Structuring a novel is no easy task, especially when a large part of what happens in the present is dependent upon something that took place in the past. We real live humans are built on our experiences, and it is only fitting that a character’s personal history plays a significant role in establishing his or her motivation. Whether or not to communicate that—and how explicitly—is a different story.
The flashback is one of those tools that can make or break a manuscript. I admit that in an earlier draft of my manuscript, I threw in a pages-long flashback just to take up space. In writing it, I let the story lead me, even when it started to meander. In her notes, an editor asked if I might pare down that particular scene; the pages it took to tell weren’t justified by what it conveyed. Fortunately, I had enough distance to do one better: I deleted the flashback all together. I learned something about my protagonist in writing the scene, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be better communicated in her present-day dialogue and actions.
In another novel, deleting a full scene wouldn’t be so easy. Some novels deal as much with the past as with the present, a prime example being Gold by Chris Cleave—also known as the best book I’ve read this year. Cleave manages to give just enough information at just the right time to satiate the reader’s intense desire to know what the heck’s going on, while building suspense and upping the emotional ante at every turn.
Reading this kind of novel is a whole lot easier than writing it. Recent editing and discussions with my writers’ group offer a few starters:
– Timing tip #1: The information must be relevant. If I’m reading and really absorbed in the current story, I don’t want to be yanked from it to get history I don’t really need. I believe it’s Robert McKee’s Story that a member of my writers’ group quoted: the flashback should come at a point when the reader can’t go another line without knowing what happened in the past.
– Timing tip #2: Give me enough for the moment. As Cleave proves, flashbacks can give information piecemeal, but every jump in time needs to give the reader something to get excited about. Leave me wanting more, sure, but don’t end a scene before it’s made its mark, either.
– Conflict is your friend. Whatever it is that happened back then must be important enough to have somehow affected the now. What is that conflict? Where’s the tension? Build it up!
– Balance is your other friend. If your manuscript is one that alternates between the past and the present, at some point in your writing, count how many pages and/or chapters are devoted to each. Are the sections close to equal? If not, do you have a really good reason, or is that just how things turned out?