There’s a movie in which Chevy Chase plays a wannabe writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the entire movie, but there is a scene at the beginning that I will always remember. Chase’s character has given his wife his novel to read. When he asks her what she thinks, she starts to cry and says that it is terrible. She says something like, “In the first five pages there are three flashbacks, two flash forwards and I think there’s even a flash sideways.” Ouch.
I imagine that most writers can sympathize with this scene insofar as handling time can be tricky and we all get ourselves into trouble sometimes. Hopefully, we tidy up the narrative before publication, though.
How tidy should the narrative be, though, in a novel? My own novel currently relies on flashbacks (for lack of a better word). It’s hard for me to keep track of them at this stage of writing, when I still haven’t settled on what exactly my story is, and I have been very tempted lately to restructure the novel to avoid the flashbacks. I would just start it in the past and tell everything in chronological order. That would keep it simpler for me and the reader.
But there are arguments against this approach. First of all, there may be important backstory that doesn’t really fit into the dramatic structure. A character’s childhood is important, but every hero’s story doesn’t have to begin at birth (or before). Sometimes it is better to focus on the main action and use a flashback to fill in a detail as needed.
At first this argument struck me as the most important, but I actually think there is an even better defence of flashbacks. At any moment we are influenced and propelled by something that happened before. Our pasts are alive within us. When a character walks around in this moment, she is also carrying the past inside of her. Backstory is always present and the past and present speak to one another. This I think is why using flashbacks (and again there is no doubt a better term) seems to suit my novel. My character has in some ways re-started his life but his old life hasn’t left him. The challenges that he faces in this phase of his life are heightened because of the significance of his past.
The flashback, looked at in this way, is I suppose related to stream of consciousness. The novel, way more than the film, can capture inner life. One way to evoke this inner life is through stream of consciousness; another is by using clearly demarcated flashbacks. Flashbacks are a little more methodical, but overall, they have the effect of charging the narrative with the significance of the past.
Or so I am hoping, though I am doing my best to avoid flashing sideways.