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Saturday, July 20

Real Life Diagnostics: Is Inserting a Flashback a Good or Bad Idea?

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 we 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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Two

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through August 3.

This week’s questions:

1. What are your feelings about this character? Could you bond with her?

2. Is there enough tension to keep you reading?

3. What are your expectations from these opening lines?

4. In your view, what is the opening promise?

5. Is inserting the flashback a good or bad idea?

Market/Genre: Literary Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original Text:

Deborah felt like throwing up. What a coward she was. What a weak-kneed, lily-livered coward. Why had she agreed to ruin her life? Why couldn’t she, just this once, stand up and fight for what she wanted?

Swallowing the sour taste in her mouth, she leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the cool glass of her bedroom window.

“I won’t marry him. I simply won’t,” she vowed.

But of course she would. How could she back out now without enraging Father, mortifying Mummy and being sued for breach of promise into the bargain? Besides which, weren’t ‘Obeying-One’s-Parents’ and ‘Keeping-One’s-Word’ mandatory and binding obligations in the Campbell household? To ignore these two hallowed rules was an absolute recipe for disaster, as she’d so bitterly learned to her cost nine years ago when she was just ten years old.

The oldest of four siblings, Deborah loved playing with four-year-old Jamie but that morning in Newquay, she’d gently prized her fingers out of her brother's chubby little hand, leaned down and given him a quick hug. That day she had more exciting things to do.

“Off you go now,” she said, giving him an affectionate pat on the bottom. “Back to Daddy. I’ll see you in a tick."

She hated to abandon her little brother to the strict dictates of their father but the day was far too precious to waste sauntering along at a snail's pace listening to grownup gossip and childish chitchat. Today, after all, was the last day of their seaside holiday and she fully intended to make the most of it.

My Thoughts in Blue:

Deborah felt like throwing up. What a coward she was. What a weak-kneed, lily-livered coward. Why had she agreed to ruin her life? [Why couldn’t she, just this once, stand up and fight for what she wanted?] This strikes me as the introduction of her character arc. She’ll need to learn how to do this by the novel’s end,

Swallowing the sour taste in her mouth, she leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the cool glass of her bedroom window.

[“I won’t marry him. I simply won’t,” she vowed.] This tells me the current conflict, and I’m guessing, the book's conflict.

But of course she would. [How could she back out now without enraging Father, mortifying Mummy and being sued for breach of promise into the bargain?] This shows the stakes Besides which, weren’t ‘Obeying-One’s-Parents’ and ‘Keeping-One’s-Word’ mandatory and [binding obligations in the Campbell household?] This shows her personal stakes and ethics [To ignore these two hallowed rules was an absolute recipe for disaster], This shows me she has reasons to go against what she wants as she’d so bitterly learned [to her cost] missing words? nine years ago when she was just ten years old.

The oldest of four siblings, Deborah loved playing with four-year-old Jamie but that morning in Newquay, she’d gently prized her fingers out of her brother's chubby little hand, leaned down and given him a quick hug. That day she had more exciting things to do.

“Off you go now,” she said, giving him an affectionate pat on the bottom. “Back to Daddy. I’ll see you in a tick."

She hated to abandon her little brother to the strict dictates of their father but the day was far too precious to waste sauntering along at a snail's pace listening to grownup gossip and childish chitchat. Today, after all, was the last day of their seaside holiday and she fully intended to make the most of it. I’d skip the flashback, as it’s hijacking the story and everything you’ve established so far

The Questions:

1. What are your feelings about this character? Could you bond with her?


She seems like a young woman caught in a very bad situation, who wants to get out of it, but feels pressure from all sides to go through with it. I haven’t bonded with her yet, but I do sympathize with her, and I can see bonding with her as the story continues. She wants to be strong, she wants to get what she wants, but she’s afraid to do so due to a bad experience.

The flashback is actually what’s keeping me from bonding with her. I’m just starting to really feel for the poor thing when I’m yanked out of the present and her issues, and into a scene that doesn’t matter to me. It’s something I’m sure I will care about later, but not yet.

(Here’s more on How Shame and Vulnerability Can Connect Us to Characters)

2. Is there enough tension to keep you reading?

In the beginning, yes, then the flashback drops the tension. You do a good job of putting the conflict and stakes right in the first few paragraphs, and I know she’s has reasons for feeling as she does. Yet I don’t know everything yet, which makes me curious to keep reading.

I wonder who she’s expected to marry and why he’s bad. I wonder what happened nine years ago, and what that cost was (yet I don’t actually want to find out right now, which is weird, I know). I wonder how she got into the situation if she never wanted to marry him in the first place. I wonder how she’ll find the strength to stand up and say no, and what that might cost her.

There’s a lot of good setup here in very few words, and then it wanders off into explaining something I’ve no real interest in. I want to know, yes, but the curiosity is mild at this point, and I’d rather know more about the current conflict and problem, not a piece of Deborah’s past that’s making her scared to speak out.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between Good Setup and Bad Setup)

3. What are your expectations from these opening lines?

That Deborah is going to face a lot of choices she doesn’t want, but she’ll agree to anyway, and she has to learn to stand up for herself and say “No, this is what I want” by the end of the book. She might even learn or discover that what happened to her little brother was not her fault, and be able to move past that traumatic event.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

4. In your view, what is the opening promise?

That I’ll get to see how Deborah avoids the marriage she doesn’t want, and how she learns to stand up for herself.

5. Is inserting the flashback a good or bad idea?

I’d say no (readers chime in here). It hijacks the story just when I’m getting into it, and explains what happened to Deborah as a child. It doesn’t read as Deborah remembering the events, but as the author stopping the story to explain what happened that affects Deborah so strongly now.

I’m fine with her “remembering the cost she paid nine years ago” and leaving it at that. It’s a tease, it makes me wonder, but it doesn’t stop or derail the good conflict and setup you have going here.

The difference between a memory that flows naturally into the story and an inserted flashback is that in this, there’s nothing to make Deborah remember the entire situation with her brother. She paid the price, she knows what that was and why, and that’s all anyone would logically think about at this moment. She’s focused on her current problem, which she faces as a result of the past event, but no one sits around thinking about the personality-forming events in their lives.

Hearing the story about the brother would work better when readers want to know what happened (and they’ll need to care about Deborah and want to know her past before that will happen), and it fits logically into the story. It’ll be a time when Deborah needs to talk or think about it, or when someone brings it up because it matters to the scene.

Right now, the informative event from the past is affecting her, but the memory of it is not, so this reads as backstory infodump more than a flashback. Deborah isn’t thinking, “Gee, if I’d never let my little brother die (I’m guessing), then I would have the strength to stand up and avoid this marriage.” She’s thinking, “This isn’t what I want, but I can’t risk screwing up again and someone getting hurt, and this stinks and I hate it but what can I do?”

And that’s the difference between an organic memory and explaining backstory. This flashback is here so the author can tell readers why Deborah is like this, it’s not what Deborah is thinking at this moment. So I’d suggest cutting it and letting it come out at a time when it does matter and readers are eager to learn what happened nine years ago.

(Here’s more on Cover Me, I'm Going Back: Tips on Writing Flashbacks)

Overall, this works until the flashback, and accomplishes a lot in a few paragraphs. I think if it had kept going with her current plight and let me get to know Deborah more, I’d be invested in her problem and want to know how she plans to deal (or not deal) with it. I already care, but the story stops before it really gets its hooks into me. Just keep it going and let the flashback come later.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. 
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6 comments:

  1. Definitely don't use a flashback.

    A first scene is all about hooking the reader quickly, and setting up enough key parts of the story that we see some of its complexity and conflict. It needs to be in the moment-- and flashbacks are ripping us *out* of that moment and into a different one, and they're usually unnecessary.

    Like Janice said, there's no reason for Deborah to call up the whole memory now. Real people file memories away and access them only as much as they need to, often at the speed of thought. It's just too much of a stretch that right now she'd fully relive her brother's death (I'm making the same assumption).

    --Note, movies make flashbacks look better, but that's because they're a visual medium. Books are tied right into a character's thoughts, and that's where flashbacks are most unnatural. Or a flashback can go better if there's a strong reason to stop and recall the full past, or better yet explain it to someone else, but that isn't what you have here.

    There's something else I don't like about this: I think connecting her brother to her engagement is a stretch at all. You seem to be making the point that her guilt for one makes her vulnerable to the other and to various other family problems. But most people don't have their lives reshaped by a single event-- it's usually a combination of events, or it's years of reaction to that source that might take them one way or could result in something completely different.

    I think when a story shows a character driven by one event's implications, it's making the point that this is one of the few people whose problem has a simple cause... if they can only dig through all the years between to face it. Many stories like this would take most of the book to reveal what actually happened to her brother, or else admit that it's the thing that traumatized her so badly.

    Or you might take a different approach: her brother's only one of the things in her past that changed her, each in different ways. In this scene she might see something that reminds her of her brother first, because that lesson is always what she thinks of first. But then she sees a storybook her mother used to read to her and remembers how she wanted to marry for love, and a sign that the house is falling apart because their family fortune is running out, and so we see she's not just one issue.

    Deborah's got a hard, appealing choice ahead, and probably a complicated one. I think you want to ease us into the complexity of it, rather than saying everything goes back to one moment in the past... and especially you don't want to give us the in-depth story about what that past is yet, when we're just finding our footing in the present.

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    1. Thank you for your suggestions and feedback :-)

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  2. First, I commend the submitter on the first four paragraphs. As Janice said, up to that point it was a compelling and well-written set up.

    Now, and with due respect, I think some of the critique thus far is a bit overstated in that, a) a fiction novel, after all, is theater, not real life, so action doesn't necessarily have to reflect what a "normal" person would actually be doing or thinking, b) talented and successful authors break all manner of supposed writing "rules" with regularity and to very entertaining effect, and c) given that this submission is less than a page of a presumably 200-300 page work -- some/much of what remains the submitter might already have written -- some of the problems identified may only be problems due to lack of further context.

    All that said, here are my observations:

    I agree with everything Janice says, up to the flashback bit. As I read the submission, the part beginning with, "The oldest of four siblings..." struck me as a jolting, confusing disconnect in the action, and I didn't even realize it was a "flashback" until digesting Janice's comments. So the problem for me was not that flashbacks are "bad" or even that this was the wrong place for a flashback, but rather that the connection between the trauma roiling in Deborah's mind and the events nine years ago was not effectively (or clearly) made.

    Let's say that the flashback segue between "...just ten years old." and "The oldest of four..." had been more effectively nailed. Then, for example (and this piggybacks on the speculation that the brother died), the last paragraph read, "She hated to abandon her little brother to the strict dictates of their father. But how was she to know what would happen to him? And who would have drawn a straight line between her little brother's death, and a marriage that would resurrect the haunting memory of that tragic afternoon?" I believe it would have turned a feeling of "you don't need flashbacks" into a feeling of "Geez, what's the rest of this story about?!"

    Per Janice's sensitivity, maybe too much of a revelation too soon; but it would have changed the character of the passage from distracting infodump to a relevant tease.

    I think the overall point is, sometimes it's less about the rules and more about the execution.

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    1. Thank you for your feedback and suggestions. :-)

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  3. I really liked this. As for the flashback, I can't help but think it's incomplete, that the author stopped in the middle of something. (Maybe she was following the rule for 250 word count?) The flashback made me think something happened bad to her little brother at the seashore, and it was somehow her fault. Maybe she sent him off to her father and didn't wait to see if he actually made it to his father. I'm thinking maybe he went exploring and drowned, or something as a result of Deborah failing to supervise him properly. Of course, that's a big order for a ten-year-old, but could be the parents felt she was mature enough for the task. If I am on the right track, I think the flashback is okay and would reveal more about the character. I really didn't think about the flashback other than wanting to know what happened to her little brother.

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  4. You are 100% on the right track in all your assumptions regarding the flashback. Thank you for your input. :-)

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