I'm currently revising an older project in the hopes of revitalizing it for agent interest. It's made the rounds once before, without much success--a fate I attribute largely to my poor query letter. This time, the letter is going to kick ass and I'm going to be more careful about which agents I go after. It can be done.
The major task of this revision is changing the timeline. Originally, it was written as a series of flashbacks laid out between present-time scenes. I thought it was a nice structural device. However, I got a very thorough critique from a very nice agent (who no longer has the time to offer such extensive readers, sadly) who told me that flashbacks are inherently weak story telling. He said there is no tension in them, because we already know the characters have lived to tell the tale.
Sidenote: The 3 year-old is in charge of the iPod right now, and he's chosen Kings of Leon. My kid is the coolest.
It's an interesting point. We see flashbacks in movies fairly often. In fact there was a movie a few years back that told its story in much the same way that my project did. It was called Definitely, Maybe. Starring the adorable Ryan Reynolds, it told the story of a man's romantic past as his daughter tried to guess which of the names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-innocent women was her mother. Not the greatest piece of cinema ever made, but certainly passable. (did I mention Ryan Reynolds?)
There is also an entire sitcom based on this structure. How I Met Your Mother, which oddly, also features a father relaying the story of his dating youth to his (very bored) children. I happen to love this show, but not because of the structure. It's funny, and that's enough for me. Neil Patrick Harris is a bonus, 'cause, you know, sometimes he sings. And I love that.
All of that being said, the mystery agent is correct: we already know these characters have lived to tell these tales. Does that destroy the mystery, or does it just ease the tension?
As I slog through the middle of these revisions, I find myself wondering if I'm doing it all for naught. Part of the reason romance (or romantic comedy in my case) is popular is that readers know what they're going to get. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. We love it. We want it to happen that way. Do flashbacks mean we're not interested in the details? The details are the very reason we're here.
So, I am at a crossroads and I am confused. To flashback, or not to flashback? I just don't know. At this point, I intend to slog my way through to the end in chronological order, because I've started it, and I'm just stubborn enough to see it through. But will I be happy about it? That remains to be seen.
What are your feelings on flashbacks? Clever structure, or weak storytelling? Your input will mean the world to me.