So there’s a comment by a reader of King of Thorns on Goodreads that says:
*flips through pages* is this whole effing book a flashback? Seriously?
And it appears that he then stopped reading and gave up on the book.
That’s a pretty extreme reaction but there’s an element of this response in a number of the reviews – typically saying that they don’t normally like flashbacks but this particular book won them over, often grudgingly. The proof of that winning over being evident here:
What interests me are the thought processes behind the response.
Question: Do we entertain any serious doubt that the sole first person narrator of a trilogy of books is going to die in book 2? It’s rare to kill a point-of-view character in any book, let alone a first person point-of-view character, let alone the only point-of-view character. Sure George Martin with his many point-of-view character epics does occasionally, to great shock and awe, off one of his herd. But no. Jorg was always going to survive into book 3. C’mon.
The tension in such books is never ‘will the character survive’ but ‘will they succeed’.
So with that out of the way, we can focus on what this special magic about ‘now’ is that somehow reduces any part of the story that is not happening NOW to unimportant interruptions.
Sure people talk about wanting to get back to what’s happening now. But how is that any different to wanting to get back to the Tyrion thread in a GRRM book when you’re reading a Sansa thread (or vice versa, depending on your tastes)? The ‘interruptions’, the ‘wanting to get back’, those are all part and parcel of having multiple threads. As soon as you have more than one thread in a book people will have favourites and in the extreme they’ll view one or more of those threads as obstructions to their main interest. Multiple threads do however offer many advantages that generally outweigh these possible drawbacks.
So I return to this oft-professed disdain for ‘backstory’, for anything that’s not happening NOW. There is no ‘now’ in storyland. Generally all the threads whether it be multi-characters or different time threads, will be written in the past tense. The book will wait for you, is waiting for you, has waited for you, was written. There’s no now, no immediacy other than that created by the author. So how does titling one thread ‘four years earlier’ rob it of importance?
Yes you can have flashbacks where the character is riding along or whatever and reminisces on some past exploit – but what I do in King of Thorns isn’t that (although there are examples of flashback as well). I have distinct clearly labelled threads. One ‘now’ one ‘four years earlier'. If Jorg has a struggle in the ‘four years earlier’ thread it isn’t somehow less important than the one in the ‘now’ thread is it? Unless you actually thought he might die in the ‘now’ thread?
Flashback and backstory are emotive words from a writing standpoint. Flashback has overtones of interrupting some ongoing action. Backstory has overtones of exposition, of lecturing you on boring history. But if the earlier period is a separate thread constituting half or more of the book ... that’s an entirely different matter.
I really liked the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. My favourite part of the whole thing was in book 4 of 7 when the hero, Roland, sits down and tells a story from his youth, decades before. For a couple of hundred pages we spend our time with the teenage Roland. There’s zero chance that he dies. But the story is engrossing, exciting, full of tension, and brilliant. It’s not backstory. It’s not flashback. It’s STORY and it’s not ‘now’ but neither is the next bit when Roland stops telling the story, gets up and walks on.
So to conclude – it's a phenomenon I'm interested in, both from the point of view of what causes it and in order to figure out how to avoid the upset without losing access to a powerful technique,