Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Way Back Machine

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.

- Liz


Kristan said...

Mmm, the reason Definitely Maybe and HIMYM work is that the flashbacks are giving you clues about the mystery. Life & Death isn't the issue -- it's WHO IS IT? Who is Ryan Reynolds' baby mama and who is the love of his life? Who does the narrator in HIMYM end up getting with? That's the mystery, and the flashbacks are what help us solve it.

IF your book does that -- uses the flashbacks to solve the mystery -- then maybe the agent's feedback isn't so valid. But then again, "flashback" is kind of a bad word in the literary community, so many that's just not something you can surmount right here, right now. Hollywood is a totally different story, you know?

Liz Czukas said...

True, Kristan.

That's one vote for linear storytelling.

Anyone else?

Kate said...

I don't think that flashbacks are necessarily weak storytelling. I think it depends on the audience you're going for. I think you're right about the genre thing. If you read a romantic comedy, you pretty much know what you're going in for. It's unlikely that the main character is going to burst into flames. What kind of comedy is that?
Plus, there are different types of flashbacks. I mean, there are flashbacks that lead to the end of a story, and flashbacks that lead to the middle of a story. What I mean is that if Definitely, Maybe had flashbacks to tell the story, then the girl found out who her mother was and that's the end of the story, it's not very exciting. But since there is more that comes after, it gets more interesting. There are plenty of stories that start with some intense scene, someone on the verge of death, someone in the middle of a fight, and you as the reader immediately wonder, "How on earth did this happen? How did this person get here?" which is a very good lead in for flashbacks.
Take Titanic, for example. It's one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and the first thing you find out (if you didn't already know) is that the boat sank, and that Rose lived. That's en enormous giveaway. The director could have just as easily not told it as flashbacks, and had us not know whether Rose would be safe, but he chose not to.
One more point to make, before I electronically speak everyone's ears off, is one of the most popular plays of all time: Romeo and Juliet. While not told as a series of flashbacks, they still tell you, on the first page, that the characters die. That is, if you're well versed enough in Shakespearean sonnets to decipher the poem. Everyone knows that the characters die, anyway. Yet it's still read by millions of people.
Anyway, that's my two cents. But what do I know, I'm still in college ;). Speaking of which, one of my professors, who is a Young Adult novelist published many times over, thinks flashbacks are a perfectly legitimate way of storytelling.

Katy said...

This is a timely post for me. I just completely revised my manuscript from a before/after (similar to flashbacks) format to chronological. Originally, I thought the flashback (before) chapters were brilliant because they showed my couple during the building of their relationship, during much happier times. I thought it would be a relief from the more intense stuff that comes later.

But, after many read throughs and lots of advice from my very amazing critique partner and a few betas, I decided that the before chapters were taking away from the tension of the main conflict, much like you mentioned in your post.

I think it all depends on the plot. Flashbacks can be incredibly powerful if done well, like in Thirteen Reasons Why. Can you imagine if that story started with Hannah's first negative experience and went chronoligically through to the end? It would have never worked!

Good luck with your revisions. You sound like me... too stubborn to give up!

Liz Czukas said...

Wow, ask and ye shall receive. Fascinating input from all. Thank you so much for all the great things to think about.

I guess I'm going to have to try it both ways and see which one sings.

You guys are amazing!

- Liz

Kate said...

Oh! I forgot to mention that I'm your cousin, Katie. Jean's daughter. I realized that my screen name didn't say.

Liz Czukas said...

Katie! Oh my God! Thanks for coming back to tell me, that's so awesome! I'm really glad you came by, and you had great stuff to say on top of that. Come back anytime.

Eleven Eleven said...

You already know what I think, but I'll say it again anyway because I love to post here, and also (shamelessly) love to hear myself talk.

I agree with that angel of an agent, but for entirely different reasons. Your flashbacks were awesome and had all the right details for your genre. It was the present scene failed to grab my interest, maybe because it was cut up, maybe because half the back story hadn't been told yet. Whatever it was, I'm all for the straightforward time line. It's gonna rock.