On Writing: Flashing Back to Flashbacks

In my post on finding a beginning to a novel, I mentioned as an aside that if you have many flashbacks in your book, you should move the story backward in order present those scenes as they happened chronologically. It’s good advice — my advice on writing is the distillation of the hundreds of writing manuals I have read coupled with my own experience as an unpublished novelist — but reading the comments people left on my blog made me wonder where I really stand.

I do think that ideally a story should begin at the beginning and go to the end with few backtracks. Telling it chronologically gives the story impetus, making us want to read further in order to find out what is going to happen. But the ideal way of telling a story is not always the most practical way.

If I have any reservations about my novel More Deaths Than One, they come from its five long flashbacks. Two flashbacks are told as stories. Scheherazade-like, the hero seduces the heroine with the stories so, as in all elements of a good novel, they do double duty. Two other flashbacks introduce the hero when he was younger and introduce a friend who is murdered. The fifth, I’m embarrassed to admit, is there simply because I like the story it told, though it did introduce a minor character. (And the heroine asked for a story. What can I say? She was insatiable.)

Originally I wrote the book in three parts: present, past, then present again. That didn’t work — the past was so boring it slowed the pace, even though much of it was important. Then I tried using a prologue. That didn’t work either; it seemed as if it were there merely as a hook and not an integral part of the story. So I began the novel in the present and added flashbacks as needed. I don’t know if it works, but right now it’s the only way I know to tell the story.

In my other books, I let the characters tell each other their life stories. It’s a cheat, really, a means of making the past seem more immediate, but at least the characters get to know each other at the same time the reader does. The flashbacks in my work-in-progress are true flashbacks, momentary musings by the hero. I do not plan to write any scenes in the past. I want this one to have as much forward movement as possible to mask its real character — an allegory. (I mean, really, an allegory? Who reads allegories?)

As a reader, I prefer anything that keeps my attention. Often, flashbacks disturb the flow of the story, making me aware of the construct. In the minutes it takes for me to get into the flow of the back-story, I lose interest. But I admit, I have become something of a philistine and no longer admire writing solely for its artistic and intellectual achievements.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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