Monday, August 29, 2011

Nesting ... Flashbacks or Not?

First of all, Happy, Happy Birthday to Scott this past Saturday! Yay! Scott is currently hiding away on vacation celebrating this fantastic event. Go, Scott!

I'm currently reading a book that nests several stories together - so, you know, a story within a story within a story. It's quite interesting and at times a little unnerving for me because I keep getting on edge about what's happening in the other stories. The author, however, has done a good job of keeping me informed, so I'm never too uncomfortable for any long amount of time.

I was wondering if you've done this in your own writing, or how you feel about it in books you read? I know we're all told the Golden Rule of Flashbacks is to simply avoid them, but I kicked that guideline out the window a long time ago. My novel, Monarch, which found a publisher despite it's huge "flashback" sections, contains a story within a story - I think. They could possibly be flashbacks, but in my mind they're more like those Russian dolls where you've got the big one and then one smaller inside. As writers, I suppose we could take this idea as far as we want to go. The movie Inception played with this idea on a very literal level, and I really liked that about it

Part of great storytelling, for me, is to take your reader to a place where they'll follow that story no matter where it goes because they trust the writer. That trust can be built on many different things which require posts of their own, but I think one of those things is a stable story structure. Most readers expect certain structures, but even a nesting structure can be stable. My thought about that, though, is that the nesting shouldn't feel like flashbacks. Flashbacks, for me, are pieces of back story given only to fill in huge gaps in the existing storyline. Nested stories (even ones that happen in the past) are different because they supplement the framework story and can even help move it forward on a level nothing else could touch.

Those are my nested thoughts for today. How do you feel about nesting story structures in the books you read and/or write?


  1. Patrick Rothfuss does the best nesting structures I've ever seen. His plots are so carefully planned and elegantly written that I never feel like I'm missing out on anything.

  2. My hubby loves Patrick Rothfuss's work! We have both his novels so far. I need to read them. :)

  3. Any technique is acceptable to me, so long as the story is CLEAR.

    Nested stories (flashbacks) should also be immediately (or soonly) satisfying. I read a Koontz book, I forget which one, that used a constantly recurring serial dream sequence to play back the grown man's childhood nightmare. The flashback was broken into 3-5pp snips that spanned the entire book.

    None of the snips were satisfying. It was like Koontz offered a drink, only to pour it in your lap, laugh, and start a new chapter.

    I found his snippage of the sequence as irritating as sand in my eyes, and somewhat rude.

    I eventually scanned through the book, read all the sequences (which were italicized and easy to find), and only then could I finish the book.

    If he had pasted the entire sequence in the first third of the book, it would not have hampered the story.

    I do believe it was the last Koontz book I read, too, and I used to read a lot of them.

    So the point is this -- don't drag out your flashbacks! Say your piece, and each flashback should be satisfying same as any other chapter or scene.

    - Eric

  4. I love the idea of a story with a story, and used it extensively in STORY FOR A SHIPWRIGHT. I took a real leap with that, hoping my reader would see the stories through to the end to see just why the heck I bothered putting them in. I agree that it's a matter of trust.

    A couple of my W'sIP use flashbacks, and so I'm still trying to navigate my way through making those transitions. I read MONARCH with even more interest when I came upon the flashbacks. They were clean and never left me wondering about that transitional line between past and present. Sure love it if you elaborated on more of the transitional devices available to writers...

  5. I think the main difference between flashbacks and nested stories is duration. To me, flashbacks are short, but a nested story is more drawn out, preferably with a full arc.

    A flashback may be repeated-going back repeatedly to that one dream, for example-where a nested story may be revisited, but the content keeps moving forward.

    INCEPTION used both flashbacks and nested stories. I look at the multi-layered dreams as the nested stories, but Dom's history with Mol was told as in flashback(s).

    INCEPTION made good use of the "kicks"...the special occurrences that trigger the ascent / descent into the different story (i.e. dream) levels. That's something to pay close attention to if you are crafting a story with nested elements, so the shift from one to the other makes sense in regard to the plot.

    The other thing to be aware of if the pacing. Too long a break between segments and you may have trouble bringing the reader back into one of the levels, or the reader may forget key details. To quick a transition and the reader may not have a chance to really dig into any of the story lines and may be detached from the book as a whole.

  6. I like stories within a story as long as they actually relate to each other. Sometimes I'll trust an author to connect things before the story is over and they don't then I just feel disapointed. The other thing that bothers me about nesting/flashbacks is when they are used to spruce up a boring stretch of the main plot or convey background information that doesn't actually add anything by being fully dramatized. When that happens I get the feeling the writer felt their original draft had too much exposition and wanted to speed things up without really rethinking anything.

  7. I have given thought to flashbacks and the advice to avoid them, but I have not considered "nested" stories.

    In my current project, an apocalypse occurred that destroyed an alien civilization. What that civilization had been, and how its legacy defines the life of the survivors' descendants, is an important facet of the story. A series of reveals binds the aliens living in the forest to the long gone civilization of this alien world, but our hero does not understand that connection: the disparate pieces of technology used by the primitive people living in the mountains confuse him as he ponders from where they had acquired the items.

    When our hero discovers a destroyed city, a city that had been a marvel of a highly advanced technological civilization, he begins to understand. Having an understanding of the past allows the ongoing reveals to tighten the link between today's events and those of the past. Our hero begins to understand the people living in the mountains. He now sees how they have tried to maintain their culture, knowledge, history, and technology, wanting someday to rebuild their world. Reveals explore the culture and technology of the past civilization, but we still have not had any true flashbacks.

    The first pseudo-flashback is in a scene called "Last Stand" where our hero finds the location of a great battle where the peoples of this world had made their last stand against invading aliens. While the Dragon had not seen this battle, he tells our hero how he interprets what had happened based upon his own experiences fighting the Invaders on other worlds. While this narrative confers information that helps our hero to understand past events, this scene is really just a set up for a later scene that is a true flashback.

    The true flashback is in a scene called "Last Newscast," where our hero and his companions find a video recording of the breaking news broadcast of the alien invasion. The recording is the flashback. The video shows scenes from around the world of the invasion just as the Dragon had described. News feeds graphically show the Invaders destroying everything and everyone. Gradually, communications from around the world are lost, and then one last blast hits the news studio. The 3-D television image shows debris and the news anchor's body parts and blood flying through the screen into everyone's faces. In the quiet after the screen goes blank, one of the companions says, "The End of the World."

    Before this scene, the reader had learned that the same apocalypse that had devastated this world is coming to Earth. Now the reader knows exactly what will happen to Earth if our hero fails.

    I believe this is a wonderful use of a flashback, although using the video recording trope as a mechanism to achieve the flashback may seem a little cliché. For me, designing this sequence was one of the most exciting tasks I undertook in creating my story. I believe the "Last Newscast" scene will be one of the most dramatic moments in the movie made from my book. I cannot wait to see it.

  8. I end up using flashbacks a lot. (I call them flashbacks. Other people don't.) For me as a writer, I feel the need to make each segment of flashback revealing, or at least partially revealing, in a way that is satisfying. Each piece has to provide something new, even if it's not everything. As a reader, though, it does go back to trust. If I trust the writer I'm reading, I am much more willing to put up with flashbacks/nested stories. I trust that she or he will hold my interest even if I'm momentarily left empty-handed in the middle of a transition.

  9. In my first (and so far only) book, I had three stories that nested.

    A young girl tells herself stories to deal with her grim situation in life and eventually, her fictional heroine informs her decision-making in the real world at a critical moment.

    I think those stories qualify as nesters. :)

    Angela Carter's retellings of fairy tales are kind of nesters. There is her retelling nesting inside the original story and all around it is the tension between the two. I can't think of anyone else who nested stories the way she did.

    That's interesting to think about. Thanks, Michelle!

  10. My editor is grumpy with me because I'm using flashbacks. She finally told me that I need to outline both story lines as well as make sure there are clear triggers within the main story line that bring about the flashback.

    I'm usually not a fan of flashbacks unless they move the main story along and don't feel like they're holding you back. Oh and they need to be short. Very short. As in no more than a page, IMHO.

  11. I don't believe in hard-fast rules when it come to writing. I think anything can work, as long as the author executes it well. Isn't that what creates writing trends and "innovations" so many times in writing?

    In general, for me flashbacks should either be short enough for the reader keep in mind that they are flashbacks, or so long that they are no longer flashbacks but become their own parallel story (ala Water For Elephants.)

  12. Eric: I agree that they must be satisfying. Gratuitous extra stupid flashbacks = no good. :)

    Bridget: You definitely did in this SHIPWRIGHT. I remember. I think you did an excellent job, too. Yours wasn't so much nested as two side-by-side stories, in my opinion. Absolutely essential and feeding off each other in a beautiful way. Glad you liked the jungle scenes! Can you believe I took those out of the book at one point? For shame!

    Rick: I like how you explain that flashbacks can remain stagnant. That's a good point, especially your example with INCEPTION. We do need "kicks" to signal our reader back to where we are. Great comment, thank you!

    Taryn: Yes, I've read stories before where things don't connect at the end and I wonder why I wasted my time. I think the worst point to put a big huge flashback or nested story into a book is in the middle when things start to get boring for the writer (and then the reader, hah).

    Lester: It's fun to see how you've used this, and I'd say you're leaning more toward flashbacks than nested stories, but I can't know for sure. I like Rick Daley's description of how nested stories move forward and have a definite plot while flashbacks simply fill in gaps and are pretty much stagnant.Done well, both can work beautifully in a story.

    Davin: I've always enjoyed your flashbacks, but like in ROOSTER, I think you've got more nested stories going on because they (which you can call them flashbacks if you wish, of course) always have a definite plot and sense of moving forward and revelation more than a stagnant flashback. I always liked Scott's way of describing "framework stories", which I need to go look up again. See, to me, in CINDERS, the brief italicized sections with her and Kale are flashbacks, but in MONARCH, the long drawn-out story of the jungle is a nested story.

    Cynthia: Oh, I like your idea of the girl telling herself stories. That sounds fascinating!

    Christauna: Yes, flashbacks need to be short, yes, but nested stories, no. I think they're very different things. If your flashbacks aren't really flashback and are nested stories instead, you should explain that to your editor. She has a good point about outlining them separately to make they're following each other. I'm not a fan of bad flashbacks, but I sure do like them when they're well-done. When that's the case, I don't even notice they are flashbacks.

    Lynette: I don't believe in hard-fast rules either. To me, as I make very clear on my blog, I think the only rule in fiction is imagination. Everything else comes with practice and experience to make it all work. I think "parallel story" is another word for nested story. I need to read that book. :)

  13. Nesting is for birds and computer programmers. I'm a man and I keep things simple for simple people like me. ;)

  14. I feel free to do whatever I like with the timeline in my novels, and the longer I'm at this writing thing, the more often and the more easily I find myself moving back and forth through the story's chronology. As long as there is some sort of forward momentum to the narrative moment, I don't think about things like "Is this a flashback?" or "Can my reader follow this?" I don't write for readers who need a lot of authorial hand-holding. I don't think flashbacks or nested stories have any sort of built-in length requirements; as I say, as long as the narrative is still moving, the author is doing his job.

  15. Michelle,

    They're just about the perfect genre fiction -- entertaining, but with lots of stylistic and literary heft. Here's a snippet from The Wise Man's Fear:

    The innkeeper drew the beer and handed it over silently. Graham drank half of it off in a long swallow. His eyes were red around the edges. "Bad business last night," he said without making eye contact, then took another drink.

    Kote nodded.
    Bad business last night. Change are, that would be all Graham had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life. These folk knew all about death. They killed their own livestock. They died from fevers, falls, or brokwn bones gone sour. Death was like an unpleasant neighbor. You didn't talk about him for fear he might hear you and decide to pay a visit.

    Except for stories, of course. Tales of poisoned kings and duels and old wars were fine. They dressed death in foreign clothes and sent him far from your door. A chimney fire or the croup-cough were terrifying. But Giebea's trial or the siege of Enfast, those were different. They were like prayers, like charms muttered late at night when you were walking alone in the dark. Stories were like ha'penny amulets you bought from a peddler, just in case.


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