If I Flash You Back…

As you all know, the theme this week is flashbacks. Now, I know that there are those of you who think flashbacks are the greatest things in the world and those who think that they should never be used unless as a last resort by experts. Well, I’m going to be the one who, as usual, takes the middle road. I’ll give you some points both for and against the usage of flashbacks, as well as offer some tips along the way.

Flashbacks are fantastic! I use them all the time to show backstory.

While you likely haven’t heard anyone say this outright, this tends to be what happens with a lot of people who depend on backstories and events that happen prior to the actual plot. The format is this:

  1. Start in present time. Give some exposition or maybe a little action.
  2. Reader doesn’t know the character yet. Time for a FLASHBACK.
  3. Backstory that either has no immediate connection to the story or accomplishes nothing beyond vomiting your character profile onto the page.
  4. Jerked back to present tense. Continue on.

My first thought when this happens is “If you’re going to need to give us two chapters of ‘flashback’ right off the bat, then why didn’t you just write a prologue with it and start the story later?” I have, actually, read a book* where you get several paragraphs of the “current” plot, but because nothing is explained, you then get literally half a book of flashback before you’re jerked back to the “present.” This was especially jarring because I didn’t even realize at that point that it was a flashback. I’d forgotten the beginning of the story! If your backstory is significant enough to the story, don’t write it as a flashback. Write the scene first, and then pull the reader forward to the present time.

*The book is The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley. As an author, she used flashbacks in a way that I…would not. I still love her and her books, because the plots are fantastic, but her flashbacks are very confusing and awkwardly placed sometimes.

I hate flashbacks. They’re so cliché! Everyone uses them, and it’s always so pointless!

This is also a hypothetical statement, but one that many people agree with. Flashbacks are a technique used in many popular novels and stories. They’re like a trick that poor writers sometimes use to mask the fact that they don’t actually know what they’re writing. They’re making it up on the spot, and the flashbacks are really to help them make sense of everything, not for the reader’s or story’s benefit. The problem with this type of thinking is that poor writers use flashbacks this way. Good writers, like Louis Sachar (author of the novel Holes), can use flashbacks quite effectively. If you look at Holes, the story is really two stories, but one of them is told sporadically in flashbacks that are carefully timed to coincide with the main plot. If Sachar had told the secondary plot all in one go, before the main plot, it would have lost its significance and usefulness. As it is, the two stories manage to align perfectly and satisfyingly at the book’s conclusion.

In a skilled writer’s hands, flashbacks can be a useful tool. They can reveal information when it is most relevant to the plot, and can show the reader something that gives previous actions and phrases new meaning. In an unskilled writer’s hands, it can bog down plot, confuse the reader, and be completely unrelated to the plot at all. The trick to using flashbacks is to be aware of how you’re using them. If you’re trying to use flashbacks as a “cool, popular” technique that’s not actually useful or needed, then you should probably nix it. If it accomplishes something, then pay attention to how it works within the story.

Like any tool, flashbacks can be both good or bad. It takes practice to use them properly, and they definitely shouldn’t be wielded like the god tool (useful and used for everything your heart desires). So, if you want to use your flashbacks, go ahead. Be warned, though, that this tool can easily turn into a trap if you’re not careful.

Happy writing.

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4 responses to “If I Flash You Back…

  • Gabi

    This blog is an amazing idea. I just wanted to say that 😀
    The idea of doing a collab blog terrifies me, so I really admire this.

    (I was just stalking the NaNo forums. I do that a lot.)

    • Raven

      Aw. Thanks, Gabi. ^.^ I’m really glad you like it (I do too). To be honest, a collab blog like this would be terrifying, except I know and trust my fellow SP writers entirely. We’re learning from each other just as much as we’re trying to teach others; it’s shared knowledge all around. 🙂

  • Lauriloth

    This was great, Raven, I agree wholeheartedly.

    While, yes, I do love flashbacks, sometimes they are overwhelming and go on waaaay too long or used too much. Flashbacks are tricky things and have to be used with precision sometimes.

    Lovely post!^_^

    Oh, and thanks for the comment, Gabi! I think we all enjoy doing this!

  • Tassel

    Holes! I love Holes. Holes is an absolutely brilliant book, and an example of a MASTERFUL use of flashbacks. Ah. I love that book. On with my catching up!

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