331 – Flashbacks and Interludes
You may have heard us say “nothing good happens in an interlude,” but why are we so fond of saying that? What does an interlude actually do to a story, and how does that relate to flashbacks? There are times when flashbacks are appropriate, but are interludes ever a good idea? Spoilers: the answer is no, but this week we explain why!
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Oren:Welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren:So today we’re talking about flashbacks and interludes, but before we do that I’m going to have to ask you to go listen to an entirely different podcast for, I don’t know, three or four minutes, maybe five at the outside, and you know, they’re talking about something else, it’s not related to this, but you should go listen to that and then come back and hope you can remember what we’re talking about.
Chris:It’s like method reading. [Wes laughs]
Oren:You have to get into the headspace of the interlude.
Wes:Well without that flashback podcast, how are you going to understand this podcast?
Oren:Oh yeah. I wanted to talk about flashbacks and interludes because they are bad and I don’t like them and I wish people would stop. Which is a little unfair, because flashbacks are only mostly bad, but interludes are all bad.
Chris:Yeah they’re not really on the same level of bad, but certainly flashbacks can cause trouble.
Oren:In my experience with my clients at least – I haven’t actually noticed this too much in published works – but I have noticed that a lot of my clients way overuse flashbacks. And I think part of that is simply because so many visual media stories use flashbacks very heavily, because they have limited tools at their disposal to tell you information that you need to know. Very often that means they need to do a flashback to communicate what happened, because their only other option is for the characters to discuss it in dialogue, which can get really out of hand sometimes.
Chris:If you’re ever tired of exposition and wish all exposition would go away, just remember that movies suffer because they don’t have the ability to do exposition other than in dialogue, which just sounds very very bad. [Laughs]
Their ways of conveying information are typically not very subtle.
Oren:Yeah and for the most part for a story, flashbacks are just a very extreme way to deliver information. And usually you want them to be filling some other purpose. If all you need to do is tell your reader something, it’s usually best to work that in through some other exposition, because you have a narrative and if that information isn’t interesting, if it’s boring, then putting it in a flashback isn’t actually going to help.
Chris:Well I would say that giving information is actually a huge category. Information could be anything. So when we’re looking at a flashback and whether it’s justified to do one, it’s really about what information it’s giving and what role that is playing in the story.
There is lots of information that doesn’t justify a flashback, but does justify exposition. And we can talk about that more. But I would just say there’s a huge difference between information that’s like a huge twist that changes the trajectory of the story going forward, and information that is just supplemental and gives you a little bit more background on what’s happening.
Oren:I’m also a fan of if you’re going to flashback, I like setting up situations where a flashback is something that the character didn’t know, like they had some repressed memory or some kind of magical block that was keeping them from knowing something or what have you. That’s not the only way to do a good flashback, but it certainly makes the flashback more interesting, because it becomes immersive, right? Because you are learning things as the character is learning them, which is one of the issues of flashbacks; very often the flashback is showing you something that the character already knows.
Chris, you mentioned some situations under which flashbacks make sense, and I would actually be very interested to hear those. [Laughs]
Chris:Yeah, okay. First, as you said, if the character has amnesia or has repressed memories, it can justify a flashback if those memories are plot critical. For instance if you have a memory that reveals who the villain is, right, that’s usually really important information. If the villain — assuming the villain is, you know, not just some guy but somebody you know. And if there’s a history with this mysterious villain that the character doesn’t understand, because they have amnesia, right? Then you could potentially have a flashback that fills in the identity of the villain and puts multiple pieces together.
The difference is that the story going forward is different. That’s the problem with flashbacks, it’s that because they are not linear they are taking the reader out of the timeline, by default something that is back in time doesn’t really have an effect on future events because, okay, if you started your story in plot spot A, the flashback already happened by that time. So we already know it can’t change all of the things that we’ve already seen. So we need a big reveal for it to not change the parts we’ve already seen BUT still change the parts that are yet to come, if that makes sense.
And the problem is that usually flashbacks are not moving the story forward in any way, and so they are just boring by default. It’s probably the best link to something that we call movement in a story, which is the sense that the story is making progress towards a conclusion. And whenever readers get a sense that whatever is happening isn’t actually moving the story towards its conclusion, it just feels boring, right? It feels like everything has stopped and is in standstill and by default that’s how a flashback is. So you have to establish why the information you’re conveying is going to have a dramatic impact on what happens in the future that the reader has not seen yet — that is actually relevant to the story at hand.
It doesn’t have to be amnesia if you have some sort of magical flashback device that allows your viewpoint character to see past events that don’t involve them. Something that works a little bit more broadly. So if they have a magic power that lets them see critical moments of the past, that reveals information that dramatically impacts the future of the story — then that can work too.
The problem is that too many writers want their dramatic reveal, they’re thinking in movie or TV show mode, where you never know quite exactly what’s happening inside the protagonist’s head. Even so, even movies and TV shows are guilty of hiding too much of what the protagonist knows, right — they also do that.
It has other bad effects, but one of the reasons why writers are so fond of it is because they get their stories from a visual media where you’re not seeing inside the protagonist’s head as much.
Oren:And I would also say that in a lot of cases, when there is an instinct to do a flashback to fill in some dramatic history, very often you don’t need to go that extreme. Like for example, if you have a character who has come face to face with the person who killed their partner in the backstory, like they want revenge on this person or they’re scared of them because this person gunned down their beloved mentor in cold blood or whatever — there would be a temptation to be like, ah NOW I’m going to have flashback scene to this guy shooting the mentor. But you don’t actually need a full scene for that. What you need is to put the reader in the character’s head, describe the memory of the gun, of the flash, of the mentor falling. That doesn’t require a full scene, right. You focus on the important details. And that’s just way more efficient and doesn’t slow the story down the way that a full flashback would.
Chris:Yeah you can create a lot of emotional power through the right exposition. Again, doesn’t mean you’re doing a whole dump, it’s about how much page space you’re taking up with this information. And if it’s something where you’re filling in backstory so that things are emotionally meaningful, it doesn’t usually justify a full scene; it justifies filling in a little information here and there via exposition. Now, granted, if you wanted to go into a very brief moment that was in real time, but was super short, like only a couple of paragraphs, that might be okay if you managed to do that.
It’s really about, does the purpose it serves in the story justify the amount of words and page space that it is taking up. It has to be really important to the plot to justify a full scene.
Oren:Alright, so flashbacks: Occasionally useful, not as often as authors think, but still occasionally.
But now: Interludes: Literally never good.
Oren:I can not think of a scenario… Like, for interludes, how do I make them not bad? It’s make them less like interludes.
Wes:Don’t have them?
Oren:That’s all I’ve got! I haven’t got anything else. Even for other things that we don’t recommend, I can usually think of tiny, niche scenarios. This one’s just like… no. The very concept is what’s flawed.
Wes:I enjoy how flawed this one is because by its definition it doesn’t work. Right? It’s meant to interrupt. Like it says, it’s an interruptive pause. And I’m like, okay, that made sense when you went to the opera for like eight hours and you needed a break. So they’d have an interlude where, hey, something’s going to be on to entertain you while everybody else goes to the bathroom. Then we’ll be right back. [Laughter]
We can all take breaks when we want with our books and our TV shows.
Chris:You can put the book down and take your interlude whenever you want to! [Laughs]
Wes:Yeah! You can have your own personal… [laughs]
Oren:Okay, I’m prepared to concede that in these three hour movies I wouldn’t mind a ten-minute interlude in the middle, so that I could go use the bathroom. But honestly, that’s just… what I really wanted is an intermission, and at that point if you put in the intermission, I wouldn’t really mind if there was something else going on during the intermission that I didn’t have to stay for.
Chris:If we had an intermission and like a short film played during the intermission, and everybody has told you ‘you don’t need to watch that short film, it’s just to entertain people who stay in the theater while everybody else goes and gets snacks and goes to the bathroom’.
Oren:Yeah this is for people who bought extra snacks and have powerful bladders. [Laughter]
But in a BOOK. Why would you want to pause the story to go look at something else? Even if that other thing is interesting, why isn’t it part of the story then? Like, the best case scenario is you might end up with a situation where the interlude is more interesting than the story and you have at that point much deeper problems.
And much more likely, what’s going to happen is that it’s just going to be kind of distracting, and if anyone was interested in the story, now it’s going to be like, well, hang on, we gotta wait for this interlude to be done. And in my experience, interludes usually happen when authors want the reader to know something that is important, but they haven’t positioned their protagonist properly. So either the protagonist has no way to know about this thing, or it’s not important to the protagonist but it might be important later, and authors think that it’s clever to tell you about this thing way ahead of time, when in reality it’s not.
A Memory Called Empire does this where we’re constantly cutting away from the main character and her political intrigue to tell us about these Cthulhu aliens that have been discovered. The Cthulhu aliens have nothing to do with the protagonist’s story, they affect nothing, except at the very end of where her station calls her, and is like, “Oh hey, there’s Cthulhu aliens, tell the emperor.”
And that’s just random. Knowing about it from the interludes didn’t make it less random, it was just as annoying.
Wes:And in that case you get a sense that it was sequel foreshadowing. And if that’s important, and if it is a sequel, then the events in this book should relate somehow, so integrate it better. A big part of that political conflict was different actors vying for the role of the emperor, and it’s like… well, one of them was a military general who could’ve been sounding the alarm about these Cthulhu space aliens and how the current emperor is doing nothing, not even acknowledging their existence. Or you know, whatever. It could have been his platform is what I’m saying.
Oren:Right, or you could have had Mahit, the main character, be in a situation to find out about these aliens if they’re important. This is often a case of I didn’t position my protagonist correctly, and so authors think that solution is, okay, I’lll just break the story for a minute to tell you about this.
But no, the solution is to reposition your protagonist so they have a reason to know these things, and like, a reason to care about them.
Wes:And it’s important to note here that this is definitely an interlude because Mahit is THE viewpoint character. If you have multiple viewpoint characters, I mean, do you have, I guess you could still have interludes if it’s a character that doesn’t do anything related to anything, but it’s a bigger problem in a story that has a single viewpoint character.
Chris:Definitely a fine line between an unrelated viewpoint and just an interlude, like for instance, in Wanderers, we have these gross interludes where we get to watch this guy die from a fungal disease. And technically it does have some relevance on the rest of the plot that comes together in much the same way that somebody would do an unrelated viewpoint for. But the problem here is that the story is not consolidated enough; that it has disparate pieces that are not interacting with each other. And that’s why people reach for unrelated viewpoints and why they reach for interludes in a lot of cases. And the answer is, instead, again, to just reposition all of your pieces so that the elements of your story are better integrated with each other. Because that makes for better entertainment.
Oren:Yeah and you know, multiple POVs can be used in a way that is effective. It’s, again, harder than most authors think and not as good an idea as most authors think. But it is at least on some level viable. There are stories that make multiple points of view work, but not interludes.
Chris:Right. But by the time usually that a writer labels something an interlude, it’s because it’s just so far cut off from the rest of the story that it is just clearly in ‘this should have been cut’ territory.
Wes:And it’s especially funny in Wanderers, because it would have been so easy for the characters to learn about this fungus plague that was happening, right? The author made an intentional choice to have them not learn about the fungus plague.
Chris:Because then they might be able to do something about the plot and we can’t have that.
Oren:Yeah I kind of wonder if that’s what it is because I mean yeah that’s the biggest problem with Wanderers; the protagonists are basically held in stasis while things happen around them. And spoilers, I guess, it’s all because of Black Swan, the super candied AI God.
Oren:Yeah the puppeteer. So the characters can’t actually do anything, so we have to deny them even information that might be useful to them. But to, I guess, let us know that this is an apocalyptic story we’ll do occasional interludes to the guy dying of a fungus. Maybe the author thought it would be cathartic for us to watch the head of Fake Disney die of a fungus disease?
Chris:I just don’t need my catharsis to last that long.
Wes:Just a quick catharsis, that’s it.
Oren:It was also weird because, like, real Disney also existed in that story. And I was like, I don’t see how these two companies can coexist, but whatever, moving on. [Laughter]
Wes:Light Brigade, another book we covered had interludes as well. With Dietz being interrogated, it’s like interrogator’s notes, or we are listening to the interlude as a recording, a transcript of the interviews that Dietz was having. There weren’t that many, but they were weird, and I am still not sure what the point was other than when Dietz finds herself in the interrogation room at the end.
Chris:The point was Kameron Hurley could not resist the temptation to just write an essay via dialogue.
Chris:Look, I know that you can actually write good essays online [Laughter] You’ve done it before. If you want to write an essay why don’t you just go write an essay?
Oren:It’s weird, because it’s not like the message of Light Brigade is unclear without that section.
Chris:Right! Can you just rephrase that in the form of story, please?
Oren:Like, it’s OK! I can tell this is an anti-fascist, anti-corporate novel, just from the actual story. I don’t need this interlude where we talk to an interrogator and talk about how nazis are bad. That is very clear from the story.
Chris:But that was… again, a flash forward like that (which it basically was), it could work in a story that has flash forwards happening and show the character in two different places in time. It would be very complex and difficult. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the average writer do it, but it’s, you could make that work, but this was not that, it was just we’re going to have the character talk a lot. That’s pretty much all it was.
As an example, again, something that is far too difficult, that most of us should not be attempting, but shows you what is theoretically possible — is the movie Memento that moves backwards in time. That specifically works, again because each time you move backwards in time it completely recontextualises what you’ve already seen. So even though you actually know what happens in the future, the meaning of what happens in the future changes every time. So it’s like every jump backwards is an important plot reveal, throughout the entire movie.
I can not imagine how challenging that thing was to write.
Oren:Yeah, I don’t even know how I would do that in a book. [All laugh]
Chris:But you can see there, it gives you a sense of like the theoretical limitations of flashbacks, as far as being entertaining, right? They can be, but the problem is, again, in most cases writers want to use them to fill in, like, emotional context. And that’s just not plot critical enough to justify that much space.
Oren:The Light Brigade is just a perfect example of one of the ways this can go wrong because, unlike a lot of the stories we’re talking about, I really like The Light Brigade. I thought it was one of the best books, if not the best book written that year. I thought it should have won the Hugo, but it was less enjoyable because I kept getting pulled away from the part of the story that I really liked, which was Dietz and her weird unstuck in time journey, to this interrogation room that I had no context for, where characters were talking about things I didn’t understand, when it wasn’t just like, let me tell you about my theories on fascism. And I was just like, please can this just be over? Can I skip these parts?
If I’d been reading a physical book or an Ebook, like a text book I might have, but I couldn’t because I was listening to an audio book and these things are hard to skip in audio. But I might have, if I’d had the option.
And you know, the authors think that, oh well it will totally be worth it when the two things come together at the end. And you know, that does sort of happen in this story. And it happened in A Memory Called Empire and it happened in Wanderers. I’m here to tell you it’s not worth it. You can get that woahhh reveal in ways other than breaking your story apart every once in a while.
Chris:And going back to consolidation and the idea of having lots of backstory and flashbacks, in some cases, if you feel the need to fill in lots of backstory via flashbacks, looking for ways that the story can start earlier is actually a good idea. Now, granted I’m not saying just keep the timeline exactly the same and start it earlier; you need plot in the early portions too. But there are some stories, and Light Brigade is one of them, that could have started earlier because ‘the blink’ is a big deal and ‘the blink’ has already happened when the story starts. It feels like that is part of the main story there.
Another book I’m reading right now, Plus One, it has a consolidation issue where we have lots of breaks to fill in backstory to establish the protagonist’s relationship with her brother who sort of left, and she feels abandoned by him. And her relationship with her grandfather who raised her and you know, all these people, to sort of set up why she’s in the situation she’s in. That happens because she reunites with her brother later and we want to set up that emotional context, but it’s to the point where it feels like this plot should have simply started when her brother was still with her, right, and gotten going.
And considering that he’s a rebel who is involved in the external plot events, it doesn’t feel like it would have been hard to get the plot going when he was still around and then have her leave and have her get angry with him. So that we actually had time with them together instead of, you know, spending so much time trying to fill in all of that emotional context.
Oren:Yeah, another one that I see a lot of is interludes that are news articles or, nowadays, if you’re very clever, a social media post. Which are basically just designed to give you setting information.
Chris:Which the Wanderer also has! [Laughter]
Oren:Yeah the Wanderer does that a lot, but most of that wasn’t even stuff we needed to know. It was just like, hey, remember that Facebook exists. And yeah, I get that you really want to date this story, sure. But, a more reasonable version of that is The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which isn’t as obnoxious, but still has a lot of interludes to news articles talking about what’s happening in the setting. The reason why I would recommend against doing that is you have one of two possibilities. Either this is stuff that the audience needs to know, in which case there’s a good chance they’ll just forget it because it doesn’t seem important, right? You haven’t given them a reason to want to remember it.
Or, it’s not important, they don’t need to know, in which case you’re just delaying your story for no reason. If it’s important for the audience to know, you have to give them a reason to remember, you have to make it part of the plot. Then they will want to remember it.
I was listening to the book Magician Apprentice, and at the end there was like this note from the author about how this was a revised version, where he had put back in a bunch of really boring stuff that his editor convinced him to cut out. Back when he was a new writer and didn’t have the clout to ignore his editor. And to his credit he was more polite about this than some authors are. He at least acknowledged that his editor probably made the right call at the time, but was still, you know, I’m going to put this back in because it’s my version of the story.
One of the things he referred to specifically was this long conversation between these two wizards – one of them is technically a priest, but the priests in this setting are also wizards – where they have this looong chat about magic and the backstory of the magic. And I remember sitting there being like, this is really long. What’s going on here? According to this author’s note, that was all stuff to set up for the sequels. And it’s like… well, I hope you don’t expect me to remember any of that. If we get to the sequels and you act like I’m supposed to know that stuff, we’re going to have a problem. [Laughs]
Chris:It’s also worth mentioning that readers do have a higher tolerance when a book starts, for introducing new things that they haven’t heard of before. Now you can only take this so far. There are sometimes you could introduce things that feel like huge parts of the setting that they really should have heard about in the last book, but nonetheless, they expect, you know, a new antagonist to appear and all those other things.
In many of these cases it’s okay to wait until the second book when it’s clearly relevant. Again, some people read books in a row, sometimes people wait between books. You don’t know how long ago they read the first book. So in many of these cases it’s okay to wait. If you do foreshadowing in book #1 for book #2, you’re going to have to repeat it probably anyway.
Wes:Wracking my brain for an interlude that I’ve liked, and… I think this only works because of how he did it, but… it’s a Neil Gaiman short story, A Study in Emerald, which is his take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story A Study in Scarlet, but Cthulhu. And if you were to read that just top to bottom it would be boring, but you’d see the interludes I’m talking about and they’re like, advertisements for Henry Jekyll’s potions and other kinds of things like that.
When it was published it was laid out as a newspaper, like a gazette. So the text is all in two columns and these little interlude pieces are at the start and end of each chapter. When I say chapter, it’s a short story, but I really liked those because at a glance I knew exactly what it was. And it didn’t take anything away from me. It was just a quick advert that I could skip over if I wanted to or come back to later, and it didn’t have any bearing on the story. It was world flavour.
But it took, like, a second to look at and then I could move on, and I kind of appreciate it. I knew at a glance what it was and I didn’t have to focus on it, which was nice, because if it’s just text I feel pressured to read it. Images, I think, are kind of helpful in that respect if you want something, I guess. Not all of us, I certainly can’t draw, at all.
Chris:It sounds like in that case it lended credibility to the epistolary format, so it made it feel – again that’s one of the reasons you would want to do epistolary narration, because it feels credible, because it has that resemblance to documentation. If these little adverts made it look more like a newspaper they would sorta add value.
It’s like when you have a journal and you put the dates below. People know the dates are just there to make it look like a journal, and they should be able to just skip over them [Laughs]. Generally.
Oren:Or it serves a role similar to an illustration at the start of a chapter. I feel like that would be hard to translate into audio though. I could be wrong, I haven’t actually seen the story you’re talking about, but I feel like if you tried to read those advertisements in an audio story it would be, uh, not great.
Wes:You would have no context. It would be just talking about Spring Heel Jack’s shoes and you’d be like, what? Who is this Jack? And what is it with these Spring Heel shoes?
Oren:If I was adapting that to audio, I would probably leave those out. Kind of like if you’re adapting a story to audio, you don’t try to describe the map at the start of the big epic fantasy novel.
Wes:Have you experienced that?
Oren:What, try to describe the map? No, thankfully.
Wes:Oh thank – I was wondering which book you tried to listen to where they did that!
Oren:The closest I’ve ever come to that is stories where people insist that the proper way to read this story is to stop reading the story and go check the lexicon at the back whenever you’re confused. Which is, you know, not a thing you can do in an audio story. And not a thing I would ever do in a novel. If someone told me that that was the way to read the novel, I would burn it. [All laugh] Like how dare you! How dare you disrespect my time like that!
Chris:This isn’t a nove,l it’s homework.
Oren:Alright, well now that we’ve ended this on book burning I think this a good place to end this. [Laughter]
Chris:We’ve gotta end it here before it escalates further! [Laughter]
Oren:Before we go I’m going to thank a few of our patreons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek, next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer, and a connoisseur of Marvel, and finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com
We’ll talk to you next week.[Ad]
Spend your next free evening trapped on a ship with a supernatural menace, trying to recover your lost memories. And bring your friends. It’s all in our standalone RPG, The Voyage, for sale on Mythcreants.com[Outro song]