So what did Richard III seem like to the man he murdered?

When a flashback is an alarm bell

A student has just quoted a how-to book, 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein. As with most how-to books, she says, lots isn't specially useful - at least not to her - but one or two things are. And the one she quoted which struck me was from a list of things you see in your writing which should ring an alarm bell: Beginning with an almost immediate flashback. This is probably caused, suggests Edelstein, by the desire To avoid the work of showing full-fledged events. And the thing is, I know exactly what he means.

I should say that I haven't got hold of the book, so I can't be sure I'm reading it right. But I have lost count of the number of MS I see which start with a moment in the story, and then zig straight back to the past. It's not, of course, that you should never do it - never say never about anything in writing (at least, not within my hearing). But I think there are several things that might cause you to do this, and they all need interrogating.

The most obvious question is, as with misjudged prologues, are you doing it because you want to start with a bang, but there's a lump of backstory that needs explaining if the bang is to have any kind of significance? Maybe you should ask if you're really starting the story in the right place, if so much that's important went before? It might be better to find the bangy-ness in the real start.

And besides, we may not need nearly as much backstory explained as you think we do. It's amazing how much you don't know about where people in good movies have come from, or indeed in good short stories; are novels really so different? And even if we ultimately do need it, we certainly may not need to have it explained now.

More generally, it's worth remembering that any page which is entirely backstory isn't moving the frontstory on. Of course it's contributing to it indirectly, in setting out why the stakes are so high in the frontstory, or setting up suspense or an instability for the frontstory. And a backstory scene should, of course, have its own narrative drive. But if the promise that the beginning of the novel makes is that as the story unfolds it will be worth the reader's while, any chunk of backstory can only be, as it were, something of an aside.

More generally - not just at the beginning - are you jumping into flashback because you're not confident weaving backstory into frontstory, but only in writing either one or the other? It's not difficult to learn to integrate the two, and it does save those lurchy, stop-start moments when you have to negotiate the jump into a fully-formed flashback, and back again.

But the reason Edelstein highlights is also very interesting: To avoid the work of showing full-fledged events. Of course backstory can be written as immediately and fully-fledged-ly as frontstory, but there's always a risk that it becomes a summary of necessary information:  Telling (Informing) us about how ever since she'd left school she always... or the battle had been long and hard and only as night fell did .... Especially if the backstory involve large sweeps of time or place, Telling it is so much easier and quicker than doing the full-on imagining and then the challenging writing that you need to Show (Evoke) such things. So I would agree that if you find yourself tucking major events away into pieces of flashback, it's worth asking yourself if it's partly because you can't see how, or don't want, to write them in full.

Mind you, my fiction is very often about setting right things from the past, and I'm often mediating a story through a character-narrator. In that case, what we learn of their past is often by way of their own memory: fragmented, subjective, elusive. They are their own narrator, if you like, and it's they who are telling/informing us. And for me, that's even more interesting, even if it also carries all the risks I've just suggested. The whole of Anthony's strand in A Secret Alchemy, for example, is essentially one big series of flashbacks.So although I take the point that, for example, a flashback might be a too-easy way out of actually writing a scene in full, it's an alarm-bell you should attend to, but not necessarily act on. 

To put my money where my mouth is, I'll give you an example. The Mathematics of Love is all about what war does to people, without ever portraying war except as mediated through memories and nightmares. And I don't think that does it any harm. This is from the end of Chapter 5: it's 1819, and Stephen is escorting Lucy around the battlefield of Waterloo.


She leaned forward to call to the driver, ‘Arretez-vous là, s’il vous plaît!’ He pulled up the horses and she scrambled out before I could assist her, only then turning back to me to say, ‘Shall we stop here? You must know this part of the field the best.’

Indeed I did, but struggled, as I had not on the day, to make my way through the heat towards the sandpit at the base of the knoll which we had been ordered to hold. Miss Durward climbed quickly up the small elevation and stood in the thin shade of the trees, looking about her. As I came up, she said, a little out of breath but as if there had been a few seconds, not several minutes since she had spoken the first part of her thought, ‘If I could only draw it as I see it now, with the battle more vivid in my mind than it can ever be on a printing plate or a twelve-ounce paper… If only I could draw this scene so well that what is in my mind is conjured in the viewer’s mind. That would be more honest! Do you understand?’

‘I’m not sure I altogether do,’ I said, the heat beginning to hammer in my head.

She seized my shoulder to turn me towards the country spread out before her. ‘Look! Look at the these hills and fields! Put them together with your memories! You will never see them thus in a gilt frame on a parlour wall!’

I looked as she demanded. The heat that day had been blistering and now it seemed to waver before my eyes. Our savagery was numbered, chained and uniformed, the brute harnessed and hardened. We were made little cogs in the machine, each turning another, I saw, and then clamour began to beat about me, and the stench of fear. The dust stung in my eyes, rasped my throat, clogged in my ears. I could not see, hear, breathe. It was blood in my eyes, sour and stinging. No breath –  no sense – no thought. Only the machine, grinding.