Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers.
In this episode, Kim Kessler and Anne Hawley explore the Power of Past and Present with stories that include dual timelines, onstage events in the present and the past that, together, to create a rich global story arc.
Kim: Today we’re going to be taking a closer look at the flashback form of dual timeline stories. And for that we are going to revisit a story from Season 5, The Girl in the Book.
Anne: So what we see here is a fairly well-constructed story that depends on two different timelines, a present and a past of the same character. The story reveals the past through the present character’s memories, in the form of flashbacks. Both stories, past and present, have complete arcs. They’re tied together by the same protagonist, whose antagonist from the past reappears in her present. The antagonist’s past actions, as we slowly learn, define the protagonist’s whole present.
Kim: Let’s zoom in for a closer look at where the flashbacks to the past show up across the story spine.
In the BH, we have three flashbacks:
- Meets the Antagonist – Alice is enduring one of her parents’ parties and is introduced to Milan. Later Milan barges into her bedroom “on accident” and shows an interest in her writing.
- Antagonist Plays the Hero – Alice is out to dinner with her parents and Milan, her parents argue and Milan interjects a funny anecdote to cut the tension and make Alice smile.
- Antagonist Gains Her Trust – Alice meets Milan for lunch (he asked her to meet him) and he reads her short story, praises her line writing, and tells her she’s a writer.
In the MB, we have nine flashbacks:
- Antagonist Is Invited In – Alice is home alone and calls Milan and asks him for help on her latest story. He sits on her bed to read/edit and she prepares to sit at her desk for reading homework. He asks her to join him on the bed. “Come here, kiddo. Let’s read together.”
- Antagonist Plays the Mentor – A continuation of the same day we saw in the previous flashback. Milan gives Alice feedback on her story, telling her it’s good but needs more concrete details.
- Antagonist Shows Increased Interest – Another continuation of the same day. Now Milan and Alice are out on the balcony and he asks about her day. She tells him about school and he listens intently, assuring her that he wants to hear about it. They make plans for him to come back next Thursday.
- Antagonist Advances & Retreats – Milan convinces Alice to let him read her journal. He holds her close on the bed, kisses her hair, and says “My heart is pounding. I have to get up.” He asks for a kiss first and Alice hesitates but complies. Milan gets up abruptly from the bed as if it’s too much.
- Protagonist is Left Unprotected – Alice’s father learns that Milan has been coming over to help her with her writing. Dad is surprised but rather than be concerned he tells Alice, “You couldn’t have a better mentor. You’re a lucky girl. I expect great things from you.”
- Antagonist Advances & Gaslights – Milan writes Alice a poem and uses it as an excuse to touch her breast. Alice pulls away and deflects to homework. Milan acts put out that the she only thought the poem was “nice” and acts as if nothing else happened.
- Protagonist Rebuffs Antagonist – Alice is hanging out with friends and doesn’t go home to meet Milan as usual, leaving him
- Antagonist Retaliates – At their next session, Milan is harsher than usual with Alice’s edits, scolding her about writing. She apologizes for missing their appointment and he says does this because he believes in her, loves her, etc. Alice tells him she met a boy. He says that’s good. He wants her to be happy.
- Antagonist Exploits in Private – Milan pressures Alice for details about what it was like hooking up with the boy and seduces her into sexual assault.
In the EP, we have two flashbacks, but three scenes:
- Antagonist Rebuffs Protagonist – Alice is at dinner with her parents and Milan again, but this time he brings a date. He ignores Alice when she asks him to pass the rolls.
- Antagonist Exploits in Public – Alice attends Milan’s reading of his new novel with her parents. Milan’s novel blatantly steals from Alice’s own writing, things she told him, and their time together … including the assault. Alice’s mother asks what is wrong and she tells her what happened.
- Protagonist is Powerless – Alice rides home in the limo with Milan and her parents. Her mother confronts the issue. Milan says it’s not true. Alice’s father believes him and says Alice misinterpreted, it’s what she wants to have happened, etc. Her mother questions that but ultimately accepts it. Alice makes them stop the car and runs away.
This makes for a total of 15 flashback scenes that create a pretty solid spine for the story in the past, most likely a Worldview-Disillusionment arc that we see the effects of in the present.
Anne: So the first question to ask yourself before using flashbacks is this: Do the flashbacks form part of a coherent narrative of their own, and does that narrative influence the present story?
If not, maybe you’re just painting a character portrait with random bits of their past.
If that’s what you’re doing, there are almost always better ways to show character than having them remember bits of past history. After all, every character has a past that isn’t in the story–unless you’re talking about Victorian novels like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield. Which we probably aren’t talking about.
In a modern novel, the character’s past history should be reflected implicitly in their wants and needs, their present decisions, actions, and interactions with others.
But supposing that your story really does require a big chunk of past history to make sense or to have narrative drive, there are four questions you need to answer if you’re going to give that past in the form of flashbacks:
- What story purpose is served by revealing a backstory in flashbacks?
- How would the story differ if we simply got the whole backstory in one piece?
- How would the story differ if we simply got that whole download in some kind of present-day exposition?
- How would the story differ if we didn’t get the backstory at all?
I’ll try to answer all four here quickly using The Girl in the Book as my example.
- What story purpose is served by revealing Alice’s backstory in flashbacks?
It’s separated in time from the present by 14 years, and what happened in between isn’t important to the story. Revealing the past story piecemeal slowly solves the mystery of why Alice’s life is such a mess in the present, while playing out the narrative drive of suspense about what really happened in the past.
- How would the story differ if we simply got the whole flashback scene right up front?
If you plugged the whole flashback in as a scene at the beginning, it would act like a prologue. The next thing you’d need would be some marker of the passage of time. In The Girl in the Book, it’s 14 years, so they used two different actresses. In a written story you could simply head the next chapter Fourteen Year Later.
But if we got that whole Past as a prologue, we wouldn’t wonder at all why Alice is so screwed up in the present. We’d already know. That narrative drive of mystery would already be solved, and at the same time, all the suspense of the Past story is gone, too.
What we’d be left with is the rather dreary story of a young woman with trauma from childhood abuse, facing the man we already know was her abuser. There’s no narrative drive left: mystery solved, suspense deflated, and of course we can’t have dramatic irony either, because we know what the protagonist knows. The only sliver of narrative drive is the slight suspense of wondering how she’ll overcome her creative block.
If your prologue is an explanatory appendage set in a different time and place than the main story, the best thing you could do would be to chop it off and distribute its key points in the actual story line. Flashbacks are one way to do that.
But where to put the flashbacks? Here, each one is tied directly to a present scene. Things in Alice’s ordinary life trigger PTSD-style flashbacks, which makes sense for a story about trauma. If I had to guess I’d say that the past story was carefully constructed and fully written, and then present-day scenes were chosen specifically as triggers for Alice to relive key moments.
If your story ISN’T about trauma, then triggering moments might not work so well. Flashbacks in the cinematic sense are memories by definition. What is your POV character remembering and why?
- How would the story differ if we simply got that whole download in some kind of exposition?
I can’t think of a single way to get this in without it being awkward, unnatural, or out of character. Sure, you could use devices that are similar to flashbacks, such as therapy sessions. It’s conceivable that the bones of the character’s backstory could come out in natural-seeming dialogue at key revelatory points in the present story.
An omniscient narrator could tell it, but that’s pretty old fashioned these days. Who knows? It might come back into fashion! But I wouldn’t count on it.
- Finally, How would the story differ if Alice didn’t have this backstory at all?
It seems like a silly question, but there IS a full story here without the backstory. It involves a young woman who for various reasons is depressed and failing and creatively blocked. To some extent, we do empathize with her and hope she’ll find her voice. Even leaving in the part where her boss forces her to entertain this older author, we wouldn’t necessarily need the back story.
But I that would be a hell of a dreary story, with a fairly unempathetic character. You could do it and leave small clues that maybe Alice was sexually abused in childhood, but then her eventual triumph would have less impact, since we’d never really have understood or experiences what she was triumphing over.
It’s the commingling of the past story with the present story at key points that lends narrative drive to them both, and engages the viewer’s empathy.
The Past story in The Girl in the Book is arguably the more compelling of the two, because it’s about an innocent teen being groomed and abused right under the eyes of her parents, by an older man who then abandons her and leaves her traumatized.
On the other hand, the Present story is about a dysfunctional young woman wrestling with writer’s block and trauma. Not a worthless story, but more difficult to empathize with.
But only by weaving the past and present stories together does Alice’s real internal arc work: She has to overcome her beliefs about what happened in the past in order to move forward in the present.
So, two parallel stories that cross at “realistic” PTSD flashback moments, which is legit since it’s a story about trauma and healing.
But what if you’re not telling a story of past trauma? You might use a flashback to explain your protagonist’s difficulty at crisis points in the present, or justify bad climactic decisions.
Kim: One thing that I liked about doing this exercise is seeing how the story in the past created its own arc with BH, MB, EP. It has its own global genre, commandments, all is lost moment, and Core Event. Seeing how those moments align with the parallel moments of the present story is really useful. How they inform one another and give context to the audience.
Anne: The full narrative arc of the two story lines is critical, I think, to using flashbacks like this. Without that, the flashbacks would be just a lazy sprinkling-in of exposition. And there are almost always better ways to do that.
Join the Roundtable Editors next week for another episode in which we’ll all deepen our knowledge of story and level up our craft.