Flashbacks as opening gambit

Dear Miss Snark,

As always, I heart you and KY (more so this week for taking a stand against tantrum throwing scam agents - I hope KY hasn't gotten a sore throat from yapping back).

I'll keep this brief: are flashbacks in openings of novels one of those things you wish we'd stop doing, like dream sequences and narrators looking in the mirror to describe themselves? I searched the snarkives but didn't find anything.

Thanks so much.

I hate prologues, flashbacks, dream sequence openings, and anything akin to "it was a dark and stormy night". Yuck yuck yuck. Start the damn thing with someone being eaten by a crocodile and you're much more likely to hold my attention. Well, ok, the crocodile is negotiable, but I really want some sort of literary toothsomeness in those first pages.

Here's the secret scoop: hold on to that prologue or whatever until someone asks to read the full novel. When you're querying, send the opening chapter. That prologue or flashback won't have any significance unless you're reading the entire book anyway so why risk shooting yourself in the foot.

There is no law that says you have can't change the chapter order any old time you want. It's your book.

For an example of how a flashback in the first chapter REALLY works well read Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper and you have to read the ENTIRE book to see how clever and crafty that first chapter is (which isn't exactly a hardship, I liked that book a lot).

and PS Thanks again to Miss Adventure for those indexed Snarkives.


rpl said...

What if somebody gets eaten by a crocodile in the prologue?

Julia said...

what if the crocodile eats the prologue?

Nick said...

My prologue is done in first-person... and he gets lobotomized at the end of it.

Quooquoo said...

That's funny, 'cause being eaten by an alligator does come up in my manuscript! Hee, hee! (And I have a great children's lit agent who tells me alligators are hot right now, so we'll see!)

Simon Haynes said...

What if it looks like a pro-logue but it's really a crocodile keeping very very still?

Micki Woodham said...

Dear Miss Snark,

I agree in general about flashbacks and I hate long prologues. But--yes, there is always a but--in the memoir I am writing, the flashback is the present, full of drama and a strong hook. Without it, the first chapter, the past, would read as another, Please Don't Eat the Daisies." I am afraid it would not be a compelling enough beginning to grab the reader. Any thoughts on this?

Thanks for reading this,
Micki Woodham


E. Dashwood said...

Tolstoy: "I love Pushkin. He gets right into the action," which he does himself in War and Peace. Even though it's a minor character visiting another minor character, they set in motion events and tensions that run thorough the whole opus.

In Anna Karenin, he violates the action rule with a one sentence prologue that encapsulates the truth about families and which ones are worth 800 pages.

December Quinn said...

I'm in the minority. I like prologues. I don't write them because I know they're not well received, but I do like reading them.

Epilogues, too. :-)

Dhewco said...

My prologue is essential for enjoying the book. A boy protag is treated roughly by his 'father' (that's what the pro thinks he is)and given to a man who ejects him with nanites that keep him 12 (long explanation inserted here, lol). Without the prologue, you'd think the second man had some sort of sexual motive. But the prologue gives the reader the correct interpretation..it has political motivation. (long explanation here) I've had beta readers tell me that without the pro...they wouldn't have read past the first chapters. So my prologue is an essential part of the story.

Dhewco said...

PS. The Prologue starts with the protag's mother's murder by the 'father', so it's pretty active.

Anonymous said...

I just finished My Sister's Keeper today, and that was DEFINITELY a case where the flashback works. It left my head spinning, but in a very good way.