We all know that in the last fifty years or so, flashbacks have run rampant. Sometimes they are used well, but most of the time they break the flow of a story. Books like How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Fray recommend using flashbacks “only when you have to,” but they rarely go into specifics on why flashbacks can be so irritating for readers. On that note, this article has a dual purpose. The first is to explain the problems inherent in using flashbacks, and the second is to give you a few ways to minimize them in your writing. Let’s begin.
The problem with flashbacks isn’t as clear cut as some writers may believe. I personally avoid them entirely in my writing, but it’s not the concept of the flashback so much as the way they are often executed that causes the trouble. Here are a few EXTREMELY common tendencies that, if you are going to come across as a professional, need to be avoided entirely.
1) Having Your Character Enter Flashbacks Too Often
This is just unrealistic. While the best plots are character based and not action based, there should always be some kind of action in the lives of your characters – they are better, smarter or just different than the average people (or else why are we reading about them?!) So, in the hectic life of these other-beings, how do they have time to allow the smell of a flower to transport them back to a time when they were bouncing on their father’s knee? If it happens once, okay, fine… but I have read and edited books where it happens hundreds of times! This brings us directly into the next point.
2) Unrealistic Memory Sequences
“Being punched in the face brought me back to the time when…” Sound ridiculous? This kind of stuff happens all the time. Author’s first novels especially are filled with people running away from serial killers who, simply because of the color of the street, are transported to a business meeting they had two years ago. THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN. Your writing should mimic reality, and in reality, when you are fighting for your life, you simply don’t care about anything except the knife in your assailant’s hand and whether or not you are going to die.
3) Breaking Action Scenes
Flashbacks at their best, serve to show back-story. When you are in the middle of an action sequence, whether it be physical action or emotional action, that’s the only story you should be focusing on. Simply put, your reader doesn’t care why your character is in that position – at least not until much later. What they want is to see how it turns out. They want you to make them feel something: fear, shock, anger, sadness… When you set up a sequence with resonance, and then pull away to explain why your character is there, it’s the equivalent of handing and ice cream cone to a child and then quickly taking it away and saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll get this back later.” As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t create any positive emotions.
But what about movies? Lots of movies begin with a crazy action sequence. A man in a cashier’s uniform is driving a car. Suddenly, a black van cuts him off and he slams on the breaks! Five or Six men jump out and grab him, abducting him in front of 100+ eyewitnesses. The police try to pursue, but the van does some kind of daring maneuver and they’ve abducted the man. THEN, we begin the movie with a close-up of our seemingly-average-Joe cashier as he helps somebody buy a pair of pants at the local clothing store. All in all, this is a fairly strong sequence, but the action scene itself is still ruined. Think about it. Either a) We find out that Joe is actually an ex-marine who was placed on a secret mission to kill a foreign political leader (Not Kim Jong-un guys, nobody freak out.) In this scenario, the sequence was all smoke. We used a reverse flashback to give a scene that wouldn’t have been shocking the element of surprise and by the time we get to its actual place in film, that game has been played already; or b) It would have been surprising, but instead of having a shocking turn of events, the viewers of this imaginary movie are now actively trying to find out why Joe was in this situation. Either way, by the time we get to that sequence, it’s been played out. Flashbacks destroy the tension of action sequences. That’s just the way it is.
4) Using Flashbacks Too Early
I recently read For Whom The Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemmingway, and while it was a wonderfully written novel in many ways, the opening felt very weak. In the very first chapter, about three pages in, we flashback a week earlier to the events that brought our main character, Robert Jordan, to the heart of the Spanish Civil War. Most readers, myself included, probably wouldn’t have learned the character’s first name three pages in, so the question is: Why should we care? Flashbacks exist to bring out character traits and show vital information that may have been left out along the way. In essence, a flashback serves to answer questions. Why is a character acting a certain way? Where did Ned get that bazooka from? If you start flashing back in your first two or three chapters, there simply aren’t enough questions that readers need answered. What’s more, if there are, you are almost always answering them too quickly! You want your readers dying to know something before you reveal it to them. If you answer their questions before they’ve even thought of them, you aren’t leaving very many places of tension!
5) Throwing Flashbacks at Your Character
In many first time novels, flashbacks can come across like a character obstacle. Oftentimes, this is not what the writer intended. A common fallacy concerning flashbacks is that characters have to be in the experience themselves. Back to the first example, if the smell of a flower transports your character back in time, and he is living the memory over again, this can make your character appear to have mental problems! It is as if they are incapable of living in the present moment. If you are going to use flashbacks, it’s best to use them casually. Here is an example.
“The last time John ate an orange he was back in Napa with his family. He wasn’t yet eight years old and his sister…”
In this example, even though the action has shifted to the past, the reader isn’t jarred by the sudden explosion of prose born from something as simple as an orange.
So how do you avoid flashbacks?
1) Work the Back-Story in Using Dialogue
It might be harder, but it’s far more elegant. Of course, I’m not suggesting you do exposition:
“Ted, how’d you get that scar?”
“This? Well, I got this when I was fighting in Vietnam. Yes, I may look like a normal guy, but I have some hidden demons...”
If this is the best you can do, I recommend sticking with flashbacks! That said, if you just keep your character’s past in mind, you’ll be surprised how many times it comes out in your writing. Maybe one of his military buddies visits the town? Maybe his alcoholic grandfather gives him a tough time about how he only served 15 years in the army when his other sons are both Generals by now. There are many ways to bring out these kinds of revelations without resorting to flashbacks, and your readers will be thankful for it!
2) Work the Back-Story in Using Description
If your novel is written in the First Person, this is incredibly easy. First person is already in the head of the character, so it actually takes less effort to do it this way than to use a flashback!
“The store clerk looked at me with more spite that a Viet-cong soldier. If I’d had my M16 with me, there’d have been clean up on three isles.”
In third person, it’s a lot easier to use action.
Let’s imagine a mugger jumps our Vet in the street. This is a great opportunity for dramatic, exceedingly interesting character development. What if, when the mugger attacks, he immediately disarms him, takes him to the ground and snaps his arm in three places? Maybe we didn’t specifically say that this guy has military training, but I guarantee you that your readers will realize that there’s something out of the norm going on!
4) Simply Don’t Explain!
Your readers don’t need to know everything. If there are things they don’t know about your character, FANTASTIC! Think about your best friend. You probably know him or her very well. Do you know everything about them? Of course not! People are complex. Why would you want your characters to be any different? I personally love it when authors entice their readers and then don’t ever go back to fill in the blanks.
“You know, this reminds me of that one time at Lake Powell…”
“Yeah, I know what you mean…”
Then go off and talk about something else entirely! Wonderful. Never force your dialogue to reveal things to the readers. If both Jack and Peggy know exactly what happened at Lake Powell, don’t explain it. This is a fantastic trick to add realism, but keep in mind it should only be used for fairly minor plot points such as the one above. If you spend half a novel talking about something, you’ve effectively made a promise to wrap it up. If after that, it just kind of drops off and we never hear about it again, you’ve broken the trust of your readers.
Whatever your choices regarding flashbacks, you might as well learn to write them correctly! Write 200 words on a character in a normal setting, then ELEGANTLY flashback for another 500-800 words. As always, if send it to me via the contact tab, I'll edit it for free!