Flying Lesson #3 ~ Pt. 4
Representative and Flashback Scenes: Interruptions and Crutches
Why would I call representative and flashback scenes “exposition” when they are actually scene? The answer is about the risk involved. When you write either one, you face the loss of a reader’s attention which can, and often will, stray to…their phone, their own thoughts, a desire for a cookie, or a million other distractions. And it won’t be the reader’s fault. It will be yours because you stalled the momentum of your story with too many representative or flashback scene.
Ever notice how easy it is to binge watch something on Netflix? Or Amazon Prime? Or Hulu? The writers of those shows are masters of forward moving action. Hours will pass before you wake up to realize you’ve been sucked down the dark hole of their powerful hold on your attention.
We aren’t TV or film writers though. We only have words on a page. So, what are you to do then? How can you hold your reader’s attention fully?
The answer is simple. Whenever you consider writing summary…or representative and flashback scenes…remind yourself of the dangers involved. Post a sign on your desktop to remind yourself, too. But yes, just as the people below ignore the warning posted in plain sight, I suppose you have to accept that you will slip a few times, many times even.
Let’s take a look at Crazy for the Storm again and discuss Ollestad’s use of both representative and flashback. Chapter One offers a perfect example of each.
Re-read this chapter and note your waning attention in order to get a sense of the drag. And drag is the perfect word. Adding representative or flashback scenes can be like tossing an anchor over the side of a fast moving ship.
For this teaching, we will work with the section underlined in yellow above (and I’ve attached this as a PDF too).
Ollestad starts with flashback #1 that acts as a set up for what will be the wrap at the end of this digressive series: He would fold the Racing Form the same way…
Then comes representative scene #1 (which is also flashback #2 inside flashback #1 and “represents” the beginning section of the many trips they made to the track, and is also an establishing of those trips): We’d leave Malibu early…
Representative scene #2 (flashback #3): If there was a long lull in the waves…
Representative scene #3 (flashback #4): Around noon we’d head to Solana Beach…
Representative scene #4 (flashback #5): We’d hide our boards under…
Representative scene #5 (flashback #6): When they came into the ring…
Return to flashback #1 (because this is an individual moment in time): Once a long shot named Scooby Doo…though I would argue this is more of a summary than a scene, but there is movement there and it wraps what was started at the top of the digression which is loaded with enough concrete and specific detail to fit into the scene category as well.
Going back to the example I provided with Blackbird, there is a similar situation in that I use flashback/representative scenes though not with as much efficiency as Ollestad. In 187 words and one long paragraph, he does what took me 340 words and twenty-one paragraphs.
That story is here for your reference and I’ve used the yellow lines once more to mark the representative scenes for you. I counted six total.
I only justify these scenes (and starting my book this way) by my use of the medical report as a “prologue” which I hoped would buy the reader’s attention long enough to wade through a “day-in-the-life” of this watchful child.
Some readers said they were hooked.
Yes, Blackbird was a success. I sold something like half a million books world wide and received letters for years…but the major presses were not kind and my book went down stream like many others.
Will Blackbird remain in the Canon? Will it endure? If it does not endure, will it be due to the those representative scenes I shoved into the beginning?
Let’s return the question of “to include or not to include” representative and flashback scenes. It’s fine to include them, but it’s important to consider the risks and be honest with yourself about why you have used them in your memoir.
One more share on this topic which I hope will add to your bounty of knowledge:
The danger of a flashback…is that it can become a kind of crutch. Scenes are the most powerful way to convey feeling because they are the most direct, the most immediately felt. Summary [exposition] is telling and flashback is an interruption, even if it leads to a scene.
~ On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey
We memoir writers take a lot of slack out there in the world and it is my goal, my hope, my dream, and my commitment here at Flight School to provide you with the tools to become a great writer and to avoid the abuse of agents and critics who blow off your story saying, “Who cares?”
Learn and master the art of scene. Be sparing with your use of flashback and representative scene. And readers will care because you will get and hold their attention.
Doesn’t your lived experience deserve a captive audience? Of course it does.
Okay, that’s it. That’s all I have to say on this topic for now and I thank you for reading and sharing. (Have I mentioned that before? To share? Okay..let me mention it again…share, and subscribe).
~ Jennifer 🍎