ARE FLASHBACKS KILLING YOUR STORY?
Recently our writer’s group discussed flashbacks on Facebook. That inspired me to go into them again. I wrote a piece called Flashbacks back in 2011 but thought it would be good to revisit it again in more detail. While the seed of this most recent discussion came from an author who suggested that all flashbacks were bad, the general consensus from our group leaned toward using them in moderation. I agree with moderation.
WHAT IS A FLASHBACK?
Simply put, a flashback is delving into a characters past to give the reader (hopefully) useful background to further the story. Where things go awry is when this information isn’t so useful.
Most of the time, the prologue is actually back story. They’re almost the standard fare for any adventure/thriller. Prologues usually start sometime in the far-distant past, decades to centuries, setting the scene for the present story. A few may start only months before the active story begins. Once in a while, they’ll start in the future and the rest of the story takes place in the past.
A few years ago, agents were adverse to prologues. I don’t remember why exactly, but they were on a bent that the story should start with chapter one and that’s it. The prologue should come in… ahem… flashbacks, or be weaved in later, discovered by the characters as they go along.
The point is that there’s a difference between back story and flashbacks. Back stories involve multiple characters or incidents, where flashbacks involve individuals.
This works for either first or third-person. These are told through italics in third-person and must be kept short or they can be very annoying. I know I can’t stand to read page after page of italics. In first-person, there’s usually no need for italics because the character is the narrator. However to make it stand out as a flashback, sometimes writers change these thoughts to italics, though it should be obvious from the story telling that the italics shouldn’t be needed.
LIFE STORY TOLD TO ANOTHER CHARACTER
These interludes have the most potential for the story to go awry. Regardless of point of view, this is where the author can drag the story to a screeching halt. Depending on how long and dragged out the details become, the back story… uh sorry, flashback can last for a few paragraphs to several chapters. The best are the shortest.
KEY TO ANY FLASHBACK IS STORY FLOW AND NECESSITY
As much as you want to add a flashback, the key elements you have to consider are: 1. How important is that information… really? 2. How much is it going to slow down the flow of the story?
If you can satisfy those two questions and come away happy, go for it. However, especially with the second one, temper that flashback length accordingly.
NOTE: Don’t let an agenda get in the way!
I’m in the middle of a thriller. The hero is at a party where his wife gets shot. He goes after the killers, but has no clue where to start. He has a meeting with a friend who gives him a three-chapter flashback of her life. A three-chapter flashback of her life. Story flow comes to a screeching halt. He finds out one bit of info in the last sentence of that three-chapter interlude. Sounds bad, right? The saving grace of this example came between chapters two and three. The story swings to a second arc for some action, then returns to finish up her life story for the actual clue. In a way, the author broke up the rather tedious flashback with some action. It was still too much, but at least he broke it up. The key is the word tedious. For those that love character development, they’ll probably eat this stuff right up. For me, and for those that like the thriller genre, it almost brought the action to a screeching halt, despite the little interlude.
If it were me, I would’ve made those three chapters one and been done with it, but that’s just me. Time will tell if all that extra flab will be important.