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Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 26th, 2010, 9:28 pm
by cheekychook
While reading through the messages in response to Nathan's recent Prologue Opinion Poll I noticed that a number of people declared themselves totally anti-flashback. That surprised me. I can understand how overuse of flashbacks can be annoying (too much hopping around in time or using continual flashbacks to tell info that could be told in other ways) but now I'm curious to know if most people dislike them.

My current WIP (commercial fiction with a romantic dramedy flavor) follows the lives of two young married couples who meet when they become neighbors. The majority of the story takes place in chronological order, but as the couples get to know one another, share stories of their past, experience traumatic events, etc they do each experience "flashbacks". To me, in the context of this story, the flashbacks are memories that are being relived because something in the character's present invoked that recollection. The stories told through these flashbacks either help the character process something he/she is experiencing in the present or illustrate a facet of his/her personality. In some cases two characters will have recollections of the same past occurrence and you'll get to see how differently two people experience the same event. People are made up of their memories. You can walk past a cafe, catch a whiff of coffee and suddenly be transported back into your grandmother's kitchen (mentally, not physically, unless it's a really, really special roast). The mention of the word tequila can cause you to physically cringe as you recall the aftermath of the first night you tried doing shots of it (it's just an example, I admit nothing). Most people flash back to events from their past on a regular basis in daily life; it's normal (and by normal I mean I do it, and other people tell me they do too).

I'll admit I probably have a greater desire than most to get inside people's heads and understand them (came in handy when I worked as a mental health clinician, now I use it primarily to annoy my kids and my friends and to analyze shows like The Bachelor), and that analytical, need-to-know tendency definitely comes across in my writing style. The authors in my writing workshop have all commented that they love the flashbacks because they explain some facet of the character's personality and they show rather than tell; they've actually encouraged me to add more. I have another reader who's not in the group (and doesn't write) and she has said that, generally speaking, she prefers to have a story unfold entirely in chronological order. She likes the backstory she's learned in the flashbacks and doesn't think they should be omitted, she just likes to journey through time in only one direction.

So, my question: since everyone experiences flashbacks, and people recount stories to one another in real life as a means of getting acquainted, is there a time and place for them in novels?

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 26th, 2010, 11:29 pm
by polymath
I'm a never say never reader and writer. Flashbacks are included. My guiding flashback principle comes from examining when they work. They don't work if there's no purpose behind them. The least they're good for is bringing in backstory. Without another purpose, though, I think backstory can be better served by interleaving necessary details.

I think flashbacks work best when they provide timely answers to artfully delayed suspense questions.

Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons opens in the present time of a lonely, aging, well past his prime Will Cooper with a kind of where did I go wrong suspense question. The story then flashes back to his beginning, moving forward in linear time to Cooper's present again in the ending, seeking that answer.

My general flashback principle, they're timely for readers when they're timely for viewpoint characters.

Cooper doesn't find the answer, but readers can. A deliciously subtle dramatic irony.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 26th, 2010, 11:36 pm
by Casey Lybrand
I like flashbacks, as a reader (when they're done well, of course -- just like everything else, even prologues). ;)

This I love:
cheekychook wrote:In some cases two characters will have recollections of the same past occurrence and you'll get to see how differently two people experience the same event.
Sounds like a really interesting story! I'd say keep the flashbacks, especially if your workshop and other readers like them.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 27th, 2010, 9:25 am
by Sommer Leigh
I like prologues when they aren't info dumps that serve a specific purpose of giving us needed information to set up the real story. The same goes for flashbacks. I don't like flashback info dumps. You see them coming a mile away and they are never as much fun to read as the author had while writing them. I think they need to be used sparingly and with good form. They shouldn't feel like an info dump.

Generally though, I skim them. Flashbacks and Dream Sequences are just never as interesting as the rest of the story.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 27th, 2010, 10:14 am
by Robin
I think flashbacks/ backstory is good if well executed. One of my favorite posts: ... story.html

She gives some great examples of how to incorporate backstory to make it useful.

Also, The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (I think) is a great example of well used flashbacks/ backstory

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 27th, 2010, 2:02 pm
by J. T. SHEA
Flashback haters should ask themselves, are characters in novels never allowed to reminisce? Most novels ARE single long flashbacks.

Interesting how many of Nathan's prologue commenters also condemned flash-forwards, the kind of 'coming attractions' teasers writers often put at the start of novels. Ironic, since publishers often put such a teaser on the real first page, the page before the title page.

Like Polymath, I'm a never say never reader and writer. I cannot understand anybody hating something for its label rather than its underlying reality. Whatever you write, whatever you do, some will hate it and some will love it. 'Dramedy' sounds interesting!

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 27th, 2010, 7:15 pm
by JustineDell
I had a flashback in the beginning of my first novel. Well, three flashbacks to be exact. When I sent queries (ones that included the first 10 pages) the first flashback took up the last two pages.

I got a full request, with the following message from the agent: "I like everything but the flashback. If you agree to do something about that, I'd like to take a look at the rest of the novel."

Now, I was pretty attached to my flashbacks. I thought they added something to the story. I sent the MS as-is (the agent requested it that way) and then I asked my beta what she thought. With her suggestion, I took all three out and added the info the flashback provided through out the dialogue and actions of the characters. Trust me when I say, it's way better now.

Plus, I've read that some agents/readers aren't crazy about them. Of course, it's subjective, and it's entirely up to you but I would like to make a suggestion. Save a new copy of your wip. Take out the flashbacks and work in the info elsewhere. Have your critque group/beta reader read both copies (the one without the flashbacks first). See which one they like better. I'll bet you'll be surprised with the answer.

Good luck!


Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 27th, 2010, 9:23 pm
by cheekychook
Thanks for all the responses! I love reading different opinions on issues like this.

This afternoon I asked my writing group why they liked the flashbacks in my WIP (these are the people who were encouraging me to add more) and I was told that "they add something" to the story. They didn't view them as info dumps, at all. One person, who claims to be generally anti-flashback told me that, in the case of this story, "they really work." They all agreed that the flashbacks gave them important glimpses into the characters' pasts that they wouldn't have otherwise gotten to see. They were adamant that I should not try to incorporate that info into a real time scene; "you'll ruin the mood you create with the flashback." Another person said that even though they are technically flashbacks (chronologically out of order bits of story) they don't "feel like flashbacks" because they contain dialogue and are complete stand-alone scenes that are more relevant and offer greater impact later in the book than they would have at the beginning. (An example is when one couple's marriage is ending and events in the present cause them to individually reflect on their early days together.)

I'm at that stage of re-writing where I am aware of the fact that I can't really step away enough to look at anything objectively so, for the time being, I'm going to trust my critique group (they never agree on anything and they all agree on this, so either they've all been drinking heavily before class the past few weeks or maybe, just maybe, I've managed to incorporate the flashbacks in a stylistically good way). In the meantime I'll happily read all and any comments made here about the "to flashback or not to flashback" dilemma!

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: May 28th, 2010, 2:54 pm
by wilderness
I don't hate them, but I think they can be overused. I recently read Emily Giffin's "Love the One You're With" about a married woman who gets back in contact with an old flame, and is subsequently wondering if she made the right decisions in her love life. There are a ton of flashbacks to how she met her husband and her previous relationship with her ex. My problem with the novel was that very little happened in the "present" and that the flashbacks stopped the forward flow of the story. Obviously, Giffin is doing just fine :) but I think she could have been better off trying to make it work with less. For example, instead of having a flashback where she remembers something she loved about her ex, she could instead have her ex do something that is very reminiscent of the things he used to do. Same effect, but it just feels more immediate.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: June 1st, 2010, 8:17 pm
by Nathan Bransford
By the way, in-keeping with ROCK PAPER TIGER week on the blog, anyone looking for how flashbacks can really add to a book should check out RPT. The main action is in China, but there are flashbacks to the protagonist's time in Iraq, which impact the main plot. It's really deftly handled and a big part of the emotional core of the book.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: June 1st, 2010, 11:44 pm
by cheekychook
Thanks Nathan! I look forward to reading it.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: June 5th, 2010, 10:59 am
by Wolfe3141
I'm personally in favor of flashbacks both as a reader and a writer. Either that or give me a prequel about the character so I can know what happened in their life before it became so chaotic. My current WIP does have a lot of flashbacks and dreams. It had so many I had to cut a few out because the name of the book would have had to be Flashback instead of Empty.

My question is ... is there such a thing as to long of a flashback? (I.E. pages? I have on flashback that is about 4 pages long and is more like a short story than an info dump.)

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: June 5th, 2010, 12:54 pm
by HillaryJ
Some people find flashbacks irritating no matter how they are done. So, you can't please everyone.

But, in deciding whether and how to incorporate a flashback, you need to look at a few key points (anyone else feel free to jump in here):

1. Is it necessary? Can the information just as easily come out during a confrontation or dialogue?
2. Is it going to distract from the forward momentum of the story, or bring it to a grinding halt?
3. Is the style going to differ from the remainder of the story? I've seen flashbacks that are summaries of action, which tend to make my eyes glaze over. You know the ones. Character B, as an adult, is standoffish and Character A can't seem to get him to talk even though it seems like he wants to. Cue the 6 page summary of his entire childhood living with a distant, alcoholic mother and frigid, macho father. No. How about a single scene of him, in "real time" sitting at the dining room table while his family interacts around him, indicating that his entire childhood was spent isolated even in the middle of his family?

When I have a character with a complex or dramatic history, I'll often write out his narrative, including a few key scenes, as a separate document. Sometimes it's a narrative. Sometimes it's shorthand. Then I try to figure out whether those details are necessary for the reader to know, or if they just need to know the character as an end product of his experiences.

Re: Flashbacks (writing them, not having them)

Posted: June 8th, 2010, 1:15 pm
by D. G. Hudson
Flashbacks can add much more depth to a story, but they must be done in a way that seems transparent. I like them and use them when appropriate. I also like to get in the head of my characters, and also have been described as analytical type of personality -- which means we like to know all the details and 'what did happen' in that characters' past. IMO, they only slow the story momentum if they are too frequent or the change is too abrupt for the reader to follow.

Those who say they don't like flashbacks must remember what Nathan said, (paraphrasing) 'whatever works for the story'. We should never rule out any writer's tool. (a tool can be used to great purpose, but it can also be a crutch)

Some people may have strong feelings about such things, but some of these likes and dislikes should be put in perspective. (It appears some people only need the slightest provocation to put down the book or diss the writer; but we should always keep our options open.)

(Adding this comment after seeing the discussion noted in Nathan's post.)