Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flashback Revisited

We've looked at the topic of flashbacks before and we compare them to the topic of backstory, saying that these are two very different things. Now, it can be noted that flashback is one way of revealing backstory, but not all flashback is backstory. The important distinction we made before was that flashback is a means of telling a story out of chronological sequence, while backstory, is from a story that precedes our current story.

In For the Love of a Devil,there is a scene in which the protagonist recalls an early encounter with his wife (pg 166). She was not his wife at the time, but rather it occurs when they are both in high school. She isn’t well liked by some of the other students, due to the rumors going around about her and her family, but Geoff makes a small effort to show kindness to her. We ask ourselves, is this backstory or flashback. Certainly, there is an element of backstory to it, since this could be part of the story of how Geoff and Heather fell in love and got married, which is an event outside of our current story, but this is also a flashback. It is also part of our current story because this story is about a man with an unwavering love for this woman. Through this scene from high school, we  see that the story spans far more than just the two year period within which the primary action of the novel is bounded.

Why use flashback at all? If I had wanted, I could have written For the Love of a Devil in such a way that the story flowed in chronological order. But were would I have started? I would have begun with that scene from high school, where Geoff and Heather really met for the first time. Then I would have moved to a scene in which Heather showed Geoff the escape tunnel leading our of her grandmother’s basement to the neighbor’s back yard. There might be some other scenes I would have to throw in before I could begin our story with Geoff not really wanting to go home, for fear of what Heather will say and do. As a reader, you would be wondering how we got from Geoff being such a great guy in Heather’s eyes to being something she abuses, but that isn’t what the story is about. Even though the reader needs to know the things we reveal through flashback, revealing these things before it is time will mess up the story.

We’ve talked about the outline and sequence of a story before. Every well written story follows the same high level outline. We begin with the protagonist in a bad situation, one which he will die if he doesn’t change. The protagonist does something proactive to move us into the second act in which he is a fish out of water. He is doing things differently, but true change hasn’t taken place. Then in the third act, he commits to the change and will live or die based on the success of that change. We can actually provide more detail to the general outline than that, but keeping in mind that all stories follow the general outline, the flashbacks we include must also fit within that outline. There are points in our story where the character is debating whether to change or not and what changes he should make. Flashbacks tend to show up here because the character is thinking back to the ways things used to be and considering how they can be. They may show up in other places as well, but when they do they should match the specifics of that part of the outline. For example, there is a section in which the antagonists begin to succeed. While they may have been plotting and scheming in a section where the the protagonist is making gains, we don’t want to show it in chronological order because it takes away from the protagonist’s successes. Instead, we want to throw in a flashback that reveals that while we thought he was doing well, the antagonists were actually doing something behind the scenes.

Flashbacks, when used well, can improve our stories and keep the story in line with the ideal outline.