Jun 10 2012

Using flashbacks

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I’m wrestling with flashbacks. Do they confuse the reader (as they often do in films)? Do they interrupt the narrative flow and annoy the reader? Do writers only do it because it can be fun? Is it best to avoid flashbacks? —Anonymous

I like flashbacks—as a reader—if done well. But there are lots of ways to go wrong with them.

A flashback is when the main story stops, the new scene starts from an earlier time (the day before or fifty years earlier, doesn’t matter), and a ‘live action scene’ is shown from that previous time.

The advantage flashbacks have is you can start the story where it needs to start, not at the very beginning, but in the middle of things. Dive right in. You can fill in the back story gradually.

Flashbacks are one way to fill in back story. Filling in back story gradually can be better than beginning the story at a much earlier point and going forward for several chapters to fill in the back story in a chronological fashion until things eventually get interesting.

Some of the problems I see with flashbacks in editing (and I’ve done all of these at one time or another, often more than once):
— Too many flashbacks. Like anything, use sparingly.
— Too long flashbacks. Shorter is usually better. Drop into a flashback and stay there too long, and readers can lose the main narrative. That means you can lose the readers.
— Unclear flashbacks, going in or coming out. Add signals so the reader knows when the story slips into a flashback and a clear signal when the story returns to the main story timeframe. Don’t confuse your reader.
— Flashbacks that reveal nothing important to the story. Flashbacks need serve a specific purpose. They exist to drive the main story, fill a story gap, reveal character motivation, or something relevant to the main story. Don’t throw in a flashback because you think, “Here’s a really interesting scene I thought up about something the character did twenty years earlier.” The main test here is the question: If this flashback wasn’t in the story, would readers even notice? Is the main story incomplete without it?
— Flashbacks at the wrong time. Use a flashback at precisely the point where readers need to know about that earlier event. That doesn’t always mean immediately adjacent to some important, related event. You might want the back story info planted in the reader’s mind earlier, so when an event happens later, the back story is already known. You might want to reveal the back story at a later point, after the related event happens to give readers that ‘ah ha!’ moment. But make sure the flashback blends with the scenes immediately preceding and following. Otherwise, it can have a jerky feel, and can seem like the writer is telling the reader, ‘Okay, I’m stopping the story here to take you back in time to show you a scene from the past for no particular reason,’ even if the reason becomes apparent later.

There are other methods to fill in back story, so don’t just rely on flashbacks. The back story event can be filtered into the main, live story without dropping back in time and re-creating the full scene. A character might stumble upon a letter from her grandmother stuffed in a box in the attic (the letter was stuffed in a box, not the grandmother). In the live scene, the character sits in the attic with the box and reads the letter, but the scene never leaves the character in the attic.

Back story can be filtered into the main story as a character remembers an earlier time, reads a newspaper clipping, reminisces with a friend, or countless other ways. But an occasional, well-done flashback can be a great way to make these ‘previous moments’ more dynamic.

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7 Responses to “Using flashbacks”

  • Rene Mullen Says:

    Great article and awesome topic!

    I use flashbacks in all three of my working novels. However, there is only one or two in each …even those are well placed, appropriate, and short. I use them as insights into the main character’s psyche…never for info dumps.

  • Gail Says:

    Thanks for this, it’s a very useful guide. I used flashbacks in my last novel and the biggest challenge was getting seamlessly in and out.

  • Yvonne Osborne Says:

    A timely post for me. I think the main thing I had to learn was signaling when a flashback is about to occur and then when the main narrative picks up again. I’m glad you think they work well when done right.

  • Lanette Kauten Says:

    I have a few flashbacks in my latest completed novel even though other writers and bloggers say not to use them. I personally love seeing them written flawlessly into novels, and I see it quite often in published works.

    As to mine, I must be doing it right because you critiqued part of my book and didn’t comment on the flashbacks.

  • DM Yates Says:

    Nice post. I agree with what you’ve said. Flashbacks are a great way to fill in detail as long as they’re not overused. Your new friend from the Follow Party, following by RSS feed.

  • Angel Leigh McCoy Says:

    Helpful and well-said, as always. Nice article, Robb! :)