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.
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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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