Saturday, May 28

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Opening Flashback Working?


Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s question:

Does the opening need to change in the historical fiction novel of a family that brings to justice the murderer other sister while developing the story of Elaine as one who is fearful of childbirth and new life? It goes immediately to a flashback after Elaine is given the news of her sister’s death and burial without the notification of the family, who live only ten miles away. Is the flashback working?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Chickens Come Home to Roost--Elaine (1931)


"What do you mean, dead? She can't be dead. You are just wrong." I glared at Almy with the righteousness and anger only a seventeen-year-old can muster at an older brother. His eyes were unflinching, looking right back at me. He was not defending, just waiting. I sorted through my thoughts as I stared at this older- by- ten- years brother, the second child and second son of Ma and Pa.

I remembered saying these same words to Emma fourteen years earlier. Now I was saying them about her. My mind played out the scene and the memory of my sister who had always been my best friend, the one I could count on.

"What do you mean, dead?" I stared at the biddy in my hand. "It can't be dead; I was just helping it learn to fly." The small chick lay in my hand, unmoving. Emma was right; it was dead. Its little eyes were wide open and staring, and they scared me. I dropped it down onto the grass and tried to stop looking at it. I didn't know what had happened. But the chick had died while she and I were playing with them. Eight more biddies followed Mama Hen as she waddled over to the chicken yard fence to get to her biddy through the rectangle of wire. She pecked at it. I guess she was trying to wake it up.

I had already forgotten the name "Rosy," named for the soft pink coloring the underside of her wings. Rosy was now "It."

As usual, l looked to my big sister Emma for help or an answer. "Emma, did I kill it? What is going to happen? Will Pa Edd yell at me? Will Ma Mag spank me? Can you make it alive?" Three years old to Emma's seven, I did not know what to do, but I knew even then I could rely on her practical wisdom.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Chickens Come Home to Roost--Elaine (1931)


"What do you mean, dead? She can't be dead. You are just wrong." I glared at Almy with the righteousness and anger only a seventeen-year-old can muster at an older brother. His eyes were unflinching, looking right back at me. He was not defending, just waiting. I sorted through my thoughts as I stared at this older- by- ten- years brother, the second child and second son of Ma and Pa.

[I remembered saying these same words to Emma fourteen years earlier. Now I was saying them about her.] I like the mirror of the words here [My mind played out the scene and the memory of my sister who had always been my best friend, the one I could count on.] This feels a little too “and now a flashback…” type of introduction

"What do you mean, dead?" I stared at the [biddy] I had no idea what this was in my hand. "It can't be dead; I was just helping it learn to fly." The small chick lay in my hand, unmoving. Emma was right; it was dead. Its little eyes were wide open and staring, and they scared me. I dropped it down onto the grass and tried to stop looking at it. I didn't know what had happened. But the chick had died while she and I were playing with them. Eight more biddies followed Mama Hen as she waddled over to the chicken yard fence to get to her biddy through the rectangle of wire. She pecked at it. I guess she was trying to wake it up.

[I had already forgotten the name "Rosy,”] If she’d forgotten it, she couldn’t remember it now. named for the soft pink coloring the underside of her wings. Rosy was now "It."

As usual, l looked to my big sister Emma for help or an answer. "Emma, did I kill it? What is going to happen? Will Pa Edd yell at me? Will Ma Mag spank me? Can you make it alive?" Three years old to Emma's seven, I did not know what to do, but I knew even then I could rely on her practical wisdom.

The question:

1. Is the flashback working?


Not yet (readers chime in), but I think it’s the placement of it more than the actual scene itself. One reason why flashbacks can be troublesome is that they stop the story to show something from the protagonist’s life, essentially infodumping backstory into the scene and delaying any forward movement (so you get three typically problematic things to deal with at once).

For a flashback to work, readers either need to:

A. Want to know the information revealed in the flashback, such as if you’ve teased them with a secret and are finally sharing it.

B. Be an interesting scene on its own. If what’s happening in the flashback is just as gripping or intriguing as any other good scene in the book, readers will be happy to go along for the ride.

As is, this flashback appears before I know who the characters are or what they’re doing. I don’t know the person who has died, so I don’t care that she did. I don’t know the protagonist, so I don’t care about this sad thing happening to her.

(Here are some tips on writing flashbacks)

The flashback also doesn’t show anything I’ve wanted to know about, and I don’t see the importance of it. There’s no goal to drive the scene, or anything going on that readers would want to know—it’s a sad memory of a little girl.

I do, however, love the mirror between the lines:
I remembered saying these same words to Emma fourteen years earlier. Now I was saying them about her.
This is very powerful, and a perfect transition into her remembering this bit of their past.

I’d suggest revising the flashback to make it an internal memory and let Elaine think about the past instead of showing it. Build on the wonderful emotions you have with those two lines and show the impact Emma’s death has on her. This is about Elaine and how she’s reacting to this news, not the fact that Emma is dead.

(Here’s more on showing emotions)

The submitter’s question said this was the opening, but I don’t know if the book starts with this scene or if this is just a scene in the opening chapter. Where this flashback falls will make a difference in how well it works.

If this is the actual opening page, I suspect this is more of an opening scene problem than a flashback issue. Had I know Elaine and cared about her before I got to the flashback, and I knew even a little about her family, then this would be a shock and I’d care about the sister dying.

(Here’s more on starting a novel in the wrong place)

If Emma’s death was an obstacle to an existing goal, then it would create conflict or cause a problem to help drive the story. It would have an effect on the plot, not just be something sad that happened.

If this is a little farther into the chapter, then it’s hard to know for sure, but my instinct says it’s still not information readers are going to care about if they don’t already care about Elaine.

I’d look at two potential places to open the novel: either before Elaine finds out about Emma’s death (so this interrupts her scene goal); or after she’s heard the news and is acting to deal with it.

From the brief summary provided, I’m not sure if this is about finding Emma’s killer or a personal issue about children for Elaine (I suppose one could be the character arc, if the murder spurs Elaine to be brave and live her life). You might show Elaine being fearful of having children or not living her life in some way to establish her flaw and where she’ll grow over the course of the novel. Then have Emma die and show how that triggers Elaine’s journey through the novel’s plot. That way, the death causes the plot to happen and isn’t just information the reader needs to know before the story can actually start.

(Here’s more on internal conflict and character arcs)

Overall, I’d suggest taking another look at the opening scene and identifying what the story goal is driving it forward. My gut says this is starting in the wrong place, and the flashback is meant to help readers care about Emma’s death (and doing the opposite because it’s giving readers information they haven’t had time to want to know yet). The flashback is merely the symptom of the real issue.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

4 comments:

  1. I agree, flashbacks on the first page are usually a trap. First chapters are always a struggle to show the several core pieces that the story is made from, and a flashback seems like the most efficient way to do that. But it's a damaging first impression, to first show your reader not one well-chosen core scene but the combination of two. With enough care it could come off as clever, but it's more likely to seem like a gimmick when the reader first wants to be reassured that you've mastered your story's basics.

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  2. I agree with your take on this piece, Janice, and will only add that if the author wants this interaction to happen right away, perhaps the chapter could open with a scene of 'doing'--where this character has already heard the news, has already denied the reality of it, has perhaps run away or turned to a chore to become buried in, and then begins to reflect/justify/consider the news. This might allow us to learn a lot about this character, as we also learn about the actual news itself, and the persons involved in it (those lost and those who did the telling).

    This could be a deeply intimate scene that underscores the feelings of being alone, of disbelief -- the private grieving and coping with a life-altering event.

    Thanks to the author for sharing!

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  3. Thank you all for reading, commenting, and helping me to begin to see needed changes. I will work on more and maybe come back with a new piece. Your words-insights-have helped me see why I was unsure of this. Again and sincerely, thank you all.

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  4. Does your author know that bird's eyelids close from the bottom up when they die? The eyelids come up halfway from the lower part and stop half-open when they die. I buried a dead bird yesterday. It had flown into a window. I specifically observed the phenomenon as I've written about it in a children's book.

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