Recently, I was first-reader for a well-respected fiction contest. There is nothing like reading story after story after story to really drive home how irritating some writing habits are.
I want to talk about one in particular that began to drive me a little nuts: a very common story structure. It goes like this:
- Story opens.
- Almost immediately, there is a flashback into background detail that brings us to the opening moment.
- The story carries on from there, although in some cases, ‘carries on’ last for about a paragraph or two and the story is done.
When you read a few dozen of these in a row, it can start getting painful.
Now I have written stories like this. I have also read whole novels that are like this. There are times when you can pull this off. But most of the time, this structure is a problem because:
- The flashback has more story than the story.
- The background is in the foreground.
- The story loses energy.
The difficulty with flashbacks is that you start the reader off in one place, introduce them to time and place and characters, and just as they are getting comfortable you whisk they away somewhere else. All that energy your reader has put settling in and connecting to the present story is gone, and you have to start all over again. It’s like meeting someone at a party, feeling a connection, starting to smile at them and just as you start to talk about something that’s potentially really interesting, the host grabs you by the shoulder, pulls you away and saying “I have someone you just HAVE to meet.” Doesn’t matter how interesting this other person is, there’s a loss there, a desire to be back with the first person, and no matter how interesting this second person might be, you’ll spend the first few minutes craning your neck to look back at the first person and ignoring the second. The energy is lost.
It’s easy to understand why writers often use on this structure when they shouldn’t. Sometimes, we get so involved in the background psychology of the characters, that we want to show all of it. But then the question is, what is the more important part of the story, the background or the foreground?
If the more important story is the background, then perhaps you don’t need the foreground at all. I know, this is a revolutionary idea–you’ve crafted a story around a significant moment that recalls something in the character’s past, and you need all that background to show the significance of this moment. But a story, even a short story, is more than a moment. It’s a narrative. And if all of your narrative is in the past, maybe that is where your story needs to begin.
If the more important story is the foreground, then perhaps you don’t need to tell the reader about the background. Perhaps you need to show the reader the background through how your character interacts with their world in the foreground. When your character sees a white wall, is it just white, or is it institutionally white? When your character receives a hug, do they feel constricted or straightjacketed by that hug? Perhaps you don’t need the flashback to the mental hospital to come directly into the story, when you can bring it about through well-chosen words. Trust the reader to understand without telling them.
Sometimes, though, the writing relies on the flashback to provide narrative drive. That is, they open with a few enigmatic words and then jump into the flashback hoping the reader will go through all of the background to resolve the mystery. But if your story relies primarily on structure for narrative drive, how strong is your story? Perhaps you don’t trust your story to be strong enough on its own. Think of real mysteries for a second. They don’t show the background information in flashback; they have characters in the present discover this information. The search for the answer, in the present, has more energy than going back and revealing everything.
I’m not anti-flashback. It’s simply a tool in the writer’s shed, to be taken out and used where needed. But be aware, there is a cost to using this tool, and you need to be absolutely sure that it’s worth it.
And I will say this. All of the stories that I thought might be worth recommending to the shortlist took place entirely in the foreground.