Using flashbacks vs. summary for character background; contest fees
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: September 8, 2009
|Q: Should I use flashbacks or summary when giving my character's background?|
A: Summary describes or reports with minimal detail, so you can cover a lot of information in few words. A flashback, on the other hand, reveals the past, but does so in a scene, which is a moment in time that unfolds in detail. Which you use depends on the nature of the background. Brandi Reissenweber
Use flashbacks to convey background information only when it is important for the reader to see how something happened. Flashbacks interrupt the unfolding of the narrative and should be used with care. They're often appropriate when background details are the motivation for action in the unfolding story. In Sue Miller's novel While I Was Gone, Joey Becker is a mother of three and the wife of a minister in a small town. As a young woman, she lived in a commune, a blissful experience that ended abruptly when one of her housemates was killed. When a friend from that commune comes back into Joey's life, she has to confront her past. Miller devotes whole chapters to flashbacks because the nature and nuance of that time is vital to understanding Joey's reexamination of her life.
Flashbacks can be important in short stories, too. In Mary Gaitskill's "The Girl on the Plane," John Morton's seatmate on the plane admits that she is an alcoholic. This prompts John to make his own admission: when he was younger, he raped his friend, Patty. He's not claiming innocence and he wants forgiveness, but he's also not convinced of his guilt. The action is firmly rooted in the events on the plane—his admission and his desire to be forgiven—but the nature of his relationship with Patty and the events leading to the rape are vital to the reader's understanding of John's state of mind, so they're rendered in flashback.
For information that the reader simply needs to know exists in the character's history, use summary. In Julie Orringer's "The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones," Rebecca stays with her aunt and uncle and her cousin, Esty, while her mother is in the hospital. She struggles to reconcile this household's new Orthodox practices with her own, less-strict upbringing. In one scene, Rebecca and Esty wade into the water up to their waists because they're not allowed to swim. Orringer summarizes Rebecca's history with Esty:
This is the kind of thing we used to do when we were little—the secret sneaking-off into the woods, the accidental wrecking of our clothes, things we were punished for later. This was when Esty was still called Erica, before her parents got divorced, before she and her mother moved to Israel for a year and became Orthodox.
The reader does not need to see these childhood moments or Esty's transformation as they happen. In following Rebecca's emotional journey, it's simply important that we know this alternate version of Esty exists and that Rebecca is trying to make sense of this. The reader gets the necessary information without straying too far from the present moment.
Be careful to avoid the "information dump." A big chunk of background all at once—particularly when it's summarized—can be a drag to read. Include only what's necessary to understand the unfolding action in the story. And parcel it out. Even better, you can suggest background within the action of the story. If Lisa hesitates to get in the pool and keeps her distance from the edge, it will be clear she's wary. Her thoughts about the crashing waves at the beach last summer and the way it felt coughing up salt water may be enough to let the reader know she had a bad experience. Sometimes that's all the reader needs to understand the immediate moment.
Q: Are contests that charge a fee legit?
A: It's common to pay a reading fee when entering contests. Funds often go toward the running of the contest, including an honorarium for guest judges. However, it's good to be careful when asked to dole out money. There are plenty of unscrupulous tricksters out there happy to help you part with your money knowing you'll be smitten by the possibility of a prize, publication, or feedback.
Only submit to contests run by reputable organizations with which you are familiar. Many well-established journals run annual contests, as do writers' organizations. Also, be sure the reading fee is in proportion to the award. It's not uncommon for a contest with a $1,000 prize to have a $10-$15 reading fee. That's a general range. Some legitimate contests run higher. And some have no reading fee at all. If the fee is $50 and the winning prize is $100, you might be getting ripped off. Be careful, as sometimes fees are attached to other aspects of a contest. For example, there's the contest where any entry is published in the special anthology—for a hefty fee. Or the editing service that runs a contest to find new customers. One or two "winners" get a prize, while the rest of the entrants get the hard sell to purchase their services.
A brouhaha erupted over contest practices in 2004 when Zoo Press cancelled its prize without awarding a winner and kept all the entrants' submission fees. This sparked a big debate in the industry. Since then, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses released a code of ethics for running contests. Some contests adhere to this code and say as much on their Web site. Overall, it's made organizations and writers more aware of ethical concerns in contests.
If you're submitting to reputable contests backed by organizations you respect, you shouldn't have a problem. And always remember to read guidelines in full. If you're not comfortable with any of the stipulations, don't submit.
--Posted Sept. 8, 2009
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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