In our first video chat, Berthold and Mark discussed “writing rules” and whether writers should follow the rules that filter through the writing community.
Recently, we heard of a couple more rules worth covering. The first was discussed on a Facebook group for literary fiction writers. A member of the group posted a question about flashbacks, having been told by somebody that she should not use flashbacks. Why? Because in the opinion of the “rule-setter,” flashbacks are poor writing and they break up the story.
Which is kind of interesting. Theoretically at least, almost all fiction is one entire flashback since most fiction these days is told in past tense. Practically speaking though, and taking that somewhat snarky response out of the equation, I can’t think of any story that doesn’t have some element of flashbacks in them.
Flashbacks are a way to provide context, to build a history for characters, to fill in gaps that bring the story forward. I (Mark) think of some of the stories I’ve written and many of them have flashbacks. Some are literally filled with flashbacks. One novel I wrote had chapters that alternated between flashbacks and the current story. The novella I published last year is about 80% flashback. The first chapter and last chapter are “now” and everything in between are a flashback to explain how the narrator got to where he was. The Dime, my most recently completed novel is also filled with flashbacks to provide for character and story development.
I’m not necessarily saying that anything I did in either of those stories was right or correct or a model of how writers should write. But just like every “rule” you hear about, take this one with a grain of salt. Think about some of your favorite pieces of fiction, books you read that blew your mind, and I imagine you’ll find plenty of flashbacks in those works. The keys, I believe, are that the flashbacks do not take away from the story, that they add depth to the story, and that they are clearly set off so that the reader knows it is a flashback. (This was one of the negative comments I heard about flashbacks — it isn’t always clear something is a flashback, which adds confusion for the reader.)
Meanwhile, Berthold heard another rule … never, ever use prologues. The funny thing about this is that I just shared a partially completed novel I’ve been working on and pondering for years. I wanted to see what he thought about it before I commit more energy to the project. It has what I think of as a prologue.
But again, think about great fiction you’ve read. I can imagine that you’ll find prologues and epilogues, and all manner of other things in those works. Just like flashbacks may be necessary to provide context and character development, a prologue can set the table for the story to follow. There are times when a prologue makes sense. A “rule” that one should never, ever use a prologue is just nonsense.
And remember that for any rule you hear. Never is a pretty harsh concept when it comes to writing. If it works for your story — a flashback here and there, a prologue — do it. Trust your instincts that you know how you want to tell your story. And then follow the one and only rule there should be — write a good story.
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Now that I’ve said that, I wanted to share a recent experience I had. A friend asked me to read a manuscript she had written. I always jump at the chance to do this,, to help other writers, so I agreed. The story had a good mix of characters, a good storyline, and a great sense of humor embedded in it. But there were aspects that made it difficult to read. Switching between first and third person frequently. Switching between past and present person just as frequently. Sometimes these switches occurred within the same paragraph.
While I don’t believe in all of these rules we are told to follow as writers, and I believe the only rule is to write a good story, I think there is a corollary to that rule — don’t make it too difficult for the reader to read and follow the story. And that’s how I felt after reading this manuscript. A good story was confused by a couple of problems in the storytelling. Problems that could be easily fixed.
Given my position on “the rules,” I felt odd providing this feedback to the other writer. But I thought it necessary. In other words, everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt and adapted to the story you are working on.
As you know, Mark (not Bob! haha that’s a writer joke!) I often question or argue with Rules. I also think about the whole rule thing a lot. My latest theory is that we see a lot of rules because there are a lot of us writers writing about writing. We have to come up with something to say every week or even every day. So do’s and don’ts are an obvious choice. The other thing is being too specific about things that make a piece of writing hard to read, like the one you mention. Saying “Make your writing easy to read” is too vague, so the advice-giver zeroes in on specific details, like backstory, info dumps, head-hopping, etc. They say “Never use flashbacks,” or “Prologues are bad,” because they’ve seen writing with these features that is confusing. The advice in many cases should be modified thus: If you use flashbacks, make sure they are clearly designated, so the reader knows them for what they are. Same with more than one first person narrator. Whatever fictional devices you use, use them well and avoid confusing the reader.
As for flashbacks and prologues, it seems to me both are used quite often in movies.
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I’ve often thought that there are writers who need rules to provide the guardrails for their writing. The idea of there being no rules, no limits is too scary a thing. They need to know the “right” and the “wrong” as they go through the process of writing a story. Full-blown creativity to do whatever you want can be a scary thing.
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That’s true, and especially if one is intending to try for traditional publication, which all those rules on how to submit!
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