Monday, January 4, 2010

Mentor Monday: What a Novelist Can Learn from Film

Part 1: Flashbacks

I love movies. I find it easier to get lost in a film than in a book because I tend to edit too much when I’m reading. Still, films always make me think of writing.

I recently watched two movies that brought to mind writing topics. I’ll start with one today and finish up the next one tomorrow.

Will Smith and Rosario Dawson do a fabulous job in the film, Seven Pounds. Smith plays a man who feels responsible for his wife’s accidental death and decides he must make up for his error. I won’t discuss the rest of the plot in case some of you reading this have not seen the movie.

The story is told in flashbacks. Unfortunately, they are very disjointed flashbacks. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through a film and wondering what it’s about. Then, if we’re lucky, it all comes together at the end. While the story-line sort of made sense at the end of Seven Pounds, I still sat there wondering why the film editor, or the director, or both, decided to tell the story in this particular way. In my mind, flashbacks should add to a story, not detract from it. Unfortunately, in this case, the flashbacks were not only distracting, I felt that they gave me very little information to help me build on my understanding of Smith’s character and the motives for his decision to “make up” for his wife’s death. I didn’t feel any particular connection between the protagonist and his wife. Yes, they were married. Yes, they loved each other. Every human being loses people they love but why does Smith’s character go into this great despondency? What is it about his personality that makes him go to such extremes? The movie never answered those questions for me and I think the flashback sequences were partly to blame.

As writers for children, we must be especially careful of how we use flashbacks to tell our stories. Connie Epstein, in her book The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft, gives the following example:

“Under any circumstances, the time transitions of flashbacks, from the present to the past and back again, require a great deal of skill to manage smoothly. When writing for children, they become even more of a problem as readers will have had less experience following narrative that jumps around in time. I still remember Jean Lee Latham’s telling the audience in her Newbery Medal acceptance speech for Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, …that she had given the manuscript to a neighboring child to read, asking her to identify the boring parts….the passages she had listed for Latham were without exception flashbacks that apparently were difficult to follow.”

I think the end of this quote sums up my problem with Seven Pounds. Flashbacks should build on the plot, or on our understanding of the protagonist, and on each other. These flashbacks did neither. As writers we need to use flashbacks carefully. They are supposed to aid in our story telling.

Children can get easily confused by the over-use or poor use of flashbacks. Lee Wyndham, in her book Writing for Children and Teenagers, says the child reader “… is far more interested in what is happening now and in what is going to happen next than in what occurred last summer, or last year, or ten years ago. The necessary flashback must be worked into the story line imperceptibly, so that the reader is in and out of it—and properly informed—without being aware of the literary maneuver.”

Novels often need flashbacks to inform the reader, in a concise way, why the protagonist is acting in a certain manner in the current story. As the writer, you know all the facts, all the back story, all the pertinent details but sometimes that knowledge becomes a drawback. If you decide to use flashbacks to help your reader learn some of this additional information, get a fellow writer to critique your work in progress. Find out if your use of flashbacks is helping or hindering your story. You just may need to start your story elsewhere and tell it in a more sequential way.


Diane Mayr said...

Another reason why I don't write novels--flashbacks!

Barbara said...

Great advice, Mur. Lee Wyndham's book was the first writing book I ever bought and it's the one I refer back to most. A great book for all writers!