Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Handling Flashbacks, Plus Sol Stein Is Genius

So I’m in this weird limbo where I’m waiting for my edit letter, and I don’t want to start the sequel of my new book in case it changes the path of the sequel and I’m wasting my time, and I can’t focus on any other projects. So I decided that, what the hell, why not learn to write? I’ve never taken a course on writing nor read a ‘how-to’ writing book, but it seemed like as good a time as any to do just that.  It happened that, at that exact time, Amy Christine Parker, mentioned she’d picked up and was loving Stein On Writing by Sol Stein. Enter Amazon express shipping, and a day later I was the owner of this awesome book.

It’s awesome, ya’ll. Really awesome. I can’t even begin to describe how helpful it is. It’s not at all vague or high-brow or over my head, like I’d worried. It’s super easy to understand and very direct, citing actual examples of how you can improve your work. Every author should have this on their bookshelf.

But I digress. The flashbacks. Often when I’ve encountered a flashback in a book, I’ve been tempted to skim or jump a few pages. I’ve never really understood why until Sol told me:

‘The reason flashbacks create a problem for readers is that they break the reading experience. The reader is intent on what happens next. Flashbacks, unless expertly handled, pull the reader out of the story to tell him what happened earlier…if we are enthralled, we don’t want to be interrupted.’-Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein.

Immediate reaction? SHIT! I have a flashback in my book. MUST PRESS DELETE OR MY BOOK SUCKS AND NO ONE WILL BUY IT!  Then I read the rest of the chapter and settled down. Sol doesn’t say you can never use flashbacks—sometimes they are a very useful and even necessary tool.  But he does caution against it and lists some considerations for an author before going down that route. Oh, there is so much great information on how to handle flashbacks well that this chapter alone would be reason enough to pick up this book. A quick and dirty tip I picked out of the chapter ‘Flashbacks’:

Certain words should carry warning labels for the writer. “Had” is the number-one villain. It spoils more flashbacks than any other word. Most fiction is written in the straight past tense. When writing flashbacks, as quickly as possible use the same tense you’re using for the present scenes.’-Stein On Writing, Sol Stein


Let’s do an example.

I recalled the dream I had earlier in the week. I had been hiding in a darkened, abandoned shop. Suddenly, a horse had burst through the window and had started to kick me with its powerful legs. I hadn’t wanted to stab it, but it was attacking me.

Weird, right? That was my actual dream. An effing horse was attacking me and I had to stab it. Probably I should see a therapist. But back to the point! That paragraph had five ‘hads’ in it and was terrible.  Removing most of the ‘hads’ we get this:

I recalled my dream from earlier in the week. I hid in darkened, abandoned shop. Suddenly, a horse burst through the window and started to kick me with its powerful legs. I stabbed it purely out of necessity.

Okay, that’s terrible too. Better if you just read Sol’s book. (Geez, you’d think I was on Sol Stein’s payroll. Hint. Hint.)





21 comments:

  1. Okay, so you've convinced me to pick up this book as well. I have a few writing books on my list to read while I'm in limbo this summer. Sounds like something I should read!

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  2. Glad you're liking it!! I am like a Sol Stein cultist at the moment:) There is so much awesome in that book that my brain can't hold it all. I'm sure that I will be rereading it and marking it up with a highlighter every time I write something new.

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    1. Oh, me too, if only for the simple joy of using a highlighter!

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  3. Well--looks like I'm going to cancel out a flashback or two! Thanks!!

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    1. No problem! Glad you found it helpful!

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  4. The problem I usually notice with flashbacks is that they're so vague, so as to give away that *something* crucial happened, but not say what. I'll get to a flashback and it'll start out with something like "the man came in, dressed in black, his face obscured" blah blah blah vague details for half a page. So that's why I usually skim them. Same with a lot of really short prologues -- they're just a few really vague paragraphs that are supposed to pique the reader's interest rather than provide important information. Interestingly enough, the novel I just finished is one big flashback AND has a prologue that I'm thinking about cutting anyway. :P
    I'll definitely have to pick up this book.

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    1. Awesome point, Mary. So true.

      And yes, get the book!

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  5. This made me think about how I feel about flashbacks in books. If they are short asides, like a small childhood memory about the family member the character is talking with, that reveals a little about the character/plot/etc. it is fine. But if they are long recollections of things having happened in the past I do feel 'yanked' out of the flow of the story. Great post!

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    1. Couldn't agree more, Katharina. Sometimes those short memories are great for giving texture to a novel.

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  6. I used to be a flashback ho...but now no' mo'.... :-P

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    1. Haha! Now I can say I know a reformed flashback ho. My life is complete.

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  7. LMFAO Rachel! I was a flashback ho as well. My whole first book attempt is replete with flashbacks. Looks like I should be picking up this book as well. :)

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  8. I bought and this book a year and a half ago. I think it's time I revisited Sol's words of wisdom. :-)

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  9. Uh oh! I used flashbacks in two of my books! Oh well! Thanks for the advice, Michelle.

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    1. Oh, but the book has SO MUCH MORE to say on this topic. Flashbacks can be done well!

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  10. That sounds like a useful resource! I have to admit I tende to avoid flashbacks but when I do use them I keep them short - mere flashes I would say ;-)

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    1. Mere flashes I don't mind at all. I was just telling a friend that short memories can be great for adding texture to a novel.

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