Flashbacks happen to the best of us. They are an easy vehicle to tell the reader what you believe they should know, but which doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. That is exactly why you should avoid writing them!
A flashback is an interjected scene or sentence that takes the narrative back in time from the current point in the story. They are often used to recount events that happened before the opening line of the book and fill in an information gap crucial to the story. They have a function, and in some stories they work very well. In ninety-nine percent of stories, however, adding flashbacks weakens the reader’s experience.
The more I write, edit, and read, the more I am starting to notice that flashbacks are generally a sign of either lazy or inexperienced writing. Working information into the active narrative—the storyline moving forward—can be a hassle because you have to consciously build one or more scenes around the information that needs to be conveyed. I am a big proponent of challenging yourself to do it anyway, because flashbacks break the flow of the story and diminish the tension you have been crafting so diligently.
“Flashbacks break the flow
of the story and diminish the tension
you have been crafting so diligently.“
Flow is incredibly important in a story. Think of a stream, meandering through a forest. It’s fast in some places, slow in others, but it’s always moving forward, carrying bits of flotsam over and around obstacles at it does. If you can build a story that flows like a stream, your readers’ imagination can be swept away and carried onward to the end of the book.
Flashbacks interrupt the flow of a story because they go backward, not forward. Imagine if that happened to you while you were coasting along on the stream, watching the forest go by: all of a sudden you’re picked up and dropped into a part of the stream that’s located before your starting point. It’s disorienting, and while the view might be nice, what you really want is to be put back into the stream where you left off so you can see what happens next. This is why most people gloss over flashbacks: they want to get back to the good stuff, the part where the character in whose head they are residing has adventures.
If you’ve read my other blogs, you know I feel strongly that, as writers, we are slaves to the reader’s experience. Metaphorically picking a reader up and dumping them into another slot in the timeline jars them, which is a big no-no—unless that’s the effect you are trying to achieve. I am open to input, but I have never seen an example where jarring a reader through flashbacks helped the story along or built tension.
“I have never seen an example
where jarring a reader through
flashbacks helped the story along
or built tension.“
There is another inherent issue with flashbacks: they are, in essence, vain poet violations that take place in the past. If you have read my post on vain poet violations, I think it’s easy to see how flashbacks hinge on the same issues, but let me give you an example:
No matter what she did, the issue plagued Kathy. She stretched out on the couch and closed her eyes. Back when she was little, she’d never cared if people liked her or not. Little Kathy had been far more invested in climbing the big chestnut tree in the back garden of her childhood home than in making friends. The inclination had lingered all through high school and even college—not to climb trees, of course, but to prioritize doing the things she loved over socializing. And then Evan had sauntered into her life.
The issue lies in the reflective nature of the flashback. “Back when she was little,” for example, forces the reader to look at (little) Kathy from the outside, while we’ve been working hard to put the reader inside Kathy’s head the rest of the book. Any time you force a reader out of the head of the POV character, you’re stepping into that grayish area of semi-omniscience.
“Any time you force a reader
out of the head of the POV character,
you’re stepping into that grayish area
Using contemplation isn’t a writing faux-pas; people delve into their past to find solutions to issues in their present all the time. By using this tiny flashback to show Kathy’s thoughts, however, all the conflict is sucked out of the moment. It becomes stale. Stories thrive on conflicts, without it there is no story. Characters need to run into walls and each other before they can solve their issues and live happily ever after (depending on genre, of course, but there is always resolution of conflict, even if the outcome is negative). If you keep your reader close to the POV character during the pivotal moments of conflict solving, the pay-off will be much more rewarding. How about this:
No matter what she did, the issue plagued Kathy. She stretched out on the couch and closed her eyes. I’ve never cared if people like me, so why do I care now? Why can’t I cut her out of my life? As much as she didn’t want it to, her mind provided the answer: because she’d never enjoyed socializing with anyone until Evan had sauntered into her life.
The chestnut tree doesn’t make an appearance, but like I’ve pointed out in my post on writing introductions: does the reader really need to know Kathy’s parents had a chestnut tree in the garden and that Kathy liked to climb it? In this context, I’d say the answer is “no.” By focusing on what matters, namely that Kathy realizes Evan is special, and staying inside her head throughout her realization, the moment is strengthened and becomes more satisfying to read.
“If you keep your reader close
to the POV character during
the pivotal moments of conflict solving,
the pay-off will be much more rewarding.”
I hope this post will lessen any desire you might have to use flashbacks to tell a story, but if you have to, please don’t change tenses or POV. Switching from past tense to present tense, for example, or from third to first person point of view (or the other way around) are methods used to distinguish the flashback from the rest of the narrative. I’ve seen it happen and it jars the reader even more violently. If you really have no other option, or if you really want a flashback to infodump something onto the reader, use scene break markers or put the flashback in a separate chapter. That way the reader will at least get some warning and they can ease into the experience. It helps with flow.
Pushing yourself to do away with flashbacks will make you a more inventive and creative writer. It forces you to look at your story critically and yes, plan ahead. If your reader needs to know something about your character in chapter twelve, you don’t have to write that into the story in chapter twelve, you can write it into chapter four, or three, or one. Readers are intelligent people and they have long term memories they like using. In exchange for putting the puzzle pieces together, give them the reward of a forward flowing story. They’ll appreciate you for it.