you’re using the term in a flashback sense, but I’ve also heard that term used to refer to other special/hidden things the author wants to share. These can often be self-referential. I thought this idea was super fun! (I found this example on eeggs.com)
“It” (King, Stephen) Easter Egg – References to All Previous King Books
When King wrote the book It, he intentionally made references to every other book he’d written up to that point. Here are a few:
1) Dick Halloran of The Shining has a small role in a flashback
2) The town of Castle Rock is mentioned, along with references to the serial killer that lived there (in The Dead Zone)
3) “It” manifests at one point as a leprous beggar missing most of his nose (Thinner)
4) At one point Beverly is trapped in a junked car while bad things go on outside — and she has to pee really badly! (Cujo)
5) The car from Christine makes an appearance, and the driver says “See anything green?”
6) A theory expressed in King’s nonfiction Danse Macabre is stated again here, that children are better at handling horror than adults
7) King even makes a reference to fellow horror writer Peter Straub, using the name of one of Straub’s characters from Ghost Story: Stringer Deadham
Well that is why I used Easter Egg FLASHBACK to denote a particular flavor of a flashback. Now, these are simply teaching metaphors to help you guys understand what I am talking about and so I can distinguish this “type” of flashback from others.
Well now I know what that “easter egg” thing was that everyone keeps talking about AND I have a secondary definition for it! I LOVE when a name is put to one of those elusive things in books. It’s not a literary device…so what is it? Now I can call it an easter egg. And they seem very fun but I think I would only want to use them in the right books with the right atmosphere.
Yes it does 🙂 it’s a lot better then what I was calling it “sneaky hidden flash back that give more questions then it answers.” That just mostly confused the cridics I was working with. >_< My main problem right now is finding another spot to put a little more of the Easter Egg flashback in (mine are short—real shot like no more then 1/2 a chapter.) '
How about another article about first chapters and knowing when to stop editing/revising? I know I'm on the right track because I have hints at things and didn't info dump, just mentioned a few things in passing. Some online cridics are going nuts wanting to know what happened and trying to get me to put it all in the first chapter. Um .. NO lol XD So, ya this needs to be talked about there's got to be some way to make it clear to these writers that this is a good thing, they just don't get it.
the otehr cridics love it. ^^
I wish i could find some that can see what ism doing and point out the real faults not the fish hooks I added in. *sigh*
Love this blog going to go read more. 🙂