The Flashback Sin

by Sharon Bially on December 3, 2010

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Forgive me, publishing deities, for I have sinned.

Not only have I launched Veronica’s Nap on a blog and unilaterally declared it my “debut” novel, but – gasp – I’ve included flashback in its narrative.

In other words, I’ve incorporated pieces of the story’s past into the action that moves it forward.  For example, this week’s installment shows Veronica napping in college and while pregnant.  An earlier installment includes a scene from her days working in New York.

This, explains C. Patrick Shultz, is something “many agents and editors don’t care for.”

The penalty?  An infinitesimal chance at best of having this book taken on by a publisher in today’s environment.  And a pretty high likelihood that published peers will scoff at it for being grossly flawed, or worse yet, for being a glaring example of “showing off.”

Yes, showing off.  As  Jenna Blum — beloved writing teacher, infinitely generous mentor and NYT best-selling author — says in this post on her blog, flashbacks are “authorial conceit,” or an author’s way of flaunting “how well we know our characters and their lives.”

Oh, dear.  Truth be told, if I’d had Jenna as a writing teacher or heard this from her three years ago, I would have cut out every flashback scene in Veronica’s Nap pronto and completely re-written the whole dang thing.  Most of Jenna’s students go on to get their novels published.  But I never took a class with her and no writing teacher, reader or mentor I’ve ever had has pointed out flashbacks as something to avoid.

Why, then, the disparaging language of “conceit” and “showing off?”  (Which I suspect comes directly from creative writing programs.)  Why not simply call flashbacks an unpopular, outdated style or a plain old innocent mistake?

Such language, I fear, can be dangerous.  It implies conscious wrongdoing. Taboo.  Sin.

This could limit fiction writers – especially newbies eager to publish – by preventing them from EVER using flashback, even artfully and with exquisite skill as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Julia Glass have all done. Or to systematically view writing that combines past and present as “bad,” regardless of nuances.  Over time, books’ range of expression could shrink more than it already has.

As for the logic behind flashbacks’ bad rap, Jenna notes that they are “often confusing and irritating to readers, who dislike temporal confusion.”  C. Patrick Schulze agrees that many readers don’t like them, and adds that they are “tricky things to master.”

I wonder, though: chicken, or egg?

Is the fact that flashbacks are tricky to master an excuse for not trying?  (Which could then lead to an entire generation of writers who don’t know how to work them?)

And might readers perhaps get confused and irritated by flashbacks simply because they – we – have become conditioned by the present-moment action, action, action we get in movies and TV?

Finally, circling back to Veronica’s Nap….  I know that among its many flaws,  it’s “plagued” (as one agent bluntly put it) with flashback. And I know this can slow down the reading experience.  But given that none of the professional writers who read it noticed or felt it was enough of a problem to point out, I’m curious:

Has it irritated or confused YOU?

Made you want to put this “book” down?

Have you noticed whether other books you’ve read lately have included past events in an individual storyline, and if so, how?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle December 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I’ve heard about this ban on flashbacks and I agree with it to the extent that many writers aren’t careful about time. We’re flashing back and forward and back again. Here a flash, there a flash, and pretty soon I’m dizzy and annoyed as a reader. I’m not blaming fiction writers, either. Memoir writers are notorious for mixing time frames and mixing up their readers in the process.

That said, I was never confused while reading Veronica’s Nap, and I’ve read the whole thing. Also, I read a book (and yours reminds me a bit of it) called Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman (Elizabeth Buchan) and it has almost the exact same structure as your book. It starts in the present in a marriage and follows through a separation and divorce in real time and then every other chapter is a flashback chapter detailing how the marriage started and things like that. And in addition, the book has mini flashbacks (I think) where the main characters sees something or does something and then has a sudden memory of a relevant moment from the recent past. That book did really, really well and I don’t remember feeling the least bit annoyed by the structure. I liked it.

Ladanea December 3, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Well over 20 years ago when I was taking college writing courses I was taught to never use flashbacks (“never” being a rule that could be broken if absolutely necessary, of course) – for all the reasons you have mentioned here. I do agree that as television viewers we have become used to them, but they do not work in print like they do visually – and even in film/TV they can be disconcerting. They are tricky. They can be confusing. The best choice is to write those details some other way and leave flashback as the final option for those extreme circumstances and the acquisition of those exquisite, refined writing skills.

Paula Wiseman December 3, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Alas, I am a fellow sinner and included flashbacks in my book. An editor advised to cut them, but I like backstory and the character development they afford.
Readers don’t always respond the way editors/agents believe they will to flashbacks or anything else.

Quirina December 3, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I think it depends what the motive or purpose for the flashback is. Does it develop character? Does it develop the plot? If it is not well executed or integrated, it can definitely be confusing. It can also be downright boring, e.g. parts of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen had long winded biographical accounts of some of the characters. Now I rack my brain for an example of a novel containing flashbacks that was excellent. (Perhaps one is more likely to remember the bad examples, because if the book was good you’d be too wrapped up in the story to worry whether the flashbacks were necessary or fantastic).

Jael December 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Interesting — I’ve never heard of a blanket bias by editors or agents against flashbacks! (Prologues, on the other hand…) I agree with those above who’ve said they’re clumsy and bad when done poorly, and maybe that’s why some people suggest not using them at all. But to give shape to a story, you may need to include things that happened before the novel’s timeline begins, and I’d rather see that information presented in an elegant and well-integrated flashback than clumsy expository dialogue.

Jenna Blum December 4, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Hi! Thanks for including me in this thought-provoking post. I was interested and bemused to find that my own blog post about flashbacks–inspired by a student’s question–drew high traffic and a lot of friendly fire. It’s always good to be involved in lively debate.

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading VERONICA’S NAP, so I can’t provide my views on the use of flashback in your novel. I also want to clarify that for every rule, there’s an exception….and that my “rule” about flashback is my rule, that I made up and that I follow stringently. I don’t expect the wonderful novelists and students I work with to follow it; I’m throwing it out there as a tool. I’m telling people, “This has what’s worked for me, both as a writer and a reader, and use my position to play devil’s advocate with your work, if you will–but at least, when an agent or editor or reader comes to you saying, ‘Why so many flashbacks?’, you’ll be able to give a considered answer.” And all good writing–here I am again, clambering onto my soapbox–is considered writing, from theme to individual punctuation mark to use of flashbacks.

So if they work for you, go for it. It’s been my experience in most cases that they drag a book down. That’s me, just sayin’.

However, it is purely me. Whenever I voice an unpopular opinion or use large words–my own authorial conceit–readers tend to blame it on writing programs. In fact, although I attended BU for their creative writing masters’ program, I was always in danger of being kicked out for mouthing off and questioning the director’s rules (why couldn’t i use more than three adjectives a page?). Subsequently, this made me a stronger writer because it forced me to defend and justify my authorial opinions. But like many of you out there, I suspect, my writing and my ideas about it are based on a lifetime of trial and error and finding what works. I am then happy to share it with my novelists and students and I hope it helps them in their own work.

~ Jenna Blum

LeAnn Neal Reilly December 6, 2010 at 10:48 am

“Over time, books’ range of expression could shrink more than it already has.” Sharon, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I like epic, towering, larger-than-life stories, but those aren’t popular anymore. I think novels have become small in so many ways. Interesting post.

By the way, I removed flashbacks from The Mermaid’s Pendant when I rewrote it following the advice of long-time editor Sol Stein in his book Stein on Editing. He didn’t forbid flashbacks, however; he just stated that most novice writers weren’t skilled enough to use them well and advised sticking to a strictly linear timeline. I found that as I rewrote, I naturally worked more details into my characters’ lives without using a flashback. As with a lot of similar advice in any field, it’s become a rule of thumb rather than a caution. I think you’re right that readers have become conditioned to it, setting off a vicious cycle. It’s a wonder anyone ever reads a classic anymore. Dickens? Gah! Horribly slow narrative with too much description.

As for Veronica’s Nap, I’m not sure how I feel yet about your use of flashbacks. I found the one about Veronica’s earlier working life made her more sympathetic to me.

LeAnn Neal Reilly December 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Just had to post that after I read this blog post, I read a whole chapter in Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union that was a flashback.

Melissa Crytzer Fry December 8, 2010 at 8:14 pm

What a wonderful post, Sharon. And a bit scary for me, as my current WIP is very flashback heavy. That being said, I am a fan of the flashback and find that it usually doesn’t annoy me or slow me down since I am interested in character-driven fiction, not high action. I would argue that character-driven fiction, however, can be very engaging, page-turning stuff … even with the use of flashback. In fact, I think it strengthens the character-driven novel.

Therese Walsh’s successful book, “The Last Will of Moira Leahy,” in fact, uses flashback to childhood every other chapter. I wasn’t annoyed at all. If anything, I was intrigued and amazed at the simultaneously story-telling and the way both stories came together and unfolded at the end to reveal things I never, ever expected. Teri Coyne, in “The Last Bridge,” used effective flashback to tell main character Cat’s story, as well.

I wonder: is this just another discussion of “genre”? It seems to me that literary, character-driven fiction makes great use of flashback, while other popular genres (mystery, suspense, thriller) use the television model of present-moment action. I personally want more than ‘hyperactive action’ when I’m reading. I WANT to be wowed by the writer’s abilities too. I want her to use all the tools possible to create rounded characters – whether it be flashback, the MC’s present-moment ass-kicking skills,her journals … whatever it takes. To not use all the tools available is a disservice to the reader (in my opinion).

I think the other conundrum facing the author is that she’s supposed to start her story with the most pivotal ‘action’ – in the quest to hook the reader. In my current WIP, that hook doesn’t take place when the character is growing up, though her childhood plays hugely into how she deals with the pivotal moment… Were I to present the story linearly, I’d be providing a big ole’ snooze-fest for readers.

So my take – learned the hard way, after getting hung up on a writing coach’s “rules” that clearly did not apply to my genre – is to write your story. Your way.

Because, as noted, for every rule, there is an exception (and a writer who can pull it off). And for every “annoyed” reader, there is an “appreciative” reader. Can flashback be overdone? Sure. Everything can… But I say trust your instinct and talent!

Sharon Bially December 8, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Thanks everyone! What a great conversation and debate!

LeAnn, I haven’t read Chabon’s book you mention, but there’s something kinda tricky going on here: it seems that this no-flashback principal is applied more to first-time novelists with no platform, whose books are harder to break in anyway. Chabon’s already so well known and respected that he has lots more margin.

Melissa, another kinda tricky thing here: in Moira Leahy, the “flashbacks” were actually a whole other storyline (which I didn’t get into in this post and might in others, but alluded to in my third question where I said “individual storyline.”) And that other story line included a set of loud events of its own (death, rape, etc.) The blog post by Jenna Blum I’ve linked to says a bit more about this, and…a quiet heads up…she and I have agreed to debate this publicly soon…

What fascinates me though is that it sounds like you didn’t quite notice that second-loud-storyline part. Which leaves me feeling all the more that some of these finer points of the latest trends are just so darn cryptic, and sometimes, pretty arbitrary.

Marylin Gautier December 11, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Je passe par ce blog pour reprendre contact car l’adresse mail que j’ai ne semble plus être d’actualité.
Ecris-moi à l’adresse ci-dessus, je suis maintenant à Washington.

Tamara Paulin December 13, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Apparently the Giller Prize committee doesn’t mind flashback!

I bought a copy of “The Sentimentalists” but haven’t been able to get past the first dozen pages. I hear it’s a lovely story and it gets better, but gosh! That opening is a bit of a slog, and I’m hopelessly lost with all the jumping around in time.

When nobody is doing flashback any more, the author who does will be different and special!

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