“Three years earlier…”
Of all the tidbits of writing advice I’ve picked up over the years, one I never tire of quoting comes courtesy of the legendary pulp novelist Jack Woodford. In his classic book Trial and Error—which manages to be both a useful writer’s manual and a gem of self-promotion—Woodford says:
The trouble with most first short stories is that they have their beginnings buried in their middles. Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action.
Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place. Now you need no longer wail, “But I don’t know how to start a story!”
To my eye, this is what a writing tip should be: practical, immediately applicable, and just a little mechanical. Putting it into practice is a matter of copying and pasting. If it works, great; if not, it’s easy to reverse it. But what strikes me the most about it now is that although Woodford is talking about how to start a story, when you generalize it, it’s really a rule about flashbacks. I’ve always seen flashbacks as a dangerous tool: they interrupt what ought to be a continuous flow of action, whether internal or external, and offer the temptation to spend time on backstory, rather than revealing character through action. But they also have their uses. As Woodford notes, you usually want to get the story moving in the very first sentence, and a flashback can be used, paradoxically, to enable narrative momentum by placing the exposition at a point where the plot can sustain it. When you follow Woodford’s approach, you find that the flashback naturally appears during an organic pause, where the plot has to regroup to take a breather anyway. All stories, if they aren’t going to exhaust the reader, need a few stretches of relative flatness to balance out the high points, and it’s valuable real estate. If you find that you really need a flashback—if only because the backstory would be more vivid or interesting if clustered in a single unit, rather than dispersed—then it probably belongs at a moment when the story can afford to slow down.
And like most useful writing tools, a flashback can be perform a double duty, inserting a moment of delay where it increases the suspense. Elsewhere, I’ve used the movie Snowpiercer as an example: just before the protagonist is about to reach the end of his violent quest, he pauses, lights a cigarette, and tells us a little about himself for the first time. Anywhere else, and the speech would have seemed like a misstep; here, it both postpones the climax at a point of maximum tension and reminds us of the stakes involved at just the right moment. Snowpiercer may be the most relentlessly linear action movie I’ve ever seen—it tracks the hero’s progress from one train compartment to another, so that his movement through physical space exactly parallels the structure of the story—and it cleverly places what amounts to a flashback at the only spot where it wouldn’t interrupt the plot’s forward motion. But even more loosely constructed stories can benefit from its example. Not every narrative needs to move singlemindledly from A to B, and in certain exceptional works, like The English Patient or Citizen Kane, the movement between past and present and back again can almost become a character in itself. But chronological order is the baseline from which we depart only with good reason. And those departures work best when they occur in places where the rhythm allows for a regathering.
The flashback that opens Part II of Eternal Empire is an interesting case, because it was written long after the rest of the novel was complete. My editor had suggested clarifying the relationship between Maddy and Ilya, which otherwise depends mostly on the reader’s knowledge of The Icon Thief, and I realized that she had a good point: much of the action of the novel’s second half hinges on the evolving understanding between these two characters. It also gave me a chance to revisit a piece of the story that the previous books had left unexplored. And because the novel was already so tightly structured, it made sense to stick it here. Last week, I noted that I usually start any writing project with three or four big twists in mind, and I’ll outline the book so that each of these occur at the end of a section. As a result, the beginning of the next section benefits from the residual momentum that the previous climax has generated. Inserting the flashback here put it at a point where I could trust that the reader, having come this far, would at least make it through the next few pages, and it provided a useful way of delaying the resolution of the previous scene, which ended with the hood coming down over Maddy’s head. It wasn’t part of my original conception, but once it was there, it seemed to strengthen, rather than weaken, the surrounding material. And when we catch up with Maddy again, waiting in the back of the car for whatever is coming next, we know exactly what brought her there…