Dan Brown–how NOT to write flashbacks

I usually like Dan Brown, but in the case of The Lost Symbol, I feel he has lost his way a little.  There is still an intricate plot, action, and puzzle solving—the sort of octane excitement you’d expect from a Dan Brown novel–but I feel he has lost his footing just a little bit.  For example, I’m on chapter 98, and I have counted 13 flashbacks so far, and two of those were very, very long flashbacks detailing the main antagonist’s history.  There were four flashbacks in the first fifteen chapters alone.

Let’s first differentiate between exposition and flashbacks.  Exposition is telling us something about the character’s past whereas a flashback dramatizes the past.  Writers usually use flashbacks to deepen characterization or to provide an understanding of the plot that can’t be done any other way.  But be careful—using flashbacks can become a crutch, something they lean on to convey information, instead of intelligently thinking through the problem of how else to get the info across in a smarter , if not compelling, way.  Too much of one thing is never good, especially in writing.  But there is a right way to employ flashbacks and a wrong way to use them.  And sometimes, they’re not needed at all.  They can usually be excised from the story and not change the plot one little bit.

                             The past

So, what’s so wrong about flashbacks?  If used in moderation, nothing.  But the inherent problem with flashbacks is they effectively put the brakes on the story.  Readers are interested in what is happening now and not what has happened in the past.    Mr. Brown, take note:  readers are far more interested in seeing how your protagonists are going to solve the next puzzle and not how your antagonist came to be the monster he is via some pretty lengthy flashbacks or how your female lead learned to adjust to the blackened interior of her work environment.  Anything extraneous that is not conducive to the plot is just doing lip service to yourself.

Show, don’t tell, is often a piece of advice that is misunderstood and actually incorrect, if I’m being honest.  You can, and should, do both.  You can’t obviously tell everything because then  your story will lack substance, drama, and excitement.  But you can’t show everything, either (which is what some amateur writers claim you must do all the time), or you end up with a 639 page novel, as in the case of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.  To be fair, he didn’t show everything.  But I think that some flashbacks could’ve been trimmed.

When there comes a time when you feel as if a flashback is needed, I have compiled a few rules to help guide you, my young Jedi.

DON’T OVERUSE THEM

This seems obvious, but nobody seemed to explain that to Mr. Brown.  Why?  Probably because he’s Dan Brown.  But it doesn’t make him right.  Too many flashbacks can halt the momentum of your story and grind it to a screeching halt as you focus on the past.  Shouldn’t the focus be on the present, on the story that is happening now?  Here’s an example of how not to use flashbacks:  don’t give them to minor characters.  For example, Dan Brown gave a flashback to an inconsequential character who dies relatively early.  Really?  Was the history of how she came to accept her job really necessary?  Only choose your flashbacks if they deepen the plot, and this understanding of how this bright woman was approached to be Katherine Solomon’s metasystems analysist ultimately has no impact on anything that happens.  Yeah, it might deepen her character, but then she dies.  So, what’s the point?

Another flashback had Katherine Solomon’s first exposure to this big open space that is pitch black with an illuminated walkway that leads to her lab in the back.  Dan Brown provided this scene to supposedly show her reaction to how cold and dark it is, an alien environment that most of us will never experience.  But when the killer comes for her, the scene is set in the same location, so couldn’t the information have been filtered in then?  Cut, cut, cut, trim, trim, trim.  Kill your babies, Mr. Brown.

ENTRANCES AND EXITS

Always make sure to bookend your flashback, creating a transition entrance into the flashback and a transition exit out of the flashback so readers don’t get confused by the sudden time shift.  I don’t remember getting confused reading The Lost Symbol, so Dan Brown must have handled the transitions like a pro.  Don’t just have the flashback happen suddenly.  Make sure you signal to the readers that you’re entering a different point in life of one of the characters.  Phrases like “he remembered…” or “Five years ago…” would be good transition entrances.  A piece of dialogue breaking the trance of the remembered daydream or a sound that jogs her from her reverie would be a good transition exit.

NATURAL, BABY

Make the flashback happen naturally.  Think about real life; you don’t just go about your day without a care in the world, la de da, and then BAM! you’re hit with a flashback.  No, usually something reminds you, maybe an item or a piece of clothing or passing by the laundromat where you used to work as a kid—a place you hated because the boss was a jerk and now he’s engaged to your mom.  Give a reason why the character is reliving the past, and don’t just have it spring into existence from no discernible source of inspiration.

A TIME AND A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING

Believe it or not, there is a time to use flashbacks and a time to not use them.  Here are a couple of tips of when not to use them.

  • Don’t use them to start your book or even within the first couple of chapters. The idea is to hook your readers, and you can’t do that with a story that has already happened.  When you order a steak dinner at a fancy restaurant, the side dish is nice, but what you really want is the steak, right?  That’s the good stuff, the reason why you ordered the strip steak in the first place.  And when the dinner comes, you will most likely take a few bites out of the succulent meat before doing anything else.  People buy the book for the main story, not the flashbacks, not the side stories.  So, don’t make them wait.  Give them steak, not a side of corn.  Dan Brown’s prologue was a flashback, but that didn’t bother me because prologues have their own set of rules, something I might get into in a later post.  But then he starts his first chapter with a daydream, an event from Robert Langdon’s past.  I just groaned.  Well, when you’re Dan Brown, I guess you can do whatever you want.
  • Don’t have a flashback in the middle of an action scene. That wouldn’t make sense, right?  You’d effectively kill any momentum and stall the story.

I’m still going to finish Dan Brown’s novel and write up a review on it.  I need to know what happens.  I love reading.  And the average reader probably won’t notice what I’m noticing.  But here’s what I noticed when I was reading The Lost Symbol.  In some parts, I was bored because I just wanted the story to resume.  And that doesn’t come down to having a critical eye.  No, it has to do with emotion, and on that level, I am very much like the average reader.  I want to be entertained.  And too many flashbacks in the wrong places can have the opposite effect of exciting readers by deepening characterization.  They can cause readers to put the book down in frustration or throw the book at the cat, depending on their temperament or whether the cat happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this week’s blog.  Am I right regarding flashbacks?  Am I wrong?  Weigh in on the comments.  Don’t be shy.  I want to hear from readers and writers alike.  See you next week!

 

2 thoughts on “Dan Brown–how NOT to write flashbacks

  1. Personally, I’ve decided to avoid flashbacks in my writing, Patrick. I think a timeline is a better option. If something happened earlier in the characters life, show it when it happened. Date it. When you move forward, date that chapter. The reader will not be confused if they know you’ve moved ahead for that many months or years. I recently finished a book that kept flipping scenes from present (even though it was historical) to flashback, and even combined the scene with a flashback, bringing the reader back to the present by some action that interrupted the flashback. It was confusing to say the least. I’m going to stick with a time line.

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