Alex wrote into ask the following question about flashbacks in creative writing:
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?
Why Flashbacks in Creative Writing Have a Bad Rap
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.
Using Flashback Intelligently
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).
Sustain the Present Moment
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!
If you have a lot of backstory in your novel, and aren’t sure how to weave it in, hire me as your manuscript editor. I’ll help you balance your action and information in a compelling way.