The Flashback Conundrum

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As I embark on writing the sequel to The Muse, I find myself in the middle of an artistic quandary. Writing a series is tricky business, particularly when it comes to reminding the reader what happened in the previous book(s) in a subtle, yet effective way. It’s all too easy to alienate readers with overwhelming reminders or lose them by providing little or no details to jog the memory.

Having read multiple Young Adult series books, I’ve taken note of how each author handles the  “flashback conundrum.” The methods vary greatly from series to series, which makes me seriously question how I should handle the flashback conundrum that inevitably plagues every series.  Ultimately, it comes down to how much an author trusts the reader. In the YA genre, we are dealing with a generation with short attention spans, but also fangirl mentalities that forget nothing. It’s a paradox with no simple solution!

The methodology of crafting a series flashback seems to break down into four categories:

Snapshot Flashback

This method involves inserting nuggets of information within the first few chapters or the entire sequel in small doses. Flashback details are carefully chosen and strategically placed to keep the reader apprised of necessary information without detracting from the story as it pushes forward.

Best example: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga

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Prologue Flashback

Some authors choose to remind readers of key storyline details by crafting a prologue that directly states prior events or utilizes a similar story layout or literary technique to pull the reader back into the world that was created in previous volumes. In a sense, it works like a mnemonic device to trigger the memory.

Best example: Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush Saga

hush hush books

Information Dump Flashback

This style of flashback tends to be unpopular, but unfortunately it still pops up in a number of series. The author essentially dumps large blocks of information either at the beginning of the sequel or in chunks throughout the installment. Most readers find this annoying and very distracting. I’d have to agree.

Best example: Luckily, I haven’t come across the information dump in recent YA reads, but it is very present in just about every Dan Brown book involving Robert Langdon since The Da Vinci Code. The Lost Symbol is the worst offender.

Invisible Flashback

There are a number of YA authors that implicitly trust their readers to remember every detail, look it up on wikipedia, or take the time to comb through the previous books. Little or no references to previous novels are included as readers are just expected to know everything.

Best example: Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices Series

Cassandra Clare Books The Mortal Instrumenst The Infernal Devices

Authors of all genres have grappled with the flashback conundrum as there are undoubtedly far more than four methods. Still, the question remains which method is the  most effective and least annoying to readers? There is no easy answer as readers are as diverse as the books they read.

To all readers and writers out there, I put the question in your hands …

 

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c.b.w. 2014

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8 thoughts on “The Flashback Conundrum

  1. I’m having a hard time voting because, to some degree, I feel it would depend on the story. Personally, I would favor snapshot on the whole because of its subtlety (and because of how unobtrusively it seems to work in series I’ve enjoyed), but, especially if the first novel or the world is very complicated, a prologue might not be a bad idea. Definitely a hard choice!

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    • As a reader I tend to be a fan of the snapshot flashback, but at the same time it can get a little irritating to get numerous little reminders while reading (especially if reading an entire series one right after the other). However, those little snippets can be very helpful when there’s a year or more in between books!

      Normally, I don’t like Prologues (hated them in the Twilight Saga), but they worked so well in the Hush, Hush Saga. Fitzpatrick single-handedly showed me that they can and work if done correctly.

      Ahhhhh! The indecision continues …

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  2. I personally get annoyed by flashbacks to remind readers of what happened in previous books. Most of the time, though, I’m reading a series back-to-back, which some people may not do.

    The best method I’ve seen? Simply have a page or two at the start of the book of “What Happened Before” to remind readers of who key characters were, and the main plot points that are still applicable.

    I would avoid the ‘prologue’ recap at all costs, though. Prologues have such a stigma attached to them already that including one that is literally a recap of what went on won’t help anything. Prologues should never be flashbacks of information that was previously given. They should only be new information that is vital to the plot that we can’t feasibly get by a character or situation already in a story.

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    • I read quite a few series and most of the time, I read them as the books comes out. After a while, it gets tough to keep them straight and remember what happened, so I can appreciate the necessary evil of flashbacks. However, I also get annoyed by them when trying to catch up on a series. It’s a doubled edged sword!

      Hmmm … I don’t think I’ve ever read a series where there’s a “remember when” section at the beginning. That’s very interesting and I’ll be checking it out! 🙂

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  3. I had a hard time deciding but finally went with invisible. I think people do remember and maybe just need to catch up on the characters. My second choice would be prologue. It gets it out of the way like they do on television. Each book should stand alone too (I think) so if the reader is really into the characters it should be a fairly easy transition. I don’t remember a lot of flashback in Harry Potter.

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    • In many ways I like the invisible flashback, but then I think about how hard it is to remember everything in between book releases. Especially, when I’ve probably read more than 30 books and multiple other series since the last book. For Clare’s series, I’ve actually had to Google plot summaries to remind myself what happened in the previous books (she rights very complicated and long stories!).

      I like the stand alone idea, but that is a tough thing to pull off, unless it’s a series of individual adventures involving the same characters. My series is pretty much one long story broken up into three volumes, so that won’t work!

      You’re right, there wasn’t a lot of flashback in Harry Potter. I read that entire series over a span of three weeks, so it wasn’t hard to remember what happened in previous books. However, I can’t imagine trying to remember everything in between book releases. Yikes!

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  4. Lots of readers don’t read prologues at all, in fact I never used to, but since I’ve been into writing I do now. Sometimes they are essential to read – other times I wonder why they bothered! Elmore Leonard said in a description on how he writes that he believed readers would happily skip lots of detail, but they never skip conversation. I definitely hate a lot of detail, but I’ve also skipped conversation if it was a bit relentless and without purpose. But I think he did have a valid point. Nothing worse than boring your reader. A few authors have bored or annoyed me with ridiculous inaccurate details – the result = I never bought any more of their books. Quite a scary thought for a new author!

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