Being a Better Writer: Flashbacks

This post was originally written and posted April 21st, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s post comes via a multitude of requests on the topic. Whether it’s been a discussion on pacing, foreshadowing, or other blogs I’ve posted over the last year, one thing that has come up and been a major source of discussion in the comments on several occasions is proper use of the flashback. Commentators have poised varying opinions, but many have asked for mine (especially as I have listed them among my “poor writing peeves,” and many of you have asked why). So today, we’re going to talk about proper use of the flashback.

It isn’t hard to understand how or why there is so much confusion on the flashback. Nowhere in a school is a teacher going to sit down with their class and explain the proper use and place for a flashback. Even in advanced college English classes, the only way a flashback is going to come up is if you directly ask about it, and even then the professor might not have anything to say.

Which means that most young writer’s perceptions of flashbacks come from pop-culture sources: Comic books, anime/TV shows, and whatever books they read growing up. And with exception of a few well-done examples, the average flashback you see coming out of those sources is poorly utilized, phoned in, or so completely misused that it barely even qualifies as a flashback anymore. The pop-culture commonality for flashbacks isn’t to use a flashback as a narrative tool, but quite often as filler or a cheap narrative patch to cover up errors and mistakes.

Unfortunately, with this being the only use that most young writers encounter, it comes as little surprise that most (and by which I’d argue at least 95% or higher of most new writers by my experience) have no idea how to properly use a flashback. Most of them couldn’t even tell you what a flashback is with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Worse, many of them seem to form their own idea of what a “flashback” is and why you’d use it based on their broken pop-culture source, and then hold that as a “gold” standard, informing others that it is the appropriate use of a flashback. Search long and hard enough on the internet, and you can find “camps” of various flashback “style” holders that debate with one another over the use of the flashback, or what one is. Even worse, some of them reach positions of “authority” and soapbox them to enforce their opinion of the flashback on others.

So let’s get this out of the way immediately: what is a flashback?

A flashback is a narrative tool designed to convey information to the reader and serve as a pacing element. When one wants to use a flashback, it’s because they want to convey an event or information to the reader (not to the characters) that has already taken place in order to broaden the reader’s understanding of the world (occasionally it can be used for a character discovery, but I’ll get to that in a moment). A flashback is much like any other scene in your story, except that it is a jump backwards on the timeline, to an event early in (usually before) the events that kicked off the plot of the story. In fact, you could almost consider it a short story inside your larger story.*

So how do you use one? Easy. It’s a different way of approaching information that the reader needs to know. Perhaps you want the reader to know about an event, but don’t really want the characters to sit around discussing it as they already know it (the “as you know” conversation). And, alternatively, even if the characters don’t all know it, you don’t want to write an entire scene of one character just telling the story because it’ll keep the tension low for far too long. You’ve already had a whole chapter of low tension. And the next chapter will be too. You need to spice things up, and you want to introduce an event that happened a long time ago so for a narrative reason (plot, character development, etc).

This is the perfect opportunity for a flashback. You jump back to an event before the story began (whether the character is “remembering” it, “dreaming” it, or however you reach it, doesn’t really matter). Now you have a complete scene shift (new things to pique the reader’s interest), you get to talk about something that you need the reader to know about without the characters slipping into a retread of what they already knew, and you have a jump in pacing to break up a low point between chapters and skip over a boring point in your story where nothing was happening.

Note that last word there. “Chapters.” A flashback is going to change pacing. This is why when you place a flashback, you must take great care in where. Many of the best used flashbacks are set up in fiction as their own chapters, often returning to the story some amount of time after the last point the reader was experiencing in order to skip over dull or boring lull in story activity. Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about pacing and tension? And what I said about a flashback almost being a short story inside the story above? Consider how that will affect your pacing chart. You don’t want to stick your flashback in the middle of a tense scene, or the middle of a climactic battle, because it will destroy the pacing. You want to stick it in during a long low point, something to break up a slow period of low tension by adding a small rise and fall before coming back to the main story.

Properly used, a flashback is something that can lift a slower point in your story, allowing you to prevent your work from falling into a long trench of inactivity. Additionally, it can help you explain character or plot background, extrapolate on the world itself, or even be used to help extrapolate other details without the tediousness of an “as you know” discussion.

However, like all other tools in the writing toolbox, a flashback is only one tool. It is not a magic bullet, nor should it be considered as such. Like any other tool, using it in the wrong place, for the wrong thing, can quickly lead to disaster. In fact, when it comes to the writer’s toolbox, the safest way to think of a flashback is that it’s like a sledgehammer. Is it a tool? Yes. Does it have value? Yes. But you do not use a sledgehammer to drive nails or cut boards, and if you try to do so, end up doing more destruction than good to whatever you’re trying to create. Sticking a flashback into a story is akin to using a sledgehammer in a home reconstruction: Something that should be done sparingly and with great care. Like a sledgehammer, a flashback is easy to use, but also easy to completely level your structure with.

Which is why we’re now going to look at a few improper uses of this tool. There are certain places where you should never, ever be reaching into your toolbox for this tool. Worse yet, each of these has become a fairly common usage thanks to one medium or another, distorting young writers ideas of what is appropriate use and entering into their own works. In fact, some of these improper uses are (as I mentioned above) championed as “correct” uses of the flashback. Which, in some of them, is akin to telling a carpenter that a sledgehammer is the proper tool for cutting a board in half, not the table saw (ie, it might work once due to dumb luck, after a lot of disasters). If you’re using a flashback in any of the following ways … it’s time to start rifling through your toolbox.

The first and most grievous offense is using a flashback in the middle of a scene. Wham. Cut-and-dry jump from something that was happening to a flashback. Why does this happen? Originally, I believe it stems from two sources: The introductions to flashback chapters and misinterpretation of character’s “memory flashes” during a big scene (see footnote *). At some point, a writer thought back on the introduction to a flashback and though “well, they jumped right into it,” forgetting that it was a standalone event, and that it wasn’t jumping out of the key scene, but into the key scene of the chapter. Forgetting this, they saw no issue with splitting apart their own scene with a flashback, and since then, the practice has grown.

Unfortunately, this type of flashback usage destroys any and all attempts at pacing. Like I said, a flashback is a story within your story. Imagine what Star Wars would be like if during the final Death Star trench run, as Luke is flying up the trench with Darth Vader firing on him, the story jumped back to Tatooine, and we got a five-minute “episode” story of he and his buddies going out to fly their T-16s down the aforementioned “Beggar’s Canyon” run before jumping back to the final run.

Pacing? Destroyed. Don’t be this writer. Put your flashbacks where they need to be, and not in the middle of another scene. You might as well randomize your chapters for all the good it will do you.

Another unfortunate misuse is the attempted use of a flashback to replace proper foreshadowing. In this case, the writer doesn’t ever foreshadow events or occurrences, but instead cuts to the action as quickly as possible and then uses an in-scene flashback (sin number one) to explain to the reader how this occurred and why.

I almost question why I need to explain this one, but by the back-hair of dwarves people, it should be obvious! This completely destroys the narrative of any work you apply it to! Traditionally, you have a story. You have events in the story that lead and rise towards a climax. Characters experience smaller events along the way, and foreshadowed clues are given to the reader about the direction of the plot and the events coming up. Clever readers are rewarded for figuring out things before the characters (although to be fair, readers get direct allusions without any extraneous filler, which does make it a lot easier), and the reader gets to follow a narrative rise towards a conclusion.

This approach is a complete butchery. It’s in medias res gone completely wrong. It ignores the narrative arc and shoves the reader into a scene without proper explanation required to understand it, and then attempts to cover its sins by “flashbacking” the explanation into the event itself. It’s a case of turning a story into “3=1+1+1” instead of “1+1+2+1-3+1=3.” It’s lazy, hackneyed writing, and you shouldn’t ever be doing it.

This is closely linked with another abuse of flashback (often occurring alongside it), which is the use of the flashback as a retcon. This is a another case where the author has failed to foreshadow, but in this case due to poor planning rather than negligence. They reach a climactic scene and realize that they never once established the main character’s rival, or a pivotal event that is of great concern in the upcoming scene. But, rather than going back and rewriting the early events of the story. They simply throw in an infodump flashback to explain this obviously important character/scene that everyone knows about but never talked about up until now. This improper use stems largely from television, with anime being the most grievous offender. Since anime and television are largely written “as you go,” a lot of TV shows find themselves writing in “important” characters and events out of nowhere, “flashbacking” them into existence, usually with a scene or an episode devoted to them. Anime is the worst of the lot, writing in a new character in the middle of a climax and then doing an in-scene flashback that takes three episodes to resolve before jumping back.

Basically, both are misuses of the tool in the purpose of a writer’s out when they’ve failed to properly set things up. Rather than go back and rework an earlier scene (or perhaps just plan ahead), the writer takes the lazy way out and dumps a bunch of “explanations” on the reader, counting on them to just put up with the offense.

Don’t. Both of the above tools are nothing more than a lazy writer who isn’t worth your time to read. They don’t want to (or are incapable of) the work that goes into writing a complete story, and are attempting to pass along a cheap imitation in hopes that you’ll buy into it. Don’t. And don’t be the one who misuses this tool in this way. If you find a narrative error in your story or something that you forgot to foreshadow, go back and work it in.

The final misuse of the flashback (and again, one that stems from television) is using one as filler material. A writer needs to pad something out, and so they come up with a flashback story not to add to the main story, but simply to fill up space and occupy the reader. The reason to not do this is clear: It doesn’t add anything to your narrative. Look, if you find a slow point in your story and decide to use a flashback to beef up the narrative by adding in some additional character conflict and depth, then by all means, go for it! But if you see that same slow point and decide to put in a flashback that adds next to nothing to the narrative, you’ve created filler.

Your flashbacks need to have purpose for the work as a whole, not just be self-contained curiosities. When faced with a low point in a story, don’t immediately look to the sledgehammer as the possible solution. Look at other ways to add spice first. Don’t let your flashbacks be filler material.

In summary, a flashback is a tool of narrative and pacing that allows you to avoid “as you know” events, shore up slower periods of your story, or jump back to important narrative events that took place long before the actual timeline beginning of your story. Used properly, it will add to the narrative power of your work. Used poorly however, it can frustrate and confuse your reader, or even shatter the narrative construction of your story. It’s not a tool you’ll use often, but used carefully, and in the right place, it can be a powerful one that helps your story sit in the mind of the reader for years to come.

Just make sure that your reader is flashing back on it because of what it added, and not what it took away.

Again, thanks for reading, I’ll see you all again next time!

*A flashback is a narrative piece. A “flash” of memory of an earlier event that a character experiences in a line or a small, tight paragraph during a scene is not a flashback, but someone’s mind “flashing back.” Same name, different concept.

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