Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are Your Flashbacks Flashy or Flabby?
To flashback or not to flashback? Sooner or later, that’s a question every writer is confronted with. A good flashback is sometimes just the ticket for bringing to life an important event in your character’s past. But, constructed poorly or plopped in the wrong place, a flashback can end up irking a reader more than impressing him. Let’s search for the signs that your flashback is a glimmering thing of beauty—as well as the symptoms that your flashback is falling flat.
Your Flashback Might Be Flashy If…
Your flashback occurs at the right time.
To pack premium power, flashbacks must be timed at precisely the right moment. Don’t give readers the info in your flashback until you’ve teased them into a semi-invalid state of curiosity, such as Brandon Sanderson does in his slow distribution of information about his protagonist’s past as a slave in Mistborn.
Your flashback is necessary.
The bulk of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is comprised of three giant flashbacks from the respective POVs of the three protagonists. In this book, the flashbacks are so necessary that without them there would quite literally have been no story.
It’s length is appropriate.
The length of a good flashback will depend greatly on the demands of the story. Some will be hundreds of pages, à la The Robber Bride; some will be only a few sentences, as when the protagonist of The Practice Effect by David Brin remembers being dragged to a lecture by a friend.
It’s clearly a flashback.
Use past participle verbs and other signals such as “and then she remembered…” or “back two years ago when…” to make sure readers understand the flashback is a past event in your character’s life. Milena McGraw did a good job of this with her frequent flashbacks in After Dunkirk.
Your Flashback Might Be Flabby If…
Your flashback would be more powerful told in “real time.”
In an attempt to begin their stories in medias res, inexperienced authors will sometimes open their stories with a flashback that either, at one end of the spectrum, dumps backstory or, at the other end, sums up the story’s most interesting information. If your flashback begins just before your story and is effectively the first domino in your row of falling dominos, you’d probably be wiser to make it your first official scene, just as Marion Zimmer Bradley did in Stormqueen!
Your flashback is too long.
Although some books such as The Robber Bride can get away with ginormous flashbacks, the vast majority of flashbacks have no excuse to be longer than a paragraph or two. Don’t jar readers out of your present narrative by suddenly dropping them into an entirely new and disconnected scene. Roger Zelazny’s breezy Nine Princes in Amber did a good job giving the reader just the right amount of history to keep the story buzzing along.
Your flashback is unnecessary.
Authors tend to find their characters’ humdrum backstories much more interesting than do their readers. If your character’s tooth extraction when he was five doesn’t influence the plot in a crucial way, you don’t need to flash back to it. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games does a wonderful job flashing back to her character’s “normal life” without including any extraneous or tedious information.
Your flashback is unclear.
If your flashbacks are so subtle readers don’t know you’re flashing back, they’re not going to do your story much good. Clearly signal to the reader when your story is entering a flashback. Use past participle verbs (“she hadwashed the dishes that fateful day”) and don’t feel bad about point-blank telling readers that your character is remembering, as Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows do in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
Flashbacks are not only fun, they can also bring a new depth to your story’s palette. If you make sure you’re using them correctly, your readers will grow to love these delightful little peeks into your characters’ pasts.