So you’re into a story, feeling the characters, loving the plot…and then you’re thrown into a chunk of a flashback.  First reaction?  Most people just want to read through them so they can get back to the real story. 

So what does a writer do when they’re crucial to the plot and characters?  Lately I’ve been struggling with that question.  A lot of what I hear is that flashbacks don’t work but then again I’ve read writers who do them well.  My WIP has a strong backstory that can only be told through flashbacks so I’ve been spending countless hours working and reworking them and this is what I’ve discovered so far:

1)      Keep the Crucial:  Once finished, the reader should be able to pinpoint the reason for the flashback and feel empowered with that new knowledge as the main storyline continues.  Remember that their purpose is to provide information crucial to the story in a way that’s as compelling as the rest of your story. 

2)      Keep them Short:  The flashback has a purpose, right?  So get to the point.  Make them only as long as they need to be and no longer.  Similarly, they should be used sparingly as they can slow down the story (I’m still working on this). 

3)      Make them Clear:  Flashbacks can be jarring and confusing (not to mention annoying) if it’s not clear what’s happening.  If you’re going back in time, the reader should be aware of it.  Sometimes starting a flashback at the beginning of a new chapter or using section breaks can be helpful.  Some people have suggested using italics for the whole flashback but this just makes it hard to read.  I prefer to use the narrative to show the reader they are going back in time.

4)      Make us Care: The placement and timing of the flashback is key.  It took me a while to figure this out but now I know that at the time of the flashback, the reader has to really care about what happened in this character’s past.  In other words, the flashback must be built up so the reader is left with a hole that needs to be filled, a “why” question that needs an answer.  This gives the flashback some weight and immediacy.    

I don’t generally believe in writing rules so these I use more as guidelines for myself.  I will continue to experiment with this so if you have any tips or opinions on writing flashbacks, I invite you to offer them here.

9 Responses to Flashbacks

  1. I like the way you think… Ignore the don’ts and Thou-Shalt-Nots and keep trying something until it works. Writing is an art, a craft, and not painting by numbers.

    Using flashbacks successfully is like anything else in writing… if you’re talented, or have learnt enough, you can get away with almost anything… It’s just the more experimental you want to be, the better you have to be to get away with it! 😉

    I hope you always find a way to write what you want to…

  2. This came at just the right time because I’m thinking of incorporating flashbacks into my manuscript and yes there has to be some clear definition and rules to guide the reader and not confuse them.
    I like that your post clearly identifies when and where to put flashbacks and how to introduce them. It will help me with my wip. Thanks for that Marianne! Great post! 🙂

  3. I remember reading something like this once from an agent blog of one or another, but the general gist went like this; “…as for flashbacks and dreams, just don’t. If your story and words haven’t explained things well enough then that’s your fault, not the readers. Don’t punish them with an infodump, just go back and write the story better.” Why did it stick with me? Likely because I had about five dream sequences in my piece. lol. I did trim them nearly out, but not completely. 😉 Besides, such an easy darling for an editor to kill if they so choose. *shrug* Great post and topic today Marianne! 🙂

    • I guess the key is to work the flashback into the story, so that it’s not separate…and never an info dump. Thanks CW.

  4. For me there is no such thing as you can’t do things, if it works for you its worth doing. Whilst the flashback may not always appear in the final piece, its worth doing as it gives the writer an extra handle on the character. A solid post Marianne.

  5. The thing to remember about rules is when it’s appropriate to break them – when you’re thinking outside the box, and not just producing another cookie-cutter story. Flashbacks can, and do, work, but they are often overdone. Just because one agent hands out this kind of advice doesn’t mean they all feel this way. It can be confusing, to try to figure out what to do. In the end, you need to please yourself. (Note – so I’m keeping the dream sequence in my short story, because it propels the plot. You tell me if it works!) PS – I stand firm on removing infodumps – blech! They do make it feel like the reader is being punished!

  6. This is some great advice! I, too, have flashbacks in my wip and it is tricky to get them right…I’ve been stuck on one scene in particular for a long time…just figured it out yesterday so that it works.

  7. I am not a fan of flashbacks. I prefer to have a characters background unfold as the story progresses, but I know they are sometimes necessary for crucial information. As long as they are kept short, interesting, and rare, I’m okay. Great tips, Marianne.

  8. I am annoyed when I find too many flashbacks. On the other hand, a friend of mine uses them very successfully in short stories and that’s even harder than using them in a novel because, as we all know, a short story has less room and is less forgiving than the longer novel form.

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