The Flashback Scene: A Necessary Literary Evil?

Flashbacks are a common and solid method of playing around with time in fiction. But they're not always your best option.

Flashbacks are a common and solid method of playing around with time in fiction. But they’re not always your best option.

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.Β  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.)

YOUR THOUGHTS?

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.

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50 responses to “The Flashback Scene: A Necessary Literary Evil?

  1. A flashback was a ‘must’ for my sixth novel in my scifi series, Star Travelers. The protagonist was being pursued by an antagonist from the first book. The incident in the first book was glossed over and presented no detail. That, and given the fact the reader must have read the first book in order to understand the set-up, required the flashback. It made the set-up much more vivid than having current time characters discuss it in the past tense.

  2. I like flashbacks well enough, as long as they doesn’t go on too long and they don’t exists *only* info dump. If it leaves some questions unanswered, or raises new questions without confusing the hell out of me when I read it, or exists as a sort of aside to show a bit more about the characters without being focal to the plot, that’s fine.

    Probably the best example I can think of would be the kind of patchwork approach Sean Williams takes in the Crooked Letter. The book starts with the trigger, OH CRAP, moment, and as the bulk of the story moves along from there, more and more is shown in flashback-piecemeal of what led up to the big altercation. It works well without going into “so-and-so remembered…” He just shows it happening at times relevant to the larger plot, and since the three main characters are separated at the OH CRAP moment, anything shown with the three of them together is obviously a flashback of what happened prior the OH CRAP.

    As long as it’s clearly delineated like that, I’m willing to go with it. Too often, though, it rings sappy and overwrought, and too conveniently answers questions.

    Really enjoyed the post. πŸ™‚

    • Oh my, my first sentence got all scrambled. Let me try using my words again. “I like flashbacks well enough, as long as they don’t go on too long and they don’t exist *only* as an info dump.” Wow. Just…I’m going to bed.

    • I’m glad you liked the post! And I agree one hundred percent with what you’re saying here. A great flashback can definitely leave you with questions that the current-time action will end up resolving. Very fun! πŸ™‚

  3. Some authors handle them pretty well. I love Carl Hiaasen’s flashbacks. They’re not something you have to muddle through. They’re usually pretty entertaining in and of themselves.

    • I think the entertainment factor is very important. If there’s nothing fun, engaging, or tense and suspenseful about the flashback, it will much, much more obviously disrupt the flow of the major story.

  4. Mh, flashbacks… it depends. I like it when some things from the past are often alluded to, so you can’t wait for the flashback that explains it all. Jonathan Stroud did that in the Bartimaeus trilogy, and the flashback I waited for since the first part only came in the 3rd book. Worked well. I also loved the two flashbacks into Snape’s past in the Harry Potter books. But then again, the Pensieve is a great method to do flashbacks without giving them the sometimes-awkward flashback feeling.
    But all in all, I guess, when in doubt, I’m rather pro-information dump than pro-flashback, because, while the pace may be interrupted, you’re not ripped out of the here and now with an information dump. In a novel, there must be a good reason for a full-on flashback (short stories are a whole different matter, in my opinion). I prefer people telling their stories (as long as it’s not like in Elrond’s Council in the Fellowship – that was a bit too much πŸ™‚ ) instead of throwing the reader into someone’s mind and memory.

    • I have always thought the pensieve worked brilliantly as a literary device for HP. And I like your focus on staying in the “here and now” when possible.

      I also love what you say about setting up for a flashback. That’s not something I really have ever thought about, but it can be done–and it works from your experience as a reader. Thanks! I think I might need to concentrate on setting up the flashback in my current WIP.

  5. I have several flashbacks in my first draft and have decided to take them all out. They are muddling the timeline and will more than likely confuse the reader, especially as they are all in the first few chapters of my book. They must go as that is when I MUST be grabbing people and dragging them in, not creating obstacles for belief in my world and characters.

    I agree it is lazy writing. Rather than spend the time establishing the narrative correctly I would write and write, think of something else and throw it into a flashback. Lazy. Taking these out will free up the narrative and provide more pace.

    Great post, thanks!! πŸ™‚

    • Glad you enjoyed it! You can find some way to intersperse the necessary info from the flashbacks across your novel. And even if you can’t, writing them has helped you form and get to know your characters and their world, I have to think. That will benefit your final draft when you get it πŸ™‚

      • I agree 100%. I have written far more than I need in my first draft, not just in flash back. So much of it will go during the editing and revision process. But all that extra work has helped me gain confidence and belief in the world and characters. So, very much worth it. I guess the trick is spotting the superfluous and taking it out.

        I look forward to reading your next post! πŸ™‚

  6. I love that third rule. One of the books I read was rather terrible with flashbacks. The author would have action or dialogue peppered with paragraphs of background information. For example, one of the heroes was fighting the main villain for the first time and he had some power with his spear. In the middle of the fight, there is an explanation of the spear and its origin. It was rather derailing. Well-written, but wrong place and wrong time, which seems to happen a lot with mini-flashbacks.

    As for the big flashbacks, I think they were in certain situations like a character with PTSD. Other times it’s something that can be shown either by dialogue, action, or it’s something that comes off as the author simply being quirky. By quirky, I mean the author had a great idea for a background idea and threw it in even though it has nothing to do with the overall story or much to do with character development.

    • I COMPLETELY agree that the middle of a battle is no place to describe the origin of a weapon! Either make its origin part of the overall story arc or at least describe the backstory during downtown. That sounds like a great and interesting moment…. it could serve well to interrupt some downtime for the characters and make the moment more exciting for the reader.

      A character with PTSD…. That definitely makes sense for flashbacks…. flashbacks are such a debilitating part of the condition!

      Like you, I think that an author liking the bit of backstory isn’t enough to justify a flashback or even including that backstory in any way. If it doesn’t contribute concretely to developing your story, the characters, or to understanding how their world works, it shouldn’t be there. No matter how cool it is.

  7. Personally, as a reader or even in movies, I never like the flashback. For some reason, it just doesn’t appeal to me. I see how they are useful, but that doesn’t make me like them any more. πŸ™‚

  8. As a reader and avid movie buff, I despise flashbacks. They do feel lazy and completely put a halt on any forward momentum, which is where the good stuff waits. Perhaps I’m impatient but i’d rather have titbits of back story hinted at than have it all downloaded in my lap as I eagerly await the NOW.

    • I agree. That seems to be the general consensus among people dropping by. Flashbacks are disruptive, and when used, I think there should be (more or less) no other way and the benefit of the scene needs to outweigh the drawbacks and stalled pacing.

  9. I agree with the possibility that they are starting too late in the game, at least, if they are relying heavily on flashbacks to convey information. I did read a book once about a bot that constantly had flashbacks to experiences that had happened previous to the current situation, but the way the author did it was pretty good. I don’t see any other way he could have laced those particular experiences into the story. I’m sure there IS a way, but I think he handled it all right, and he used at least seven flashbacks.

  10. I admit to probably overusing flashbacks in a few of my books. I think there are certain story lines where that is what works best. But I’m going to have to go back over them and see whether I am interrupting the flow.

    • Sometimes a flashback really is your best your option. And I have seen a number in books that I really enjoyed: they aren’t a “avoid at all costs” kind of thing, at all.

      Moderation is key, though! Make sure you drop by tomorrow. I want to start a discussion then about how to make flashbacks more effective and least disruptive. If you use them that might be helpful!

  11. It’s amazing how every time I’m thinking about something, the next day, you post about it! You give me the kick in the pants that I need. How do you do that? I had a flashback planned, but it just doesn’t feel right. So, of course this just cements it in my mind. I have to stop being lazy and thread it all through.

    • Wow, that’s crazy, hahaha!!! I have no idea why or how that happens. CRAZY!!! πŸ™‚ I’m so glad to hear my blog is timely for you, though! That’s really kind of cool.

      If the flashback doesn’t feel right, I would definitely try to thread it through, a bit here or a bit there. Maybe a conversation about the past events if that could make sense somewhere and feel logical. πŸ™‚

  12. Question: Is the movie, The Hangover an example? They start with them in the middle of nowhere then jump back to the beginning of the story

    • I would consider the Hangover something different. The whole plot is all about them trying to figure out what happened the night…. the flashbacks ironically are not interruptions or disruptions but actually advancements where the overall plot arc is concerned. That’s very unusual, and very clever.

  13. I’m laughing right now, because I’m wondering if you are psychic! I have been struggling with this. I am trying to get right to the action, but since the whole story is pretty much from the protagonist’s past 20 years previously and from even further back, in the Old West, I have been thinking about starting the story sooner. I am going to try that. I think that is why I’ve been stumped and haven’t written too much, because it is missing more in the beginning and I wasn’t sure where to go. I think you just pointed the way for me. Thanks again! πŸ™‚

    • I’m so glad the post helped you in some way!!! That sounds cool. I know the concept for your story and it sounds like you’re doing some fun things with time! I can definitely get how starting things might shake things up for you in a good way.

  14. As a reader, nothing makes me want to stop reading a book more than an overabundance of disruptive flashbacks, especially in the early chapters. This is the main reason I’m against prologues.

    There are ways to present back story in an entertaining manner. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

    • Thanks! I think you hit on the key issue on the head: presenting back story in an entertaining manner. Flashbacks CAN be entertaining, depending on the content and the placement. Sometimes they can work just fine. Other times it’s better to find some other way to get that info across.

  15. Flashbacks certainly have their place and can be entertaining an informative and, if done well, not interfere with the flow too much but they are triksy things at the best of times. I have one in my current WIP that explains a characters’ current social standing and another in fragments of memory. I’m not a 100% happy with them yet but if they work, they’ll definitely add, not detract from my story.

    • that’s the key: they should add to the story, add something substantial that you as the author can define and explain to yourself πŸ™‚ As long as that’s the case you’re totally fine.

      Flashbacks are definitely fine to use and can even be crazily artistically done if an author wants to write that way and do that kind of thing πŸ™‚

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  19. I’m so thankful you wrote this! I have a flashback scene at the very end of my novel, it confused my editor and she thought it was a chapter out of place! I was unsure how to lead into a flashback? Right now, I’m using it in an epilogue and hoping the readers will follow it well! My test readers seem to be okay with it…I just don’t want to confuse the reading audience once the book is published! So I’m kind of torn on how to open up a flashback scene without specifically saying, “Flashback” ha! I’ve read novels where the author continues to flashback with the two main characters…throughout the entire book and it seemed to slow the story down and when she cams back to present tense, I was trying to remember where I was in the story before the flashback! I will only use a flashback scene if it’s necessary to fill in details for the reader!
    Thanks for the write up on this!
    -Stacy

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Best of luck figuring things out! I do agree that as a reader, a flashback that jars you from the present so that you don’t remember where you are is kind of a problem. Not all flashbacks do that, though.

      One way to open up a flashback scene is just to mention that someone is remembering, and then use a textual division. Empty lines or a dividing line. Something like that will make a flashback clear.

  20. I went the other way. When TV series ‘Lost’ was airing I noticed they embraced flashbacks, made them part of the style of the show. In my current WIP I’ve tried to do the same thing: 4 flashbacks per chapter, 12 chapters in the novel. Essentially I have a 4 scene short story embedded in each chapter. There are a few tricks you need to follow to make them work but the feedback I’ve had from my beta readers has been positive.

    • That’s really cool. Every single rule has its exception, and in this, using flashbacks pointedly and specifically as a framework for your structure is that exception, I’d say. The difference is, you know what you’re doing and you have a purpose for doing it. That’s very different than throwing in a lot of flashbacks for the simple reason that you feel it’s your only option and you can’t think of any other way to relay the information.

  21. Pingback: Two Ways to Introduce Flashbacks: That Emphasize Very Different Things | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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