Flashbacks and flashforwards. Why, what did you think I meant?
Flashbacks and flashforwards have become a significant part of the language of modern fiction. I hadn’t thought too much about until this weekend when I saw the Guardian article Bad memories: Colm Tóibín urges authors to lose the flashbacks.
At the Hay Festival last weekend, Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer, was in a panel which was discussing Jane Austen when he said:
I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback… You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, [the writer] taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.
Immediately I want to give the disclaimer that all the information I’ve been able to find on what Colm said has come from the Guardian. Consequently, I don’t know the full context. There’s nothing a news outlet loves more than a grumpy, opinionated author. Or, in fact, any author with an opinion. And while I adore the Guardian, they’re particularly prone treating everything a published author says as breaking news. So let’s treat this all with a pinch of salt.
The Hay Festival often publishes audio recordings of their speakers and panels after the event. If this happens for this panel, I’ll update this post with the link, so check back in a few months if you’re interested. The reason I’m desperate to hear the full panel is because it doesn’t seem clear what Colm Tóibín means by flashback in this context. He seems to equate backstory and flashback under the same big umbrella and I would argue they’re not really one and the same.
So taking Colm Tóibín’s comment purely at face value, it’s an interesting subject to explore. Are we overusing flashbacks in modern fiction? Reading the comments below the Guardian article made me think it must be the hotly contentious issue of the week!
Some stories need a certain amount of flashback or flashforward to work. This is true of any story which doesn’t follow a linear timeline. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger being two good examples. It should also be noted that flashbacks are not at all a modern invention. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is obviously heavy with backstory and flashbacks. It’s intrinsic to the plot. And in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte uses a flashback to retell Cathy and Heathcliff’s romance.
But I do believe there is such thing as unnecessary flashbacks and a lot of novels are guilty of it. I understand the urge. Even as I write my steampunk novel, I find myself trying to add prologues and flashbacks to throw in all the wonderful backstory I have for my characters. Beautiful stories which, unfortunately, no one is going to see. I think all writers want a level of control over the fiction they’re producing and, let’s be honest, want to show off all the work they’ve done.
There is one place all this backstory is heavily used… television! Movies! What Jane Austen didn’t do is write with half a brain picturing what it would look like on the big screen.
The truth is, while we can be a fan of television and movies and reading all at the same time, it’s obvious that the visual mediums are far more heavy-handed in the supply of information. Flashbacks are used frequently. Movies like Citizen Kane and Unusual Suspects basically being made up of flashbacks. We’ve been educated to recognise a flashback, even if it isn’t foreshadowed by the character saying ‘it all started back when I was a lad’ over the sound of tinkling, dreamy music.
Written fiction is different. We’re expected to do a bit more work. The author gives us the outline and we’re expected to fill in the rest. The alternative is an author who wants to force feed to every detail, which is tedious to any reader.
You can argue, well, this detail about my hero’s past is essential because without knowing he lost his beloved puppy when he was ten years old, you’ll just think he’s an emotionally crippled bastard. And, yes, all of us, including our characters, are purely created from our experiences, our memories of those experiences and how we choose to resolve them. But if you were to meet an emotionally crippled bastard on the bus, you wouldn’t be treated to his explanative backstory. Unless he was drunk, chatty and on the 91 to Kings Cross.
While the phrase has always been a bit of an annoyance to me, this is really a case where ‘show, don’t tell’ may actually help us. Sections with too many flashbacks and backstory can hamper the flow of your story. You want to know what’s happening to your character now, not thirty years ago unless it contains some direct and essential information needed for the current conflict. And even then, I’m certain we’re all better writers than to have whole chapters or huge chunks of flashback italics because this will clearly show your reader that this isn’t currently happening. Because it all happened so long ago…
Work it into your story if it’s so important! But if you’re just doing it because you’re so desperate to share all this story you’ve worked on, maybe you’re not doing it for the right reasons. Readers will engage more with your work if there are things to ponder over.
Flashbacks, like any other element of the writing craft, is something that can be used well or badly. But perhaps our first step is to ask ourselves; are we including a flashback because it’s essential, or because we’re picturing what the movie would look like?
What do you think? Are flashbacks unnecessary? Are there any other ways of doing it without the dreaded italics (I ask while in italics)? Let me know!