On February 25, 2010, Jill wrote, My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about. I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn’t happen in one event. It happened over many years. I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it. I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but it’s hard to get out all the information with out making it seem like two books in one. Any suggestions?
The kingdom of Bamarre in my The Two Princesses of Bamarre is plagued by monsters and by a terrible disease called the Gray Death. Events in the story are connected to events during the founding of the kingdom centuries ago. I brought the back story into the current one with an epic poem that winds through the book. The poem, which was written in the earlier time, is known by everyone. People quote from it, perform scenes from it, refer to it. My main character often thinks about it.
The Blind Assassin (high school level and above) by Margaret Atwood alternates in sections between the past and the present. In the course of the book, the back story catches up. The past is told in third person, the present in first. The reader quickly adjusts to the shifts, cued by the change in point of view. The story is a sort of mystery, and the time jumps contribute to the puzzle. It’s a brilliant accomplishment.
Margaret Atwood introduces her chapters in the past with old newspaper clippings. You too can come up with devices not merely to start the switch, but to reveal the events themselves. For example, you can alternate the current story with old diary entries or old letters, or you can invent fictionalized newspaper articles too.
Or you can think up other ways to bring the past into the present . Suppose, for instance, that your main character is haunted by a memory of being cruel to her brother only a few hours before he was killed in a car accident or abducted by aliens or morphed into an alien himself, and suppose she discusses what she did with a counselor or her new college roommate, someone who doesn’t know her past. This can become a boring recitation, however, unless you do something to bring in tension, like maybe the confidant has a hidden connection to the brother.
If the back actions were performed by your main character (not carried out before her birth or beyond her knowledge), you can start with the first act and keep going, no need for flashbacks or anything else. I’ve begun several of my books with the birth of my main character–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, to name a few. The story then jumps forward through selected episodes, sometimes years apart, to the present where most of the action takes place. This is a straightforward way to do it and the least likely to cause reader confusion. My favorite writing teacher, years ago, disliked flashbacks. I have nothing against them, but if there is no reason not to write in sequence from past to present, this is the way I would go.
If you use them, flashbacks can be hard to pull off because you’re wrenching the reader away from the ongoing story. Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present. Quick flashback scenes often succeed, since the reader comes to understand that the digression will be short.
The television series Lost – High school level? Middle school? I’m not sure, so check with an adult – is wild with its scene switches. The story jumps in and out of flashbacks, and then, to further complicate matters, characters become unglued in time. The viewer learns to expect this madness and adapts. I don’t always admire the show, but I enjoy the craziness, and it’s worth studying how the endless complications are handled.
Of course television is a different medium. Information can be conveyed instantly. The viewer has only to see a telephone with a cord to know that she’s in the past. We writers have to reveal the switch in words, which takes longer.
The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (high school and up) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along tell their stories backwards. The novel starts with a marriage that has fallen painfully apart and progresses back in time to the first meeting of the couple and their early love. The musical begins with the misery of a man who has misused his artistic gifts and ends with his hopeful college graduation. Both are tragic. I don’t know if it’s possible to tell a happy story this way.
Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), which I think I’ve mentioned before, by my friend Joan Abelove, moves effortlessly through time. Joan uses flashbacks a lot, so you may want to read the book to see how she does it.
Many actors develop back stories for their roles. They may flesh out a childhood, adolescence, family, school that never come into the actual play or movie. But the back story adds depth to the performance. The audience picks up on the complexity. So it’s a good thing to have earlier events influencing the current story.
Whatever method you use, sympathetic or fascinating characters in a difficult situation will lure your reader in and keep him in. If he is hooked, cares about your main character, roots for her, he will keep reading and may love the all the track switches you conduct him through.
You can try any of the techniques I mentioned: flashbacks, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, backward telling, an epic poem, dialogue in a counseling session. And here are three specific prompts:
• Make up a back story for a character in a book you love. If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), for example, make up a back story for Wickham or Mr. Collins or Charlotte beyond what Jane Austen provides.
• Make up a back story for one of your own minor characters. Figure out a way to introduce a bit of it into your story.
• Develop a flashback scene in a story you’re working on now or an old story. Keep it in if you like it. Otherwise take it out.
Have fun and save what you write!