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Using Flashbacks in Writing

Alex wrote into ask the following question:

In your webinar you briefly hinted that you weren’t against the idea of using flashbacks but I have listened to lots of other tutorials (through Writers Digest and others) that suggest flashbacks are a big no-no. What is your view? If they manage to still keep the forward momentum of the book, then could they still work?

The reason that flashbacks have a bad rep is that they’re often overused or used without much skill. That’s why so many people have been recommending that writers avoid them: because we’re sick of seeing this technique butchered.

But a well-written flashback at the appropriate time in a manuscript can tactfully weave in backstory to flesh out the present moment without bogging you down in an info-dump and stalling action.

Remember, most fiction is a balance of action and information. When you use flashback, you are taking us out of the present moment to introduce information. Pacing stops. Action stops. You have to keep that very much in mind and, first and foremost, keep flashbacks short.

Second, they should be pertinent to the action at hand. If your character is having a fight with their father, you may want to include a flashback that flies counter to the present moment in order to enrich our understanding of the daughter-father relationship. But don’t then go off on a tangent and string together five memories plus a memory about the mother, to boot. That’s excessive. So not only does the length and style of flashback count, the information contained therein is important. It really needs to add something to our understanding of the present moment, or our sympathy for the character, or our understanding of the world which you’re building (for books with fantasy elements) or a historical period (like a flashback for the sake of contrast to the excess of the Roaring 20s if your character is now suffering through the Depression).

Third, you don’t want to keep yanking the reader out of the present moment for too many flashbacks. You should use a light touch, to the point where the reader may not realize how many flashbacks you’ve employed as you take them through the story. Pick only the most important information to go into flashback and you should be fine.

Finally, you want to be especially careful about flashback at the beginning of a story. I’d avoid them in the first chapter, if possible, because you want to hit the ground running with a really strong sense of the present moment in a novel. If your present moment is constantly being interrupted by flashbacks, the reader (who is brand new to your story) may not get an adequate foothold in your narrative and get as involved as they should be.

Use a light touch and keep them relevant, and flashbacks can be your friends!

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  1. Stephanie Scott’s avatar

    Great comments! I am considering adding in a few flashbacks to my next project but was worried about it. I think I can manage it with these guidelines–brief, not in chapter 1, specifically relevant to the scene & only if it shows character development.

  2. Chelsea Pitcher’s avatar

    Great post, and super relevant to what I’m working on right now. Thank you!!

  3. Gloria R.’s avatar

    This is a great topic because flashbacks can be helpful but tedious to work with. I have had trouble with flashbacks before. For one of my writing projects, I wanted to start off with a small flashback for a prolouge however, with my original draft, it would not have worked because the first chapter was a flashback, as well. I did not want to start off my novel with two flashbacks because I thought it would be too confusing for the reader. So in the end, I decided to use just one flashback and rewrite a different first chapter. I do realize you have written that you should stay away from beginning a story with a flashback and you did bring up a good point about doing so. Maybe I will go back and see what I can do with my story. Thanks for the advice and ideas.

  4. Mike Cairns’s avatar

    Hi
    Great article, thanks.
    I’m currently writing a short story that is told entirely through flashbacks, charting the life of the heroine up til the point at which we join the story.
    Obviously, these flash backs feature action, emotion and all sorts and I think (fingers crossed) that it’s working.
    Any thoughts?
    Cheers
    Ps the story should be up on my website in the next few weeks, so please feel free to read and comment!

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