One of the the issues with Heart Scarab, the second Taking Shield novel, is that it isn’t entirely linear.
Joss, Bennet’s older, long term lover, makes his entrance in a long flashback in chapters three and four. I won’t give away the plot, but he’s just back from a night on the tiles to be greeted with unwelcome news. The flashback takes the reader back more than eight years, to when Joss is teaching a seventeen-year-old Bennet about life and love. And, of course, mummification. 🙂
I’ve weighed all the pros and cons about using flashbacks. I know that they can be a distraction from the story ‘time flow’ and there are decisions to be made about leaving the characters dangling while we take a look at the past. And yes, they can lack immediacy because it’s old stuff, already done and dusted, and the readers know the characters as they are now—will they care about what the characters were like and what they were doing eight years previously? Will I confuse the reader, jumping about in time like this? Will they end up thinking I’m just dicking about to be clever? And can I pull it off so it *works*?
But I also think the benefits can be enormous. A flashback, done well, can take us into a character’s past in real time, rather than trying to deliver important back story through boring blah blah blah exposition that has your reader glazing over. A flashback can add tension to the narrative and real depth to the characters. It can make the readers attitude to them change, get them more and better invested.
So while I seriously considered ditching the chapter, it’s an important look at their relationship as it was (passionate and vital) compared to the relationship as it is now (fragile and crumbling). As a bonus, it also contains one of the lines I love the most in the entire story. But it’s long enough that I split it into two chapters of several little scenes in which Joss remembers the past. Joss’s other big chapter, later in the story, is another retrospective one, where he’s marrying up the past and the present.
Indeed, that’s Joss’s function in this story. He’s the mechanism for the reader to find out about Bennet’s first (and long lasting) love, the one that sets his second great love into context. And while Joss is about the past and has a share in the present, it’s Flynn that represents the future. So this is an important, can’t-really-be-ditched couple of chapters that put Flynn into context in Bennet’s life. By seeing the depth of Bennet’s love for Joss, the reader realises what he’s sacrificed for what he can get of Flynn.
For that reason, I’m sticking with at least trying to keep the flashbacks. So, how to write them in a way that’s coherent, that flows well, but which is clearly back in the past and not in the story’s linear time? Without writing clunky subtitles “Flashback” or “Eight Years Earlier…”
The first thing I’ve done is keep the non-linearity. The story just wouldn’t work by starting with the flashback. It’s too retrospective, too far back in the past and the leap forward to the present would be too jarring. Instead, I’ve got two opening chapters that are strong (I think!), full of action and ending on a dramatic high. That makes Joss’s two chapters a real change of pace. And in some ways, yes the reader is going to be left hanging wondering what’s happened to Bennet. I can only hope it keeps them reading, desperate to find out more.
On a purely technical note, I’ve tried to orient the reader and signal it’s a flashback. I’ve started the retrospective in the past perfect tense for line or two, to let the reader know that this is a move back into the past. I hope that it’s smooth enough that most readers won’t consciously see what the verb tenses are doing, but unconsciously they’ll realise what’s going on. Of course, maintaining past-perfect for the long period of this retrospective would not only be hard, but has the potential to stop hovering in that unconscious zone—I think the reader will start to notice it’s an unusual tense if it’s sustained for more than a few easing-them-into-it lines. So after those few lines, I’ve switched to ordinary past tense (I’ll reverse that process at the end of the flashback to signal we’re back in proper story time):
A scarab, a long-dead mummy and a shared love for archaeology had brought them together in the first place. Joss’s laboratory in the first sub-basement at the Thebaid Institute had been cool, keeping the mummy at the optimum temperature to prevent damage. Joss had set the spotlights on their stands to bathe the mummy with unshadowed light.
“Here,” Joss said. “Can you feel it?”
The boy’s slender hands, smooth inside the skin-tight protective gloves, had moved tentatively over the mummy’s intricately bandaged chest. “I think so.”
Joss put his own hand over the boy’s. Bennet stilled for a second, letting Joss move his hand into place.
“Here. Just here.” Joss pressed lightly down, letting the boy feel the amulet where it lay on the mummy’s rib cage. “Got it now?”
Enough, do you think? That opening sentence should set the scene and tell the reader we’ve moved back in time. I think it works, but I’d welcome views and comments.
Now all I have to worry about is that chapter four involves both a graphic sex scene where Bennet is technically (if only just!) below the age of consent (sigh) and a scene that *insisted* on being written on second person PoV, and which works so well for me that I’m truly reluctant to change it. Not to mention that’s where my favourite line is sitting.
Any views on using flashbacks? What works for you? And most important, what doesn’t? Would you do it? Would you say, get the hell out, Anna and ditch the retros for more damn action already? Tell me.