Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Flashbacks, dreams sequences, tangents. For the most part, these are things that authors should avoid -- or so we are told -- because they stop the flow of the story. They pull readers out of the action, divert our attention elsewhere. And when they're over, we find ourselves lost, adrift, searching for a trail of breadcrumbs to lead us back home.

But what about when they work?

A couple of my favorite books feature stories within stories -- otherwise known as back story, or tangents. Maybe they weren't strictly necessary, but for me, these “extras” really enriched the larger narrative. And they illustrated that, like all rules, this one can be broken as long as it is broken well.

Eclipse (Twilight, #3) The Host Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)

In Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer shares the story of a brave Quileute woman who sacrificed her own life in order to save those she cared about. Not only is this tale compelling in and of itself, but it also parallels a decision that Bella makes in the heat of the battle between Edward and Victoria.

In The Host, Meyer again digresses for several pages, when Wanda hosts a “storytime” of some of the most exciting and unique memories of her past lives. Each anecdote fascinated me with its originality, and I found myself not caring that the main story had been put on pause. In fact, like Wanda's audience, I wanted to hear more.

In Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor spends several chapters explaining what led up to the incredible heartbreak that Karou and Akiva now face. I think she gets away with this in part because it happens so late in the book -- over three quarters of the way through. But honestly, I could've spent a lifetime in Elsewhere with Madrigal and Brimstone. Reading their history was like finding a diamond inside a bar of gold.

So tell me: do you like stories within stories (or flashbacks or dream sequences)? Why or why not? Which ones stick out in your mind?


PS: Interestingly, in the world of capital L literary fiction, these sort of techniques are not as frowned upon. In fact, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a work in that genre that didn't include at least one of these elements. I wonder why the rule doesn't apply to them... Perhaps because commercial fiction (which includes most of YA) is “supposed” to be fast-paced and un-put-down-able?


P.E. said...

I like them so I'm confused as to why they're not as wanted.

I can't really think of another example other than in the seventh Harry Potter movie when they showed the story of the 3 brothers who tricked death. That was extremely well done and though it wasn't part of the story, it was relevant and still interesting.

Sometimes it's too much and the story seems more rooted in the past than in the future. That's the only time I won't like it. A story within a story popping up now and then seems like a good idea to me.

iLuvReadingTooMuch said...

I kinda do like them, but when they don't work, it does kinda make me feel like skipping the pages and going on with the original story.

Great post on this. and Totally agree with Eclipse's story. It worked very well into it, because it related to Bella and her dilemma. :D

Small Review said...

I LOVE stories within stories. I'm not so much into dream sequences (I like things more concrete), but flashbacks and legends and other types of stories within stories are the best. They're often my favorite part of the book.

To me, they make the fictional world seem more real. A world that has lore and mythology that is as developed as the mythology of our own world is that much more tangible. It also can add so much more depth to a character--Stephanie Meyer's descriptions of each vampire's history in Eclipse was the highlight of the book for me.

I also really like when the whole book is set up as a story within a story. This happens a lot in Gothic stories, where the narrator is telling the tale to an unsuspecting character or where the main character discovers letters or journals from the past chronicling some Big Event. It's a wonderful way to spin out a mystery.

We Heart YA said...

At least from a writing point of view, people tend to think of flashbacks and dream sequences and tangents as roadblocks, detours, things that interrupt the reader as they are moving through the story. But from a reading point of view, that's the question I was asking. Does it really stop you or bother you? Or is it fine?

I'm glad to hear that you and several others don't mind it at all!

So it sounds like you don't dislike a book for having a digression, that you might skip it? That's fair.

@Small Review-
My thoughts exactly! Except I hadn't thought about the Gothic stories, but you're right. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Ashley @ Book Labyrinth said...

I do like them to an extent, but I think they can detract from the story. The massively long flashback in 'Daughter...' actually really bored me. I know it was important for the overall story, but I just wanted to get back to Karou.

I like the example about the 3 brothers story in HP. In the book it was interesting because of how it fit the mythology, and the way they did it in the movie? So gorgeous.

We Heart YA said...

Yep, a lot of people felt the same way as you did about the DOSAB flashback. I think it's hit or miss.

And YES, the HP movies did a great job with the 3 brothers story. It was immensely cool.

kaye (paper reader) said...

I like them and I don't like them. In a 800 or so page Robert Jordan book where there's tons of description already, a 40 page cutscene almost throws me off and makes me forget what's going on with the larger storyline. (Although there are specific people whose stories are largely relevant and are fascinating - these I want more of.)

In DOSAB Brimstone was my favorite character. I love Karou, Zuzana, Akiva - but Brimstone was written in such a way with little hints here and there about his past that it left me wanting to know more. And then that scene came and it was fabulous. I loved his POV. It's almost all the possibilities in the absence of a narrative for him that makes me so intrigued and him so interesting.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is a tough call. I loved the back stories in Deathly Hallows, but sometimes it just goes on and on and you find yourself skipping ahead. When they work, they're great. I loved Eclipse.

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