A while back, our writer’s group president, Jo Wilkins wrote a short blurb on our group Facebook page about using flashbacks in your story. I’d like to expand on that since it has hit home with me, particularly in my own reading experiences of late.
First off, what are flashbacks? Flashbacks are way of jumping to the past to bring relevant information into the present story. They are great tools for giving the reader background on why things are happening. They set the scene. They justify why certain things happen. They give relevant background information. Examples are prologues or when a character remembers something from their past.
I just finished a book, which shall remain nameless, that relied heavily on flashback chapters to an abbey in the 8th century. The flashbacks droned on in details I didn’t care about and had little to do with moving the story. Every time another flashback came along, I dreaded having to slog through it, yet I didn’t dare pass it up for fear of missing out on some essential clue to the rest of the story. Turns out, I could’ve skipped the first two thirds of each flashback chapter, read the last three pages and not missed much. Are you all starting to see a problem here?
This book was actually published. Overall, it was a pretty decent story, yet, the editors allowed the author to get away with this droning on for, I’m guessing here, the sake of thickening up the book. The story would have flowed so much better if the editor had red-penned a good chunk of that irrelevant material. I was not alone in that feeling from some of the critiques received on Amazon either.
I am asking you, as a writer, to please not punish your readers with that drivel! Keeping in mind that the book was published several years ago, it might have been a fluke that it got past an agent in the first place. Most agents never would have let it get that far, especially for a first time writer.
As a writer with integrity, it is up to you to write and present the best story you can. It is not your job to punish your readers with irrelevant material. When your story requires a flashback, make sure this flashback is important. Make sure it moves the story along. Make sure that everything presented in it is necessary to the current story, whatever time frame it is set in. It should be written to the same standard as the main plot. You should not bog it down with irrelevant story lines and side issues that sidetrack the reader. The last thing you want to do is lose focus. How many times have you read halfway through a book and put it down? I have countless times. Maybe some of them were because of irrelevant flashbacks.
In my own writing, the only whole-chapter flashbacks I have used so far have been prologues. Any other flashbacks are the occasional character internal memory, which I have learned to keep real short. For those internal thoughts, most writers use italics (for contrast) and it’s not a good idea to use more than a paragraph or two of that font or the reader gets irritated.
There are some incidents where a character must recall a past incident to the other characters. This is done through dialogue and I don’t consider this a flashback. However, the rules still apply. Whatever my character says still has to be relevant.
Please be considerate of your readers. As my friend Donald Riggio, who wrote the wonderful Seven-Inch Vinyl says, “Don’t be afraid of words.” However, don’t punish your readers with them either. Happy writing!