On Flashbacks and Prologues

Status: I can’t believe I’m not worried and yet I haven’t started revising properly!

I’m not in a healthy place for my studies. But that’s my problem, dear reader. Instead, let’s talk about our theme this week – Flashbacks.

I’m not a particular fan of flashbacks, though I have managed to use them well enough in the past.

Flashbacks are the vivid recollection of a memory, almost as if one is reliving the memory. Flashbacks have potential for adding a touch of backstory in a way that is powerful, fresh and imaginative way. However, most people just simply add in flashbacks and don’t understand why.

I remember talking about flashbacks before once in a post way back when on my old blog, albeit in a tangential view. In my rant on 10 simple beginner writer mistakes, I mentioned prologues and how prologues were also used and abused. You could read about it and my other 9 pet peeves about amateur writers and the mistakes they make, but I’d just quote the section that I’d like to draw your attention to if you are too lazy to check it out. This will be the framework of my post today.

1. Cliched beginnings

You know the type, dear writer. The kind of scene which opens with either loads of angst, or something incredibly boring. We haven’t gotten to known your character, we haven’t gotten to understand anything about your story.

The chucking of terrible ‘Woe! Woe!’ belies a sense of desperation, and we don’t normally buy into it. We haven’t gotten to know your character, and it is usually an imperative to have that foundation and understanding of your character before can we get into the swing of your story and learn to fall in love with them, to root alongside them.

The boring beginning is equally droll. The idea of putting someone through an entire 3-4k words of boring writing to establish every single itty bit of his/her/hir schedule is not going to go down well with your reader. It’s boring. It drags. It’s terrible.

What do we want to see? We want to see something fresh, the opening scene pulling us in to read and continue reading. We need a hook, we need to know about your protagonists. The best way to do so is to have your protagonist do something interesting, and then from there develop your character’s thoughts, actions and interactions. A strong beginning begins near from where the plot of your novel takes off. It’s something which builds the pace and lets you know that something is going to happen – soon.

Examples of Cliched Beginnings:

-Aftermath of a battle
-Loss of a dear one
-Someone looking into the distance (being philosophical)
-Crying (god, just stop the waterworks)
-Flashback that has no relevance to the story afterwards

Now, I mentioned that flashbacks are commonly misrepresented, and that a common mistake of writers is to use prologues as one gigantic flashback. There are a few reasons why I do not like this, especially if not done well.

Firstly, the flashback runs the tendency of becoming absolutely useless for the plot, and does nothing except tell us one gigantic long backstory.

Why is this a problem? Flashbacks – if used in a prologue, I must clarify – are not supposed to spell out everything for a reader. Half the fun of prologues is that they strike us hard, throw us one or two questions, and then leave us to slowly answer those questions by reading through the novel.

The only time a flashback should be used to spell out something is in the middle of the book or story, when it should clear up pertinent plot holes and reveal major plot points or character motivations. As a prologue, you are supposed to give us a taste of what is to come – not smash us into the ground.

Secondly, flashbacks can be abused because of its sheer length.

Prologues should never be long enough to be on par with your normal chapter. My rule of thumb is that it should never last more than 1000 words in length. Writers again have this tendency to over-explain everything, and what better way than through a prologue flashback?

I can simply speak now and say that having a flashback that is too long is not a good idea. Firstly, we get the impression that the flashback is the canonical narrative of which we should be listening to, and the subsequent wrenching into another time and place entirely is enough to jilt a reader. Secondly, prologues were never meant to be long winded – the best ones are short and simple, if you look at most books which you liked and had prologues in the first place. Prologues are meant to pose questions and quickly establish a sense of expectation for a reader. Failing to do so usually means your prologue is a failure.

Thirdly and lastly, flashbacks can be unrelated to the story.

Another common mistake of flashbacks is that writers believe that flashbacks should be used to explain pieces of your character that previously would have been left unseen. However, we don’t want to learn everything about your character – we only want to learn what is relevant to the story. When in a prologue, one thing that puts me off immediately is an absolutely useless flashback that does nothing but explain a quirk/trait of a character.


Therefore in conclusion – when writing your flashback in a prologue, ask yourself this:

-Is this relevant to my current plot?
-Am I being long winded?
-Is this flashback absolutely necessary? Why?
-Would the flashback end up confusing the reader, or would it help them?

And now that I’m done, it’s back to my revision and own work.


4 responses to “On Flashbacks and Prologues

  • eritta

    My prologues are often fairly long winded, however they do the job you assign them, making readers ask questions and drawing them in. They are often something which takes place in a completely different time or place, but are essential to understanding the book as it progresses. On the bright side, they are never, ever boring, since instead of the aftermath of a battle, the prologue is usually a battle in itself.

    So I guess I’m only breaking 1/4 rules there. Woo!

    • Lectin Gaezat

      In general, my opinions are as usual – biased. Though I always stand by my opinions. ^_^ I never claim to be the voice of god, so if you do something that works, by all means stick with it.

      Also, hi and welcome!

  • rieishere

    Lec, I kind of have to disagree. Not about prologues. But I love flashback scenes. I wrote a story where half of it was flashbacks. Equally divided, chapter by chapter, between the ‘now’ and the ‘then’. And the ‘then’ explained why the ‘now’ was the way it was. I love flashbacks. I’d go into in my post today, but I haven’t the time to post. 😦 But I have a replacement! There will be a post today!

    • Lectin Gaezat

      I’m generally reserved about writing flashbacks. Of course I have seen flashbacks used effectively and in a way that was magical and I fell in love with it. But the rest of the time, I get very lost, hence why I might not like it.

      ^_^ I’m generally very reserved about plot devices like this, because it’s prone to abuse.

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