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Podcast Transcript: Hi, genuine writers! This is Innovative Editing’s Jeannette DiLouie welcoming you to episode #19 of The Genuine Writer Podcast. We keep things short, sweet and to the point here so that you can learn what you need to learn and get back to writing already.
Today’s episode – which is all about keeping your plot on track – is sponsored by the first book in the Writing Your Novel series, Start Your Story: How to Get Your Novel Manuscript on the Move! If you’re contemplating writing a book that you want to publish, this is a quick and easily affordable read (we’re talking $1.99 here) that could very well set you up for not only successfully starting your story but also successfully finishing it.
Since that’s an awesome idea that feels even more awesome when you put it into practice, I’d highly recommend reading Start Your Story: How to Get Your Novel Manuscript on the Move! today.
Now, again, this is a guide to starting your story in such a way that you’ll be able to more easily finish it. What it looks like when you finish it, however, is up for debate since every story is different and every writer is coming in with a different level of experience, amount of raw talent, and understanding of the world and how it works. But let me take a stab today at evening that playing field nonetheless…
When it comes to presenting a strong, compelling, followable plot, keep it together. Don’t give your plot more than it can handle, and that includes when it comes to flashbacks, which are those time-traveling parts in books that take us out of the typical timeline to drop us back into a character’s past, showing what happened to them or what they did themselves.
They’re common literary devices, and I’ve used them before myself. But even so, flashbacks can be a gateway drug into overall horrible storytelling. In that, it’s kind of like Vicodin. Some people in some situations could seriously use this prescription-med painkiller. They severely injured themselves and so, while that injury is in the first and most painful stages of healing, it’s understandable that they would want something to keep themselves from screaming 24-7.
But even then, that doesn’t mean they’re not a crutch. A necessary crutch, sure, but a crutch nonetheless. The same goes for flat-out flashbacks. And to explain exactly why, I’m going to incorporate another writer’s thoughts on the matter. Her name is K.M. Weiland, and she’s an author, writing coach and blogger who runs the Helping Writers Become Authors website. I’ve never met her before and, frankly, I only ever heard of her the other day. But I think she has some good points to make that I’d like to share with you.
Her post on the subject, “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” is pretty long and I can’t say I read the whole thing so I can’t say I agree with the whole thing. But here’s some snippets of what she has to say on the subject that I can get behind:
There are only two reasons you should ever include a flashback in your story. The first one is (or should be) pretty obvious…
The Character Has an Interesting Backstory If nothing interesting happened to your character before the main story, well then… please don’t go out of your way to tell readers that, much less dramatize it for them.
The Backstory Moves the Plot The second qualifier for necessary flashbacks is that your character’s interesting backstory not only matters to your main plot, but moves the plot. But even that’s not enough. For a flashback to be worthwhile, it isn’t enough for its information to simply be important. Beyond that, the very act of the character’s remembering must be a plot catalyst. When you screech your story to a halt just so your character can reminisce, you better be getting something big in exchange for the interruption to your narrative flow. You better be getting a plot revelation that jumps your conflict and your character’s arc into higher gear than ever before.
So, to summarize, a flashback has to be both interesting and relevant to a story’s construction. And not just any kind of relevant but constructively relevant. As in, not only does it not hurt the story but it actually adds value to the story’s continuation.
Pretty much, you’d better be 90% certain of a flashback’s worthiness before you put it into a first draft and 100% certain it belongs there before you publish a final one. Otherwise, both you and your manuscript are going to look like amateurs.
So how can you be 90% or, inevitably, 100% certain about such things? Alas, but it does vary from story to story. So, as usual, I can’t give you a hard and fast rule here. What I can tell you is this though: Always start out with the theory that a flashback isn’t necessary. Then work from there, asking questions like these:
What does the flashback I want to add in tell readers about the plot point or character in question that hasn’t already been established? So often, a flashback is used to show that a character is damaged. But the writing up until that point has probably already shown as much very well enough. Either that, or the writing still to come will make it clear in perfectly acceptable time.
Will it leave readers feeling out of literary sorts to be taken out of one part of a story to a time that’s already happened, then returned to the part where they left off? Think about the last time you heard someone try telling a story where they had to stop and say, “Oh, but before that happened, X, Y and Z.” Unless the person is utterly engaging and a natural-born storyteller, chances are fairly decent that you’re going to get a bit of story-hearing whiplash. It’s going to be more difficult to follow the details because you’re used to hearing stories told in linear fashion. A happens, then B happens, then C and so on. So whenever we’re expected to go from A to C to D to E, then back to B, it can throw us off anywhere from a little to a lot.
Can it be explained as exposition instead? So many flashbacks don’t need to be flashbacks at all. They can simply be added into the narrative as a mention or an explanation or part of dialogue. For the record, explanations are typically best put in the beginning of stories, whereas mentions can better fit into middle segments. So, if a character’s father died from a drug overdose when she was seven, and the character is now 34, that can simply be explained in the opening pages where the narrator talks about her past. Or she could wonder in chapter 4 whether she would be more secure if she’d grown up with her father around. Or she could end up sobbing on a friend about the day she attended his funeral.
There are just so many ways you can insert flashback material into a book manuscript without resorting to outright flashbacks. And the majority of the time, you should choose one of those other options. Otherwise, you could – and probably will – confuse, bore, or otherwise uninspire readers from diving as deeply into your story as they possibly can.
Sorry to be so mean to flashbacks, but them’s the literary breaks. I’ve seen them louse up stories more often than I’ve seen them done well, which is a shame considering how much work I’m sure went into creating them in the first place. But, end of story, your goal as a writer should always be to make the most out of your time, creativity and intention. And flashbacks have a bad tendency of doing the opposite.
Since I think I’ve officially run out of new negatives to make about flashbacks, let’s end right here. Thank you for tuning in to The Genuine Writer Podcast. It was wonderful to have you here, and I’ll catch you all next week. Until then, very happy writing.