Use of Flashbacks for Main Plot

Wayne Mack

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As a reader, will you accept a story that starts at the climax and then gives the events leading up to it? I have seen this used in movies (example: "John Wick") and television shows ("Twelve hours previously ..."), but not in novels. Would you stop reading because you know the final scene or would you be willing to read to find out the events leading up to the climax?

If I do a flashback, do I need to write anything beyond the first flashback paragraph in Past Perfect Continuous (example, "I had been watching ...")? I feel that would quickly get tedious to both write and read.

Context: I am trying to plot out a new story, but I am having problems deciding on a good opening. I could have a minor conflict that doesn't really feed into the main plot, but would introduce the characters or I could tell the final scene and then flashback.
 

HareBrain

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As usual with this kind of thing, it would depend. But I'm not a fan of the technique (once a trope has had the piss taken out of it in Rick and Morty, you're probably on shaky ground using it non-ironically), and I would need to be pretty sure there was a better reason for using it than that the beginning would otherwise be weak.

If I do a flashback, do I need to write anything beyond the first flashback paragraph in Past Perfect Continuous (example, "I had been watching ...")? I feel that would quickly get tedious to both write and read.

Here I can give a definite answer: yes, you only need to do the first paragraph, or maybe even only the first two or three verbs. Then again at the end before ending the flashback.
 

Edoc'sil

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As per your feedback on my writing I can safely assume you are much more experienced than me. However, I hate when a story starts at the climax and then uses flashbacks.

I feel it robs me of the anticipation and tension, quite often if I find if a story does that I won't read on. Unless someone told me I have to because it's worth it, or the writing and premise is so sublime I can move past it.

I dislike it less (although I am not in favour entirely) in TV/film for some reason. Possibly because it's a visual medium I can get behind the action scenes being presented first.
 

msstice

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Not quite a flashback, but some published works start with a forward looking statement, where the whole story is perhaps a "flashback". The stories typically start like:

As I hung from the burning rope, and watched the maw of the diamond encrusted dragon snap at my bunny slippers, I thought "Perhaps I should not have asked for the double latte."

So, something like this is guaranteed to get you reading, and ticks all the boxes of an opening line and so on and so forth, but I feel this is a little bit of cheating.

That said, I now do want to finish this story ...
 

Biskit

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Off the top of my head, I would say you need one or both of the following to make it work:

The opening "climax" is not the real thing - there's something more to come when you're done with all the "previously"
The climax is not what it appears to be once it's finally set in context

and then...

The flashback needs to be genuinely interesting/intriguing, with some twists and turns so that there is a high degree of wondering how this could possibly lead to the climax as initially presented.
 

Montero

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Depends on the extent of the flashback to me. I love Rosemary Sutcliffe's books, but was disappointed by Bonnie Dundee as you start with the narrator as an old man and he is writing of events from his teens, and is a writing a defence of his hero, Bonnie Dundee who is long dead. And then you drop back to him as a teenager meeting Bonnie Dundee.
OK it is historical fiction, so the reader might be expected to know what happened (I didn't) but I only read on because it was Rosemary Sutcliffe and I may well not re-read even though I am a keen re-reader.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Water for Elephants does it well- you know the main character survives because he is the older narrator. Having said that, there is a satisfying twist at the end and I do think you need to have that.
 

Steve Harrison

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My almost finished WIP novel does this and I believe it suits the story. I'll see how the novel feels without that opening during editing, but I think it works well at the moment.
 

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As a reader and writer I don't like the device. Indeed as a mater of habit I don't read reviews or even sleeve notes because I live in a linear world and like a linear chronology/ exposition . Now occasionally this can work La Jetée or Twelve Monkeys pull off something very interesting but as a general prospect, no thanks.
 

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You can tell backstory by way of flashbacks and that's fine. Remember that visual arts (movies, TV) are a completely different medium from writing a novel. If you pull it off, all good and well. But I wouldn't recommend it. Anyway you go, good luck with it.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I've read a lot of books with frame stories and flashbacks. The only ones that bother me are the ones that telegraph the action with hints like (cue the portentous music), "if only I had known."

And the use of a frame story and flashbacks does not seem to have hindered the popularity of series like Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles.
 

HareBrain

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Out of interest, has anyone else ever done a Wuthering Heights, which has two nested frame narrators (Lockwood and Nelly) one within the other?

For extreme framing you can't do much better than Shelley's poem Ozymandius, which basically goes "I met someone who said: [rest of poem]".
 

Edoc'sil

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@Teresa Edgerton I think that the reason it works so well in the Kingkiller series is because the nature of the flashbacks is itself a part of the story. The protag himself is telling a story to another character, which creates all kinds of interesting elements, similar to Robin Hobb's Assasains Apprentice. If I remember correctly it also doesn't start at the end and then go into a flashback although maybe I am misremembering.
 

Wayne Mack

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I tend to differentiate between having flashbacks that tell a piece of backstory and having the majority of a story told as a flashback.

So far, the majority of the comments reinforce my initial gut feel and not use the story climax as an opening. Some writers might be able to pull it off, but I am probably not yet one of them. I just need to spend a little more time trying to come up with an appealing opening to the story.
 

Sansmerci

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Hello everyone!

I'm new on the forum (I believe this is my first post here), and I have the same question you have, Wayne.

First of all, since my native language is not English, I just googled the difference between frame story, flashback, and backstory. So, thank you all!
Second, I'm a veteran reader but a noob writer so...

I'm creating something using what you said, I guess...

Something like this (roughly):

I - The story starts 15 days before the end of the world, the main characters just receive "the news" and they are discussing how to deal with that.
II - 2000 years before, when they've first met.
III - Back to present times, 14 days to the end of the world. Some events involving more characters.
IV - 1300 years earlier, giving a backdrop for them.
V - Back to the present, 13 days... some secrets are mentioned, compromising the protagonists...
VI - 500 years earlier, some details about the secret
VII - Back to the present for the last time and now the story goes forward chronologically until the end.

It seems to me that this could create an increasing rhythm, you know?

What do you think, Wayne? And all of you too :)
 

Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
@Teresa Edgerton I think that the reason it works so well in the Kingkiller series is because the nature of the flashbacks is itself a part of the story. The protag himself is telling a story to another character, which creates all kinds of interesting elements, similar to Robin Hobb's Assasains Apprentice. If I remember correctly it also doesn't start at the end and then go into a flashback although maybe I am misremembering.
For me what works in Kingkiller is the question set at the beginning - who is Kote and how did Kvothe become him. That’s it. 2 different characters, but the same, how did they get there. Hook,line and sinker here

But yes it starts with Kote, presented as the end of the story (one day we might know!) and then goes to Kvothe and the extended main story flashback. Each book is one day of Kote’s flashback
 

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