Guest Post, Jonathan Duckworth: When the Hell Are We?

Some Thoughts on Flashbacks in Fiction

Let me begin by saying that I will never claim to be an expert in anything pertaining to narrative craft, only someone who enjoys reading and writing and has done a good deal of both.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about an essential feature of fiction, one of the first devices that any beginning writer learns about: the flashback. In the fictionist’s (fictionista’s?) arsenal, flashbacks are possibly the most important weapon of a writer. Without flashbacks, a story is forced to mimic the limited trajectory of human experience: only moving forward into time. I’m sure there are great stories that don’t use any flashbacks, but I can’t imagine many of them are longer than a single scene, and even stories that don’t have obvious “he thought back to that distant day” (more on that later) transitions that mark out flashbacks often do flashback in subtler, briefer ways. Any dialogue that features characters speaking about prior events counts as a flashback, even the briefest memories that occur to characters are flashbacks. The reason we don’t always notice these is that when done right, flashbacks are unobtrusive.

A good flashback fluidly transposes us from one point in time to another: can seamlessly transport us from a disappointing family dinner of skinless chicken and peas and mashed potatoes (not touching each other, of course) to the chaff-clogged grain silo in Kansas where the character shared her first kiss with a corn-fed boy who could best be described as “Ned Flanders-hot.” Now, this is not to say that obvious flashbacks can’t be good, but I’d say the odds of a flashback being successful decreases the more clunky and noisy its execution.

Ways that flashbacks can be “noisy” include the following:

-Obvious transitional phrases like “that reminded him” or “she was transported back to the time”

-Ending flashbacks with some variation of the awful “he/she was shaken from her memories by a sudden noise” maneuver

I’m not saying I’ve never done these things in my own writing, but I try to avoid them if I can, and when I see them in fiction I tend to grouse a bit.

I don’t want you to think that all “obvious” flashbacks are bad. One of my favorite examples of a flashback comes in the opening sentence of my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This is not only a flashback but a flashforward, seamlessly transporting us between two—possibly three—time periods and simultaneously “spoiling” an event that comes later in the novel without actually telling us anything important (spoiler: the Colonel doesn’t die from the firing squad but does die later on from old age). This flashback derives its elegance from the beauty of the language and also the striking juxtaposition between a soldier facing a firing squad and him as a child experiencing a formative moment with his father.

Pet Peeves with Flashbacks

I have two main pet peeves when it comes to writing flashbacks in addition to those already covered above.

First, and perhaps most aggravating, is the use of dreams to convey flashbacks. This is an overused trope in many kinds of fiction, and even when it’s done well it annoys me. News flash: people don’t dream in complete memories, or at least no one I know does, and I’d question diet and sleeping habits of anyone who does. Dreams are not perfect portals into memory, they are more suggestive and elusive than that, and their place in fiction shouldn’t be as mere avenues of flashbacks when there are more straightforward ways to show us characters’ memories. An example of a good use of dream as flashback comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where in a dream Raskolnikov recalls a moment from childhood when a horse collapsed in front of him and an entire street full of people began to beat it in an attempt to get it moving again. The violence of the episode is likely embellished and exaggerated by the dream, but as a memory it shows us Raskolnikov’s empathy.

The second is a phenomenon I mostly see employed in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, the odd detective story) where writers use italics to render flashbacks. An example of this comes from one of Jim Butcher’s (normally an excellent prose stylist) Codex Alera fantasy series, where he rendered a multi-page scene all in italics simply because it took place in the past, separate from the main timeline of narrative action. There are a number of reasons why this is bad and wrong, but the foremost reason is that reading an entire paragraph or page in italics can be murder on tired eyes, and that using italics for an entire passage misses the point of italics: that they are for emphasis. The other chief reason is that I suspect the use of italics to denote a flashback says two things about the author, neither of which are particularly good. Either the author lacks confidence in their own ability to communicate to their readers that they’re reading a flashback, or the author thinks the reader is an idiot.

And of course, we never want to think our readers are idiots–if you approach your writing that way, you’ve already failed.

Guest Blog Post, Andrew Galligan: Mr. Know-It-All

Andrew GalliganThanks to my immeasurable fear of poetry (I’m a poet), I’ve read a lot of prose – both fiction and non – in the last year or two.  (And believe me – I’m making no judgment on the difficulty of reading or writing either).  Piling up the paragraphs over that time, I’ve developed for the first time in my serious reading life a handful of prose preferences.  They are not genre or period related, but more or less determine whether I’ll go on reading a piece.  One potential deal-breaker, beyond careless sentence-making or writers writing about writers, is the omniscient narrator.  Perhaps jealously is at the root, but this idea of knowing everything is just perverse!

Often when a seer is telling me a story, patiently stirring that cauldron of latent symbols, I find him more prone to early, unnecessary or heavy-handed foreshadowing.  The temptation is too large to place emphasis on minor events, to pause the story and thread an extra detail into a character or place.  They may be small shovels, but they’re still smacking my face.  It’s like hearing Bon Jovi’s voice come over a nice, warming rock riff – right away I’ve got a pretty good idea where this is headed.

Regular consumers of story – book, TV, film, barroom or otherwise – are trained to search for symbols and signposts, driven by the potential self-fellating glee of “figuring it out first.”  So, unnatural emphasis always arrests the reader, drawing increased attention like a car crash under a full moon.  Emphasis in everyday life comes when and where our minds and hearts apply it, without the guidance or intervention of a third party.  The granular events of each day fall upon us organically, settling into piles in our minds as guided by our own passions, distastes, prejudices and hopes.  Within that unrelenting cascade, we can find ourselves ascribing deep meaning to a minor event, only to have that depth truncated or in some way altered by future events.  We make our own storytelling mistake.  The grain has to change piles.

omniscient narratorComing to understand people and places integrated in a story through eyes at a time – a single vision or set of views always complicated by emotion and by biased & unreliable memory – is what we experience in everyday life.  When we as readers have no choice but to see characters exclusively through their words and actions, to develop and deepen our impressions of them, we go through an iterative rigor that mimics how we come to know the real folks we collide against.  Some may find comfort in an omniscient narrator’s IV drip of information that stitches a story together, but to me it’s a prescription much less satisfying for the exact reason that we as readers lose the opportunity to do that work ourselves.  What we’ve gleaned of human behavior through the rugged course of personal living matters less than how practiced we are at reading the cards in a narrator’s hand.

One appeal could be control.  The omniscient’s control allows us to implicitly and unquestionably trust what we’re told; the facts of people and place must be true as stated, and only an unexpected sequence of events can catch us off guard.  [Hey, the cat just puked up a skeleton key!].  That control engenders comfort because, for just once, we’d like not to be caught off guard.  In my own life, I’d love to control the sequence.  To orchestrate the order in which my impulses and emotions deploy, or when shit happens so I can be prepared.  If I could stipulate when I’d feel fun, intrigue, sex or horror (or all the above?!), that would beat the defeat of always reacting.

It’s probably because of Faulkner that I started to really see and feel differences in narration.  He’s certainly on the far end of the spectrum, utilizing a myriad of voices, heavy dialect, stream of consciousness and nonlinear narration (unannounced flashbacks!) that jam the reader through at times paralyzing confusion.  Most of us have enough confusion in our lives; I can certainly understand the desire not to grapple with it, too, when spending time to unwind and escape with a piece of literature.  The difference to me is how powerful the experience of reading can be when it more closely meets that everyday I claim I’m trying to escape.  What I’ve come to realize is that I read simply to try to understand my life and all its whys.   I’m there in that story for comfort, for information, for insight.  The confusion is not arresting, but familiar, and I want it so I can continue to turn the pages in search for a little more certainty I can use when I wake in the morning.