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The Case Against Flashback

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I’ve been thinking, this week, about daydreaming and fiction.  A recent article in The Atlantic estimates that people may daydream through nearly half their waking hours. That seems like a lot to me, but I readily admit to my mind “wandering” during weddings, funerals, classical-music concerts, long drives, and the line at the DMV. The relationship between dreaming — the REM sort as well as the daydream — is one that writers have evoked many times, from John Gardner’s notion of fiction as “a vivid and uninterrupted dream” to Freud’s assertion that “every child at play behaves like a creative writer.”

This claim, that fiction is like dreaming, and mental wanderings are fertile material for fiction, may be one reason that the first three student stories to land on my desk this fall comprised flashbacks. In each of them, as in so many student narratives, both fiction and nonfiction, the protagonist is sitting somewhere — often in a psychiatrist’s office, or at a funeral, or in a car. Sometimes they are standing on the bridge from which they plan to plummet to their doom. Their mind wanders; the screen goes wavy, like a pond into which a stone has been dropped; and we are back in the insane asylum, or in the kitchen with an evil parent, or at the frat party where it all began. We get the backstory that explains the protagonist’s anorexia, psychosis, homicidal tendencies, or unrequited love, and then we are back in the psychiatrist’s office, at the funeral, on the bridge.

I once read a review of a novel that began by noting that the first chapter contained no fewer than 10 flashbacks. Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else who read that review was tempted to run out and buy the book. Why? Because narrative moves forward. Because we want to know what happens next, not what happened before we entered the picture. Because even if daydreaming is a big part of everyone’s experience, what we’re doing when we’re daydreaming is … thinking. Our thoughts may be fascinating; the fact that we are thinking them rarely is.

I have pondered the flashback for many years. So many apprentice writers, and so few published works, rely on it. The term, as far as I can tell, became popular after the advent of cinema. Its references, in the Oxford English Dictionary, begin with references to film. And in films, when a character thinks back to an important scene or moment, the camera cuts away and then homes in on the prior scene, rendering it as vividly and “presently” as the rest of the action in the movie.

Not so in literature, where the mediating consciousness of the daydreamer remains the filter by which we reach back into the past. But literature has methods and effects that film lacks. Take Chekhov’s famous story, “The Lady With the Dog,” where on the first page we begin at a resort where “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.” Gurov, whose point of view controls the narrative, notices this woman, meets her in the public gardens, and reflects that the absence of her husband makes her ripe for his attentions. Then we read:

He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school. He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant. … He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago.

We’re getting the backdrop to Gurov’s interest in the new lady and probably a few of his actual thoughts as well. No flashback required, because the story’s in third person, past tense. That is, the narrative can move in and out of present action according to the art and craft of the author without relying on the device of Gurov’s “wandering” mind.

Or take a first-person, present-tense example, like Junot Diaz’s “Drown,” where the protagonist has taken his mother to the mall with a lot else on his mind:

I wander through the stores, staying in sight of the cashiers so they won’t have reason to follow me. The circuit I make has not changed since my looting days. Bookstore, record store, comic-book shop, Macy’s. Me and Beto used to steal like mad from these places, two, three hundred dollars of shit in an outing. Our system was simple — we walked into a store with a shopping bag and came out loaded. Back then security wasn’t tight. The only trick was in the exit. We stopped right at the entrance of the store and checked out some worthless piece of junk to stop people from getting suspicious. What do you think? we asked each other. Would she like it?

Is the protagonist thinking about his days with Beto? No doubt. But we don’t need the drift of mind pointed out. We don’t need the screen to go wavy, or for Beto to enter the story like a ghost brought back to life. We can move fluidly from the mall circuit to the looting days; and in Diaz’s story, never even return to mom at the mall but move on to the protagonist’s evenings — “Nights I drink with Alex and Danny. The Malibou Bar is no good”—without breaking away from or altering the speaker’s consciousness.

Our minds are fantastically complex. Rarely do we “drift off” to the point where we reinhabit the past at the expense of the present. Driving on that long trip, we may relive some childhood experience, but we also hear the news on the radio and exit the interstate where Google Maps instructs us. Flashback serves its best purpose when the reader is hungering, almost desperate, for a glimpse of the past, as in Charles D’Ambrosio’s story “The Point,” where a preternaturally poised adolescent boy walks his mother’s drunken friends home night after night, and only at the very end — where he can see, as it were, the whites of our eyes — does D’Ambrosio deliver to us the catastrophic scene from the past that explains everything about this boy and why he acts as he does.

Beginning writers use flashback because it’s safe, in terms of craft. What drama there is has already taken place. You don’t need to deal with the terrifying prospect of moving time forward, of enacting on paper the unpredictable combustion of cause, free will, and consequence. But that’s where the action is, where we step off the ledge of thinking and into the dangerous air of the dream.

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