Thursday, January 26, 2012

Flashbacks: Yea? Or Nay?

I'm not sure how I feel about flashbacks.

Yes, they can add dimension to the story by adding depth to your characters or suspense to the plot--it's a great way to bring in history, further sympathy for your MC, etc. If done well, flashbacks put me in the moment, experiencing the past first hand. And often times, it's better than trying to tell that portion of the story later through exposition or discussion.


As a reader, I usually hate when I see a flashback coming. I don't like the current action to be interrupted. Sometimes, I even speed read past the flashback and jump right back into the story because heh, time is precious and I know it's just a sob story about the last time the MC saw his mother or was in a car accident that killed his whole family. *snicker*

If that's the case, the author isn't doing their job.

One thing that can make or break a flashback is the transition. If the transition is choppy, or cliche, I'm out. The way to make this work is by making the transition natural. Having a flashback triggered by a smell or an object--or even a person usually works. But won't if you don't have this next thing:

The hook.

If I'm not hooked, why should I care about the MC's past? If I am, I want to know what's hurting them and what makes them tick.

Also, I think a lot can be told in even just a paragraph. Usually when I see the next few pages in italics, I groan. Because I know I've got a looooong flashback coming my way.

Now, I'm no flashback guru, but I wanted to share an excerpt of how to maybe get away with a small memory without having to dive into a full blown flashback. This was originally part of the first draft of my last novel. It's not in the story anymore, but I think this is a good example of how to have a smooth transition and say a lot in just a few words:

“This you?” he asked, inclining his head to the far wall.

I knew he was referring to the collage of pictures Mom had pasted of me everywhere. She could never take any down and kept placing one on top of the other.

My hope of ignoring the wall so it would distract him from doing so, was in vain. He was across the room before I could even finish my thought. I silently cursed Mom for not ever taking down "the awkward years." It was no big deal with just the two of us, but knowing that this guy—however strange he may be—was going to get a close look at my blemished face complete with braces, made me nauseated.

I cringed as he studied the photos. Memories of me in third grade flashed to my mind—pigtails and all. When the recess bell rang, I remembered skipping to the flagpole to meet Bobby Hendricks. He had passed me a note saying for me to meet him there because he thought I was cute. He said he wanted to kiss me, but I first had to tell him my deepest, darkest secret. Of course wanting to be on the receiving end of such a kiss, I told him that I had invisible people who lived in my backyard.

I remembered the way his eyes turned cold and dark. He laughed in my face and told me I was a freak. Instead of a kiss, I found myself face-planted onto the concrete. Tennis shoes and sandals stomped around me. They teased me and called me the name that has haunted me ever since. "Crazy …


I flinched.

“Hhm?” I said immediately, snapping my head up to his.  


What about you? Flashbacks: Yea? Or Nay? Do you prefer them in italics as opposed to plain text? Do you use them in your writing? Is there an author that you think is the flashback guru? 

Red. Head. Out. :D 


  1. I like your excerpt! The memory was nicely woven into the present.

    My current WIP alternates chapters between present and past. I know flashbacks can be a turn-off, so I'm open to changing that format. But at least I've prepared readers by getting them used to the alternating chapters, so it doesn't come as a surprise. And it's surely not in italics.

    1. I read a story like that, it was called "Shift", about a pair of friends biking across the U.S. I thought it was done really well. I'm sure yours will be just as awesome :-)

  2. I don't like long flashbacks, but I don't mind when they're short and woven into the story the way you did it. I just don't like it when I'm completely pulled out of the current story for a past one.

  3. One place I've seen flashbacks done very well is in Dexter books. Because the MC is SO odd, SO beyond anything I know, I want the flashbacks to see what made him the way he is. Any kernel of his life is a treat to read.

    Another way I've seen them do really well is in Tessa Elwood's book. I'm fortunate enough to be in her critique group (her book is almost out on submission). She tells her story in a series of Befores and Afters. And there is one huge event that separates the two. So you are intrigued to know how the event changed everyone.

    I recently read a book where most of the storyline for one character was flashbacks. It felt like every time she entered a scene I knew I was going back in time. It dragged the whole book in my opinion.

  4. Your example is well-done, Morgan and I wonder why you turfed it. But I have to ask: is it really a flashback?

    I thought a flashback was any scene written as if it was happening now, but of course, one that is from some point in the past from the present moment of the story line.

    I suppose one can use the term more broadly to encompass any details from the history of a character. But I view your example as more of a type of exposition. IE. A small set of historical details that immediately inform the story or character we're studying now.

    But, hey, whadoIknow?

    1. LOL! Thanks for the comment, Jason :D True, true. Thanks for the little lesson. Definitely proven that I'm not the flashback guru *winks*

  5. I wouldn't say I'm huge on flashbacks, either. I have used some before, but not in the conventional sense. If it's kept short and not revealed all at once, it can even enhance the story (Panda 2, for example). :)

  6. Ha! I'm only a flashback guru when it comes to reliving the strobe effect of my numerous diabetic comas. Yes, with the help of therapy, I can now admit to my excessive sugar and chocolate binges -- had during the marathon-style writing sessions of my impetuous youth. :)

  7. I like the example you provided, especially the "Crazy..." "Clara?" part - very clever :-) I'm back and forth on flashbacks. I think it all comes down to how well they're woven in, but also quite often their length. Endless pages of italics flashback is enough to make me bang my head against the wall.

  8. I LOVE LOVE LOVE that first draft....always will ;) I am totally the same way when I see multiple pages of italics...I hate them! I skip thru all the time!!! Hahaha! We are the SAME :)

  9. Love your example. Also not sure it's so much of a "flashback," but it does what a flashback should do in my opinion, which is give information about the MC that is very important to move the story forward.

    I really like how JK Rowling does the flash...over? scenes in Harry Potter, where Harry is seeing through/into Voldy's mind. They give information, move the plot forward, and don't drag down the rest of what's going on.

  10. I like flashbacks, but I prefer a little help off the bat (like italics) so my brain doesn't need two paragraphs to determine, yep flashback.

    J. Dog. Out.

  11. I try and avoid flashbacks in my WIP. Though I did write one long flashback as an entire chapter. I wrote it with him waking from a dream -that was more of a memory and he drifted back to that memory, then the entire chapter is written in present tense of what happened all the way to the end. -the memory is needed for the following chapter. But I like how yours is short and to the point :)

  12. I'm okay with flashbacks like yours. Two or three paragraphs of internal dialog then back into action.

    Now I'm trying to think if I even have any flashbacks in mine. I know one of my books was full of someone who had visions, past, present, future, so that was all part of the story. Then there was one book that I had like one... I think. Then another when I didn't really use any. It was just a sentence or two.

    Haha! I ramble all the time! Geez! I guess to answer you, flashbacks don't bother me as long as they are short and not very frequent. Even in Harry Potter (don't hate me for saying what I'm about to say! I am a huge HP fan, don't get me wrong!) but whenever I had to go into that Pensieve, esp. in book 6, I'd internally ugh. :)

  13. It totally depends on the story. Stephenie Meyer's huge chunks of character backstory/flashbacks in almost all of her books, like the wolf stories around the campfire? YAWN!!! I was that way in The Notebook too (just the movie, never read the book). I got SO annoyed whenever it would flip to the old people versions of the characters cuz I was so into the flash back story--so maybe it's the opposite, I don't like flash forwards? Is there even such a thing as a flash forward? Oh great, now I'm making things up!!

    1. Morgan... ya I'm stalking your blog.

      Cortney, I think we share the same brain! I thought the same thing when I saw The Notebook and during that scene in Twilight. Boring! Get to the kissing!! Lol

    2. Hahaha... you're all about the action, Cass! LOL ;)



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