9.10.2019

In or About

When is a narrative summary sufficient to relay information from a character’s past, and when should a flashback be employed? The question turns to some degree on the sort of novel you are writing. In a literary work, plotting tends to be less linear. In a genre novel, by contrast, the forward momentum of the main plot contributes far more to the entertainment value of the story. Since a flashback itself is a plot element, it stands to reason that the more of them you have, the less forward momentum you generate in the present-day plot.

However, as in so many other considerations in writing, narrative summary may not be the best vehicle for conveying all past plot events. That’s because the summary by its very nature is more distant storytelling. It also, because it sketches the reactions of the characters involved, can verge into telling, not showing, what they are like. Put that way, you can see why talking about characters is less effective than putting them into an active scene to show what they’re like.

How do you determine which device to use? Several parameters can be considered. The first is length of a flashback. If you are worried that they will slow up the main story too much, can you relate a key moment from a character’s past without unspooling an entire scene? For instance, a half page isn’t long; many narrative summaries run that length. Could you construct a series of flashbacks that involve the same time period, place, or key characters? That way you wouldn’t need to set up the circumstances each time. Merely by cueing the reader with a lead sentence—oh, right, that crucial semester freshman year—you could tell a number of shorter snippets, maybe with past events connected to each other.

The second guideline is: importance of the event to the present-day character. The more impact a past event has, the more you should lean toward covering it in a live scene. That plunges the reader directly into the circumstances that affected the character so powerfully—making them hit the reader head-on. Again, a full-length scene can be broken up into sequential pieces, like a mystery lure in which you find out the full truth piece by piece.

The last consideration is: where is it in the book? You usually will provide the background setup for characters within the first third. That is where narrative summary can most easily fall into the error of telling about characters rather than showing—because the reader doesn’t know them very well and that info has to be filled in. When you’re in this part of the book, a full-length flashback or even a couple is not going to slow down a plot that hasn’t yet revved up that much momentum anyway. It also forces you to be strategic: how can you devise a scene that shows as much as possible what the character is like?

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”
—Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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