Flashbacks and Prologues

by Bryan
(Wyoming)

Question: I have always heard these are not very well liked. And i never understood why. Personally i enjoy a good prologue (one that isn't just a 50 page info dump.) And I find flashbacks to be a fun way of doing a reveal or hint about something important.


For my questions, one why are they so looked down upon?

And two how would one go about writing a flash back? The story is in 3rd person mostly told inside the head of my main character. In the story she became a "minion" for lack of a better word of my main villain. Kind of becoming his enforcer/assassin. But when the time came he killed her (or thought he did.)

Now I'm trying to slowly reveal what her goal is and why. So far in two chapters (three if you count the prologue, but that's more about her meeting said villain.) She has stated that her goal is vengeance but hasn't said who she wants to kill. So at this point the reader has an idea that he is the villain but nothing confirmed.

They also don't know 100% what her relationship to the villain is. Only that she met him, and most of filth in the galaxy is scared of him.

Now i plan to reveal that relationship and what lead to her wanting revenge with flashbacks and dialog throughout the first act. (Her goal of act one is to find one of the villains other minions who has fallen out of favor)

Here is an example of the first flashback
--

The bubbling of the river water lulled her into an awakening dream. She was lying on her back in wavy grass. The smell of burning bodies and battle lingered--

Anger welled from deep within her body and her hand gripped at the scar. Spurts of pain shot through her skin as the cloth dug into the tissue.

--She choked on blood as dark in color as her own hair. She watched the shuttle lift into the air as she gasped for breath. She closed her eyes, she was dying and nothing was going to save her.
--
Is that an alright way to do it? I plan to use similar methods through out the action and character/world building. The thing that worries me is that if i send this into an agent they will reject me based on the fact that i used a prologue and a flashbacks. (As for the example above, now that i have that i plan to expand it to show her emotional state and the feelings of betrayal and what not too)

Answer: Regarding prologues and flashbacks, it is true that many people frown upon them. However, you can point to any number of successful novels that employ these techniques.

In fact, name any "rule" about writing and you can find successful books where that rule has been broken.

Truthfully, a good book is not simply one that doesn't break any rules. A good book is so strong in certain aspects that it can get away with breaking the rules. The important thing is to build the strengths first.

That said... I believe the reason these techniques are frowned on is because they take the focus away from the main character and his/her present dilemma. Prologues usually present the first event (either the inciting incident or first signpost) of the overall story throughline. Often they describe something that happens before the main character becomes involved with the story goal.

It is generally felt that you hook the reader better if you start with the main character and get the reader to fall in love with him/her on the first page by presenting the MC's internal conflict, unique abilities, critical flaw, etc.

I confess I find this a rather cynical way of looking at books. It assumes that people make snap judgements about a story without giving it a chance to woo them properly. It's as though we're speed dating novels rather than taking the time to get to know them. Truth is, some great books require taking a little time with. Unfortunately, the reality for agents and editors is that they simply don't have time to read more than a page or two of a manuscript before deciding whether to pass on it.

Given this need to start with the MC throughline, writers then have a problem of knowing where to insert the start of the overall throughline. Sometimes important events do occur before the MC gets involved. Flashbacks are one way of getting this important background material into the book, but again, some people dislike them because they disrupt the flow of the story, sometimes creating frustration.

In the example you give, I assume this is a flashback to an earlier event the MC's life? An alternative would be to simply start the story earlier in her timeline.

I'm not sure why you want to hide her goal from the reader. Usually, it's more interesting for the reader to journey with the MC as he/she solves a mystery than to be watching the MC from a distance and trying to solve the mystery of why the MC is acting the way she is. The purpose of a MC is to give the reader someone they can pretend to be, someone who's shoes they can stand in. Being kept in the dark about the MC can prevent that kind of intimacy. You may get away with it if you make the MC such an intriguing character that the reader is willing to keep reading to find out why she's doing what she's doing, but it's harder.

An alternative that is sometimes done is to start the story just before the climax (creating that mystery as to what's going on, and using this future event in place of a prologue) and then quickly jump back in time to the start of the story, so we can fall in love with the MC at the beginning of his/her journey. Most of the book then tells the events that led up to that first scene.

The bottom line is that, no matter how you do it, you want to create enough intimacy between the reader and the main character to keep the reader reading. If you can do that and use flashbacks and a prologue, no problem. It's just more challenging.

Comments for Flashbacks and Prologues

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Mar 25, 2013
Thanks the tips
by: Brayn

In the first act they know her goal is to find someone. As that overall storyline goal is hopefully the mystery that keeps the reader going.

In the first chapter i hinted that she wants revenge but never specify who its on. Once i finish the first act i will have to post it some where for a crit and see if i made it work or not. On the bright side it wouldn't be hard to fix if its not working.

Hopefully through these flashbacks it becomes clear that the villain is the villain and then after that the mystery is replaced by figuring out what he is up to.

Thanks for the help. I will have to think about all that. I thought about using the climax as a prologue (i have seen a number story based video games do the same) but I'm not sure if i want that part of the story set in stone yet. Maybe once i get that far i can decide if i want to do it that way or not.

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