Monday, January 31, 2011

MFA Monday: Nixing the Flashbacks

One of the requirements of the correspondence semester is to read 20 books (in my case, mostly novels) and write critical analysis of some aspect of craft in about 12 of them. This is the majority of my work besides writing (or in my case, revising) and so this is where a huge amount of learning is supposed to take place.

I will admit, I was skeptical. I read all the time. A lot. I read a lot. I'm sure to some extent it has made me a bit better of a writer, but I'm not sure it's been any kind of significant amount better. It's one thing to read and identify which writers you think are good, and another entirely to be able to understand what it was that made them good and how you can do that yourself.

And I stink at critical analysis. Really. Ask my undergraduate teachers. I could write fiction like the dickens, but ask me to write about someone else's fiction, and I was a mess. I think I always assumed you should find some deep, hidden meaning in a book, some great thematic elements in an author's body of work, which as a writer I thought was a bunch of hooey.

But our assignment is not to write academic scholarly papers. It's just to write about what we learned about how an author manages to do something really well, or not so well, in a novel. And it turns out, when I take away the stress of making it sound smart and scholarly and just write about what I got out of it, I can write a lot.

And it's been through that writing about others' works that I'm learning. A lot. Tons. Mind-blowing stuff. So much, that I'm tempted to make writing about novels a part of my routine, even when I'm out of school, because taking the time to identify specifically how an author has mastered some aspect of writing is enlightening in the most remarkable of ways.

Case in point: One Day, by David Nicholls. This was the first book I read for the semester, and the first paper I wrote. I set about to write about the unique use of structure in the book: the fact that the book is written in chapters that take place one day a year, one year apart, over the course of 20 years. It seemed the logical choice to write about, because it's such a huge, noticeable part of the book that the title even references it.

As I wrote about how that structure worked for him and this story, I realized that one of the major hurdles the author had to overcome was capturing in each chapter what had occurred to the characters in the last 364 days of their lives. Major events happened in those times. New jobs, new boyfriends, marriages, babies, travel, deaths. The important events of their lives didn't necessarily happen on the one day the book highlighted, so how in the world did the author manage to catch the reader up on what had gone on? And as I examined that more closely, I realized, he managed to do it nearly completely without the use of flashbacks.

Holy cow.

If you are a writer, think back through what you've written and see if you can pinpoint places where you've had to use flashbacks or backstory to catch the reader up to speed, or fill in information from the past they need to know for the current story. My guess is that most of you have.

I know I have, In fact, my entire first chapter, as Kat comes back to town, is full of filling in what the reader needs to know about why she left. I thought that was important. That IS the story. Without knowing why she left, the reader won't care how hard it is for her to come back, and what it is she needs to reconcile. So even though I knew there was backstory, I justified it.

Until analyzing how Nicholls managed his need for backstory.

For example, when Nicholls wants the reader to know that Emma is now in a long-term relationship with another character named Ian, he doesn’t recap that information. Instead, he works it into the current situation. One example of this is a day several years into the relationship of Dexter and Emma. At the end of the previous chapter, Emma is still love-struck with Dexter, who is dating another girl. When we leave her, she is alone and pining for him. In this next chapter, however, we open the scene with a previously minor character named Ian, who is waiting in a restaurant for his date, and is musing about his luck in getting here. “But the best, the very best thing about Sonicotronics was that during his lunch break he had bumped in Emma Morely… Date number two and here he was in a sleek modern Italian near Covenant Garden. For writers, this is a great lesson in use of back-story. Nicholls manages to relay the events of the past year without lapsing into traditional flashbacks. 

There is a huge realization, too, of how much information is needed. Which is, in fact, very little. Did Nicholls see the whole year in his head? Did he see how they met, and how Emma slowly came to fall in love with Ian, and how she managed to start getting over Dexter? Very possibly. And very possibly, for a while, the author thought all of that was important. But the fact is that it isn't. We readers don't need to know that. All we need is to be caught up to speed, fast, and in the present.

Letting go of the need to tell everything is the huge hurdle writers face. It goes along with the idea of cutting that I struggled with last week. When we write, every word is necessary. But as we revise, we should be able to sift the important from the filler. And most of the time, flashbacks can be filled in with a sentence in the present that brings a reader up to speed without sending them through a time warp to the past, breaking the magic of the present. A critical aspect of writing, even in literary fiction, is to keep the story moving forward, and back-story does the opposite.

I'll end with an example of one such flashback I cut from my own first chapter. It was hard to cut, because I thought it was so important to spell out the relationship between Kat and her step-father, and to reveal the past with her biological father. On this one I didn't need to do much more than cut. Everything I needed was already there. The flashback only slowed the forward motion of the scene.

Three miles more and she turned into the housing development where her mom and Dan lived. She’d never come to think of him as Dad, even though he’d offered that title up to her once.
“You can call me Dad, if you want,” he’d said on the day he married her mom, kneeling in front of her and smoothing the bridesmaid dress she’d worn.  She stared at him defiantly and he’d stood up, smiling in that forced way adults do when they’re trying not to show their true feelings.  “Or you can call me Dan.  How about that?  It’s less formal than Mr. Dan, anyway.”
She continued to look at him without speaking, and he knelt back down again and took her hands in his.  “Look, sweetie. I don’t care what you call me. I love your mom, and I love you. I know I could never replace your father. I don’t want to do that. I just want to be a part of your family.”
She nodded and he smiled again, a more real one, and patted her on the head. She’d just called him Dan after that, not because he couldn’t replace her real dad, but because to her, a dad was a person who kissed you at night smelling of whiskey and one night left while you were asleep and never came home again. And maybe, just maybe, if she called him Dan, he wouldn’t be that kind of dad.

This is the revised version:

Three miles more and she turned into the housing development where her mom and Dan lived. She’d never come to think of him as Dad, even though he’d offered that title up to her once. Not because he couldn’t replace her real dad, but because to her, a dad was a person who kissed you at night smelling of whiskey and one night left while you were asleep and never came home again. And maybe, just maybe, she’d decided as a little girl, if she called him Dan, he wouldn’t be that kind of dad.

The truth is that I cut about six flashbacks, some long, others just sentences, without hardly any loss or adjustment necessary to the text. All those events I thought were important, weren't. At least not in detail.

If you're struggling with too much back-story or flashbacks, I encourage you to cut and paste a chapter into a new document and just start cutting them. Leave just the one or two sentences that are needed to relay the information, and cut the details, and see if it makes sense. My hunch is that, while you might miss the lovely details for a while, your readers won't.


  1. Hmmm...that was very interesting, Heidi. I've been feeling really annoyed with myself because I haven't had time to edit my current WIP since December--but maybe I should be grateful. I'm learning stuff to look out for when I do get to it (which better be this week)! I'll be much more aware of my use of backstory when I go through it now.

    Thanks for sharing your personal example!

  2. Okay, I wasn't into reading this book until now. Sounds genius.

  3. You're examples are great. I know I got bogged down in backstory and there's probably more I could cut.

    If I keep learning more stuff I'm never going to get this book done.

  4. Couldn't agree more, and yet I feel the pain!!!

  5. Nice example, Heidi! It is through examples I learn and yours is excellent. A prof mentioned to me how well I did at slipping flashbacks into the current scenes. I honestly didn't know I had done that, but I believe that is where just reading has helped out my writing.

    And 'baby' in One Day? I haven't got to that part of the novel yet!