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The flashback as the Story Proper - Suspension of Disbelief

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by T.Allen.Smith, Feb 5, 2016.

  1. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    I'm in a live critique group where a novel I've been submitting has received glowing reviews from 6 out of 7 critique partners. The one person that has issues with the story is a valued contributor with a typically solid and different perspective. He's a film editor, so he often has insights the more writerly crowd doesn't consider. As such, I value his input.

    However, I'm not sure if I'm being defensive toward his latest critique or if he's just wrong, to be blunt. So, without dropping 6k words from the beginning two chapters of the novel, I'll pose it to you as the issue and a following question.

    First, be aware, the novel begins in 3rd person past with a reporter interviewing a recently captured and notorious serial killer. The first chapter is relatively short, about 5 pages. The 2nd chapter continues briefly with the 3rd person reporter's interview and then transitions into the past, which is told in 1st person from the serial killer's perspective. The tale is a recounting of how the killer came to find himself in his present form, a murderer waiting out his last moments on death row. There is also a paranormal element.

    The main issue this critique partner had was the way the 1st person story is being told. The main body of the story is basically one big flashback (1st person) with periodic returns to the present (3rd person) at the beginning of each chapter.

    If you've read Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, you'll have a good idea of what I'm going for. In that story the Chronicler is interviewing a mature Kvothe, but when Kvothe recants the story, he tells it from his 1st person perspective, as he was living out the experiences all over, and in minute detail. The reader then gets to live out those same experiences, as they happen.

    That's the issue this critique partner has...that the flashback scenes, which constitute 90% of the story, are told as if they're being lived in the moment. He contends that it adversely affects his suspension of disbelief because no one could remember every movement a character made or precisely what was said or done 4 decades past. He believes the story should be told as if the MC is simply telling the story to the reporter.

    While I understand that point, I think conveying the story that way would be incredibly boring over the course of a 70k+ novel.

    So my question is this, would a story told this way (assuming the story is engaging and interesting) affect your ability to suspend disbelief?

    Secondly, beside the example given above, can you offer other literary examples where this technique was used to good effect?

    My group meets this Thursday and I want to be prepared for the discussion. I'm hoping you scribes can help me with some more, and varied, perspectives.

    Thank you.
  2. I just had a class about this with Brandon Sanderson. I have to say that is not so much an issue with most readers. They know that no one person can remember the details and they are willing to suspend that disbelief. I wouldn't worry too much about it.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  3. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    As for suspension of disbelief, I don't think that's so much an issue for me. It's fairly easy for me to imagine a killer having memories of the minutest details of past events, although that would depend on the types of details he relates. That's where the danger lies. Is he going to remember how his breath came ragged and, just as he was calming, a puff of smoke (or smog) caused him to cough just once? Is he going to remember how he heard a cat howl/meow just once in the next alley over, while he's looking at a dead body? Maybe if such an event had great, special meaning for him, he would. But random, meaningless events he probably wouldn't remember.

    As for precise words used...well, there's always the issue of unreliable narration in 1st-person accounts. Your critique partner may not realize that that's always an issue with 1st-person narrative in the past tense. Normally, a reader is tricked by 1st-person narrative into not realizing the possibility of an unreliable narration and the fact that all the dialogue (a whole book's worth!) could not possibly have been remembered exactly by the narrator. Using the framing device you've chosen only breaks that spell–somewhat. One way you can work around that, maybe, would be to ensure (if you haven't) that you never suggest that the 1-person bits are exactly how it's being related to the reporter. These are true flashbacks; they are not the interview happening in the present. Or possibly maybe the reporter might ask, "So, she actually said, '______?'" and the interviewee could return with, "Yeah. Or it was something like that." This maybe could point-blank raise the specter of unreliable narration, in order to dismiss the issue.
    T.Allen.Smith and Heliotrope like this.
  4. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Margaret Atwood does the same thing in her book, "Oryx and Crake" as well as the following sequels, "The Year of the Flood" and "MadAddam".... Alternating between present tense and past tense. Come to think of it she also does it in "The Blind Assassin" and it has never bothered me. It never bothered me in The Name of the Wind either.

    FifthView has a really good point though, as far as suspension of belief... In the Name of the Wind I did find it strange how Kvothe was able to describe everything so perfectly... That bothers me. But his perfection bothered me through the whole story.

    (*Edit: HOWEVER, as far as Name of the Wind, I do believe that part of the story is that Kvothe is lying to the chronicler. I think that although he's surely a exceptionally talented man, he was largely surpassed by it's legend (which he's feeding intentionally from the beginning) and now he finds himself unable to match what's expected from a mythic hero. He probably even has lost contact with what was real and what's fake on his narration. So in the case of that story, his ability to recount everything so perfectly is intentional on the part of Rothfuss).

    In Attwoods books the flashbacks are memories, not the character describing something, which makes it more real for me.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2016
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  5. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    I think there is a valid point to the comment, but ultimately suspension of disbelief should win out. The more accurate way to do it would be less interesting without a doubt. But I think most of us would want the more interesting version of the story.

    I can't think of an example right off, but I'm picturing how this would work if it were a movie. The serial killer starts his narration. As he is talking it transitions to the scene(s) he is describing and the story goes on from there. The equivalent of the proposed version would just have the two people sitting in a room, while one literally just tells the story for most of two hours.

    It's abundantly clear to me which of these two takes on the same material would hold my interest. I suspect the ratio of 6 out of 7 accepting it would more or less hold, no matter how many took a look at it.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  6. Erudite

    Erudite Scribe

    In the end, 1/7 isn't bad for audience disengagement. I'd take it as a win and move on.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I wouldn't sweat it. There could be other issues with the execution, but the basic premise is fine.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Not a problem here, either. Conrad did something like it in Lord Jim. As with everything else, it's all in the execution (not in the wrist).

    The objection raised by your critiquer strikes me as absurd. No one can recall everything from yesterday, but that doesn't mean we disbelieve them when they say they had hamburgers last night.
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  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Personally, I have no issue with the way you framed the story.

    To flip this around on the film aspect of this. In film flashbacks it would be highly unusual to have the flashback be a single head shot of a character just sitting there reciting events. The flashback usually fades into the events playing out in front of us. Cause it would be pretty boring if it's just a talking head, which IMHO is a generally no-no in film and books. Not to say it can't and hasn't been done.

    Take a look at the film Goodfellas, narrative voice-over followed by flashback into events. I think that Interview with the Vampire book did the flashback thing like the way you have.

    And to jump off of what FithView said about unreliable narrators, we all have stories about our own lives. What we remember about them isn't always accurate. We tend to fill in details we don't remember, intentionally and unintentionally, with how we though things were. That's part of how things get exaggerated and distorted through successive tellings.

    But then again, there are events in my life that I remember in great detail because they were very significant. Now how accurate those memories are, unless I have film of the memory, who knows.

    If you want to get technical, all stories can be considered flashbacks, so I don't see what the issue is.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2016
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  10. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Sage

    I actually think this would help with my suspension of disbelief. This is probably just a weird foible of mine, but I can't stand first person unless its A) being told from the perspective of a character looking back on the past or B) written in a journal format. Whenever I'm reading first person I always think "how are you telling this story?" Establishing that the narrator is telling the story to someone else makes it more believable to me.

    However, I do agree with what everyone else said, its important to make sure your narrator's attention to details isn't unbelievable. Of course people do embellish stories as they tell them or remember seemingly bizarre little details. I do think it would be helpful if it was made clear to the reader that this is a retelling of events and not necessarily how the events actually happens (even if it is very close).
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  11. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Thanks for the perspectives & the examples, Scribes.
  12. S J Lee

    S J Lee Minstrel

    Its a long book, but I love V Chandra's Sacred Games. The (sub-plot) to the "policeman tracks down a nuke" story is the life story of Ganesh Gaitonde, a criminal boss who commits suicide. The book starts with GG giving away his location to a policeman he secretly likes, and the police come for him. He has already decided to kill himself. He has a brief and sardonic chat with Sartaj over the intercom while the door is knocked down. GG is dead when S comes into the room of the bunker.

    And while S continues the main story, we get wonderful little chapters that tell GG's life story as a rising criminal ,interspersed. the first one siple starts AFTER GG is dead with "Can you hear me Sartaj?..." and then carries on as a flashback. In the final GG flashback 900 pages later, he has the gun to his head just as S is around the corner and thinks "Bas, enough." Check it out!
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think this is a problem. It's a stylistic choice, and that's exactly how most readers will interpret it. This is just what happens in Interview with a Vampire, and it doesn't appear to have been a negative with most readers. In my view, you can make your narrator as attentive to detail, or not, as you normally would when writing a story, without regard to this structural choice.

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