Using the Sam Jackson technique on literary flashbacks

What’s that, you ask? What did I do about those pesky flashbacks in my soon-to-be nowhere-near-ready-for-querying-agents historical adventure novel?

To quote the great Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey in the movie A Time To Kill:

“Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!”

When writing the two rather lengthy scenes—each well over a thousand words and a good 10-15 pages—I thought I had no other choice.

After all, anyone who’s ever heard harp music knows how important dreams are to books and movies and dead-eyed journalists.

The first dream sequence, in chapter two, dealt with the past of one of the main characters and offered insight into some of his life choices … his rapey, rapey life choices.

The second dream sequence was intended to foreshadow an event. Because apparently, unbeknownst to me, one of my characters is a fucking psychic. (Can you use “apparently” right next to “unbeknownst”? At this point, who gives a shit.)

But, after receiving negative but astute feedback on both dream sequences from my manuscript critique, it was obvious I needed to address them.

  • Beta reader comment 1: “There are moments when it is unclear whether the father is dreaming, recollecting a previous life, or filled with unconscious fears. Some clarity is required.”
  • Beta reader comment 2: “Some more backstory on (character), rather than merely dreams, would serve to make the reader care more about (main character) wanting to write a letter. Why should the reader care about (main character) preserving the memory of who her father was?
  • Beta reader comment 3: Although I enjoyed this chapter, I found the dream sequence to be too long given that it didn’t really reveal anything and made me wonder if (character) is actually (main character’s father.

I spent a good week staring at the sections in question, wondering what to do with them. What to do with my life. What to do with that liquefied cucumber in the bottom of the fridge.

Should I cut them and go on?

Say “pshaw” to the reader and leave them as-is?

Edit for clarity?

Dance the Funky Chicken whilst high on cocaine?

After a second week of paralysis, and a funky sprained ankle, I decided to do what I always do: Google for help.

I found no shortage of good articles on how to handle dream sequences and flashbacks. I also found no shortage of Japanese octopus porn. What in the hell is going on in Yokohama harbor?

Most of the pieces I read said to avoid dream sequences altogether.

Some of them said opening a book with a dream sequence will guarantee your manuscript ends up in the agent or publisher’s garbage bin.

But, none of them said anything about having an actual dream about being breastfed by a giant burrito, or that it means it’s time to lay off the cherry whiskey. So cheers, MF’ers!

After careful consideration, and a whole lot of swearing and vowing I was done with writing, I realized there was nothing in my dream sequences that couldn’t have been better done in another way.

So, I cut them.

The beta reader was right. All I needed was some snappy dialogue to fill the gaps.

Example of snappy dialogue:

“As you know, Laura, my cocaine habit drove me into the Japanese octopus porn business.”

“Why yes, Jim, who has been my friend for 17 years, I did know that.”

See, dream sequences no longer needed.

But, seriously, the first dream sequence will be better worked into the story as a sentence later on.

The second dream sequence I killed completely because my main character is not a psychic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m having a vision of me getting drunk on cherry whiskey.

Those triple X squid flicks ain’t gonna watch themselves.

Should You Put Dream Sequences in Your Story?

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