Monday, November 30, 2015

Flashback Issues

My Works in Process do not usually unfold in a straightforward manner where one scene follows another  in a lock-step, chronological  manner.   Instead a character sometimes reflects on something that happened in his or her past, recalls a characteristic they have struggled with, or notes the resemblance of a new acquaintance to another. These are a type of flashback that briefly flashes into being and can be handled by a single phrase or sentence.

A few stories ago I had a long scene flashback that actually depicted a recollection in detail. I injected this to highlight an aspect of the story and illuminate the plot point.  I debated putting this reflective discourse at the beginning, along with all the other flashbacks in an orderly time sequence but decided that this approach would make no sense to the reader,since it would be a hodge-podge with little immediate relevance.

The problem I've always had with this latter type of flashback is that they can go on for too long or become non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the main plot.  Sometimes theses take on a life of their own, such as details about the workings of a fictional gadget that does little to illuminate the motivations of the principal characters. Yet, when the reader needs to understand said gadget, it is necessary to supply sufficient context complete enough to prepare the reader for the scene.

A worse case is where my flashback requires yet another flashback and I find myself pursuing matryoshka dolls of exposition that draws the reader further and further from the progression of revelations.

One way I could have avoided flashbacks was to inject reams of explanatory exposition rather than take the viewpoint to an earlier time to do this. Exposition is great, but IMHO, too much of it bores the hell out of readers.  I've always thought that it is better to take the viewpoint character to that earlier time so the reader can experience the unfolding event itself rather than be lectured on it.

So the question facing me now is the question of when to use a fuller flashback as opposed to a long exposition. My first drafts usually contain lots of flashbacks, most of which are edited into other scenes that appear elsewhere in the later drafts.  I always fear that using too many may be my subconscious telling me to start earlier instead of where I've chosen to begin.

This might not be a big problem for other writers but it is one that bothers me a lot in writing a short story where there isn't much room for either digression or reflection.


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