Using Flashbacks Effectively

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Using Flashbacks Effectively

#1 Post by Westeford » Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:48 pm

Today I want to discuss flashbacks. Basically a scene set earlier in the story.

In my current project, the first few acts are broken down like this.
-The a group of friends are taken prisoner.
-They have a few hours until they are all killed.
-They search for a way out to no avail
-They slowly realize that they are going to die.

I aim to use flashbacks as a way for the characters to look back at the "good times." I also use them to establish previous relationships, what they were like before the story, and also as a way to add some levity to a pretty dark story.
Nostalgia is a theme in my story. The characters long for the past and fear the future. So they reminisce a fair amount until the situation forces them to focus on the present. Regret is another theme, some characters look back wishing they did a few things differently.
The flashbacks also lead up to an incident that challenged and broke their bonds.

My biggest worry is whether I'm writing too many. I also worry whether I'm slowing down the story's momentum too much.
I guess I'm asking for tips on how I can make the most out of these flashbacks and what I should avoid when writing them.

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Re: Using Flashbacks Effectively

#2 Post by Ezmar » Mon Jul 16, 2018 7:57 pm

I'm not a terribly seasoned writer, so my standard disclaimer of "said advice may have inaccuracies that I welcome more experienced authors to correct and/or refute" applies.

Honestly, as far as the story's momentum goes, as long as the quality of the writing is up to par, you can basically write as much as you want if it drives the story forward in some way. Aside from negotiating the time shift and making sure that's not disorienting to the reader, it's really no different from adding slice of life scenes in a mystery/thriller. It deepens the reader's understanding of characters and their relationships. When I'm considering what scenes to include, I basically ask myself how important it is that the scene be included, or if I want the scene to take place for other reasons, such as a transition of some sort, I ask myself what important developments I can work into said scene.

In that sense, writing the flashbacks can become a game of pacing the developments out in the context of the broader story. I think it could be neat to show very little of the present and spend much of the story in flashbacks; using that time for the important character development and such, and only returning to the present when that time needs to move forward, or when relationships need to be examined in the present-day context, such as to contrast with something shown in a flashback, or to raise a question that is answered in a subsequent flashback.

As a general rule, if you have a compelling narrative reason to include a scene, go for it. It's a lot easier to trim the fat in editing than to pad out an anemic story. Write what you think is necessary to tell the story as you see it, and once you're done (or have a suitable amount), ask for feedback and see what people think works and doesn't.

Best wishes, and good luck!

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Re: Using Flashbacks Effectively

#3 Post by LateWhiteRabbit » Mon Jul 16, 2018 11:13 pm

Westeford wrote:
Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:48 pm
My biggest worry is whether I'm writing too many. I also worry whether I'm slowing down the story's momentum too much.
I guess I'm asking for tips on how I can make the most out of these flashbacks and what I should avoid when writing them.
I would like to second what Ezmar said, and say you should make sure each flashback is advancing the story and has a definitive purpose.

It sounds like you will have a challenge on your hands with the story you've laid out. If your story starts with the characters all in jail awaiting death, you have two avenues of pursuit with the direction you could take. Either you show there is a chance of escape and the characters are pursuing it - with the flashbacks advancing that agenda by showing the reader their skills and personalities that will come into play, and maybe some drama that could get in the way at a critical moment during the escape plan and sabotage everything - OR as it sounds like you plan on having your characters really die and this is the end - you have to make the readers incredibly interested in the question of how they all got to this point to begin with - how it all went wrong.

This is much harder and takes a lot of finesse. After all, you're asking readers to invest in characters they KNOW are doomed. Most people have a self-preservation instinct about building emotional empathy to something they know will cause them pain in short order. They'll be subconsciously fighting your attempts to build empathy in those situations.

It CAN be done. One of my favorite movies of all time does it - Double Indemnity . It literally starts with the main character dying, telling you he's killed a man, and he did it for money and for a woman, and he didn't get either.
Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?
Crucially, for the viewer, several big interesting questions are immediately presented that they must have answers for and will be willing to stay invested to find out - who is this woman? How much money was it? What was his plan? How did it all fall apart? Why is this man now sitting in a dark room and dictating the whole thing to a recording instead of rushing to a hospital? Why is he dying? Raymond Chandler, the writer, was a master of his craft and wrote a lot of mystery stories and sizzling dialogue.

The take-away is you need to present readers with big questions they MUST have the answer to (or it will drive them crazy later thinking about it), and you need to do so as soon as possible. I would NOT spend several acts on the things you mentioned. Remember also the advice to "start as close to the end as you can". I don't know anything about your story besides the outline you've presented us, but I would start AFTER the friends are captured, probably right as they are learning they are all going to be killed shortly. I would do that in the first page of the script, then have them come to realization they can't find an escape in-between the flashback scenes, after you've built empathy for them with the reader.

Just food for thought.

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Re: Using Flashbacks Effectively

#4 Post by Imperf3kt » Tue Jul 17, 2018 12:01 am

My main project has a similar plotline where I start at the crux, well, just before it a tad.
Some events that transpire, lead into a flashback to an earlier point in the story.

However, in my story there's only one flashback,, but its roughly a third of the entire story (for now) and I use it to set up the story and capture the interests of my audience.

Its tricky and delicate, in my opinion, but if pulled off right, can be a powerful tool for conveying your story.

Without spoiling too much, I essentially start off with the death of a seemingly important character. The reader barely knows anything about the deceased, but I make sure to provide just enough info and mystery, to pique the reader's interest.

Who is this person?
Why are they in this situation?
What is their relation to the main character?
What are the consequences of their death?
Among other things.

If you can hold a readers attention long enough until they want to know these things, I think you've succeeded - in particular, the last point I made.
You need to keep your reader interested in what is going to happen, after they return to the events leading up to the flashback.

It all comes down to your skill as a writer. Leave subtle hints, create some suspense, make the reader believe there's more to be done or uncovered. Or you could make the reader desire more beyond the crux, by not revealing too much. Why did this happen, what is happening, what is going to happen now?

To further elaborate how I've used such a tecnique, I broke my story into three manageable chunks;
An event - in my case, the death of an important character.
The leadup - life before and during the event. This, ideally, should explain the questions I outlined above and lead the reader to come up with new questions.
The aftermath - the 'event' has taken place, and now we begin exploring the interactivity of the visual novel. Its time to wrap up any remaining questions readers may have, as well as ensure the reader is satisfied. This part of the story can potentially be the longest and may even lead into a sequal.
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Re: Using Flashbacks Effectively

#5 Post by Mammon » Tue Jul 17, 2018 4:01 am

All of the above, seconded. If something has a purpose, keep it in. Flashbacks can be annoying in stories, but if they serve an actual non-cliche purpose (unlike most in anime and VN) they're okay to add.

One thing that wasn't mentioned here is the two story rhythm. If the flashbacks are shorter than the main prisoner story, they're flashbacks. If you make the flashbacks longer than the present, the present becomes flashforwards. If you make both stories roughly as long and important, they can become two equally important stories being told in parallel. This can be something like a pace that becomes clear soon enough, like getting through one dungeon level, getting one outside world scene, back to the next level of the dungeon. Or it can be flashbacks happening in a chronological order without unfollowable time skips that result in the flashbacks being a comprehensible story of its own, breaking up the similarly comprehensible story of the prisons.

There is no real limit to how many flashbacks you can have, it matters if this makes a good story and makes proper sense. Just think about how many stories and movies are 3 minutes in the 'present' and the rest being the flashback that's the whole story. Or stories like the Prestige that live in the past more than the present time, but still let the viewer learn about elements from both right from the start.
Last edited by Mammon on Wed Jul 18, 2018 4:41 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Using Flashbacks Effectively

#6 Post by Katy133 » Tue Jul 17, 2018 10:48 am

Another trick to make flashbacks feel more natural is to NOT have them appear at random. Instead, have a character see/feel/smell/hear/read something that triggers the memory. That way, there's an explanation as to why the audience is seeing the flashback now during this point of the story.

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