Today’s topic is the flashback. We all kind of hate the structure involved flashbacks, we all strive to avoid them, and we all find that sometimes an author’s just gotta suck it up and write one, dang it.
I’ve discussed flashbacks once before. Specifically, I’ve talked about verbs and verb tense involved in flashbacks. Today, I wanted to start a conversation about the general structure and use of a flashback scene.
To get a discussion rolling, I thought I’d share my personal approach to flashback scenes and my opinions about their use.
1. I WOULD SUGGEST USING TWO FLASHBACKS PER NOVEL, AT MOST. HERE’S WHY:
Flashbacks don’t always, but they can demonstrate laziness on the part of a writer: an unwillingness to weave the necessary background information and flashback content throughout the story in a more creative way.
Writing requires flexibility. Flashbacks aren’t flexible at all…. They’re the equivalent of an information dump. An extended information dump set in the past, usually disguised as a reminiscence or a memory.
2. AVOID FLASHBACKS WHEN POSSIBLE
I personally feel flashback scenes should be a last resort, as they generally disrupt flow and pacing.
When possible, I try to insert what relevant backstory a flashback scene would reveal into a logical and relevant conversation between two or more characters.
Of course, if your writing is experimental and you’re purposefully playing around with time and organization and such, this would not apply to you.
Even if your writing isn’t experimental, you can use as many flashbacks as you want. It’s your novel. You might have a particular reason for using a flashback, some reason why a flashback will suit your story and storytelling to a tee.
I would advise against too many, but hey, what do I know about your particular project? I’m not into giving blanket prescriptions where writing is concerned. Each writer and each story is different.
3. IF YOU HAVE TONS OF FLASHBACKS PLANNED, MAYBE YOU’RE STARTING YOUR STORY TOO LATE IN THE GAME.
Starting a story “in media res” or in the middle of the action has been a staple of literature since the epic poems of Homer. Both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” begin in media res.
In fact, all stories begin “in media res” in the sense that the characters don’t start out as infants when we meet them…. They are generally adolescents or adults, which means they have some kind of a history. Even if you’re writing for children about children, that child of eight or ten years has some memories and some life experience.
Every story, in theory, has the potential for a relevant and engaging flashback scene or two, to show how the situation we start out with came to be.
However, if you find that you are needing flashback after flashback, conversation after conversation about past events in order for your story to make sense to a reader….maybe you should start the story at some point earlier than the opening moment you chose at first.
Writing is always a game of give and take, of trial and error. Lots of us don’t get the starting point right the first time, and that’s fine. Be flexible. (That’s one of the “cardinal rules of writing” in my writer’s handbook, in fact.)
Do you love or loathe flashbacks? Do you avoid them when you can? Is there a memorable flashback that you can remember reading that you just loved and that really, really worked?
I want to continue this conversation tomorrow, so make sure to stop back then. Today’s post was more or less about the downside of flashbacks and why you might reconsider them when possible.
Tomorrow I want to discuss how to make a flashback work for you as much as possible when you do decide to use one. I’ve definitely used them here and there, and will continue to do so.