If I had taken Creative Writing, I’m sure my professors would have explained all the literary “no-no’s,” effectively purged them out of my system, and given me dependable alternatives. But I didn’t.
There are some rules that make sense and are simply good taste. But others don’t make sense to me. (Not that I’m an expert, obviously) But I used to hear about some of them in school. My rebellious streak was only fed by the fact that some of my favorite authors made these “mistakes.”
“Don’t address your audience.” But…C.S. Lewis!
“Don’t have too many characters, especially ones whose names begin with the same letter.” But…J.R.R. Tolkien!
I think now-a-days most critics will admit that rules can be broken, but only for a very good purpose. And so we come to the topic of flashbacks. I can’t remember ever reading a book and thinking, “I hate this flashback.” I probably have read some poorly written flashbacks, but I’m pretty sure they were utilized in poorly written books and I forgot the books altogether. So of course, if you’re going to write a flashback do it well.
I’ve heard a lot about how flashbacks are the death of authors. Here’s the deal: I think flashbacks can make for some of the most powerful storytelling.
I will give you two T.V. shows to prove my point. LOST. Once Upon a Time. Admittedly, I never watched more than a dozen episodes of LOST. But I was quickly captivated by the style. You meet these characters on the island and start forming impressions of them. Then you start getting flashbacks into their lives before the crash and your opinions of them change. Isn’t this how we get to know people in real life? We meet them, form our first impressions and then begin sharing common experiences with them. But as things come up we start learning about their past and how it made them who they are today.
I have watched Once Upon a Time extensively. I think they did a fantastic job telling this story. They follow a specific plot in the present, but use regular flashbacks to fill in the pieces of the puzzle. You get to see events that shaped a character in the past as they deal with something similar in the present. It adds amazing depth to these characters. I particularly love that moment when a flashback completely changes your opinion of the character!
Admittedly-this complex method of storytelling is tricky to pull off on screen, but would be even more complicated on the page. But I think we need to keep exploring creative storytelling. You never show the reader everything in your story (have you ever described your character brushing their teeth?). You always choose what to show your reader to build your story. I think there is a tendency to follow the formula of what to show your reader. Why not think outside the box? Use your power as the author and pick the best pieces for your audience. Cook up a rich meal with multiple courses! Okay, I’ll stop.
I have always had big ambitions on this topic. The first edition of “The Creation of Jack” skipped around quite a bit, showing different characters in different periods of time. I think most of my kind readers were able to follow it. But it needed some work. I have these instincts about what needs to be told first. Now, I’m just trying to have my writing craft catch up with my instinct.
For instance, I struggled for a long time on my last rewrite of “The Creation of Jack.” I had always introduced Logan at a certain part in the story. I finally decided that I needed to go back and show her at sixteen. I was literally torn up about it for months. Because I wanted my reader to form a particular impression of her before they learned who she was. In the end I came to a compromise that satisfied me.
What are your thoughts on flashbacks/chronology? Do you guys have any great book examples for me?