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 must face. A good flashback can sometimes bring to life an important event in your character’s past. But constructed poorly or plopped in at the wrong place, a flashback can end up irking readers more than impressing them. Let’s search for the signs that your flashback is a glimmering thing of beauty—as well as the symptoms that your flashback might be falling flat.

Your Flashback Might Be Flashy If…

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Your Flashback’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.

4. Your Flashback Clearly Is 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…

1. 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, too quickly summarizes 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!

2. Your Flashback Is Too Long

Although some books such as The Robber Bride can get away with lengthy flashbacks, the vast majority of flashbacks will have no reason 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 readers when your story is entering a flashback. Use past participle verbs (“she had washed the dishes that fateful day”) and don’t feel bad about point-blank telling readers 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 new depth to your story. If you make sure you’re using them correctly, readers will grow to love these delightful little peeks into your characters’ pasts.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Are there any flashbacks in your work-in-progress? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. oh, yes. There will be a lot of flashbacks due to the nature of this particular story. And yes, the trick will be getting it right.

  2. I am terrible at flash backs. When I write them they always flabby. So in my current WIP I am trying to avoid them until I get my skills up a little.

  3. @Mshatch: Backstory always plays an important role in my stories, so flashbacks ate integral. They’re always a balancing act.

    @Krista: Flashbacks can bring a lot of depth to a story, but only when they’re done right. When in doubt, it’s usually better to leave them out.

  4. In a previous novel that is buried in my closet—never to see the light of day—it opened just after my MC lost her husband. In her grief-healing process, she had flashbacks of their life together. It worked for that particular story, but it won’t work for my WIP, so unless the characters advise otherwise, I don’t plan to use them.

  5. I think flashbacks can be an interesting use of time. People have eyes in the front of their head but they’re always looking to the past to understand how they get into the present. I regularly use flashbacks. Plus, its a good use of distraction… 🙂

  6. @Lorna: Not all stories demand flashbacks. Although the occasional memory from a character can serve to flesh out his personality, for the most part, flashbacks serve to dramatize important plot-relevant backstory.

    @Ken: Our past is intrinsic to our future – and the same holds true for our characters. We have to know where we’ve come from if we’re to know where we’re goIng.

  7. I’m currently trying to write a story that is essentially all flashback with a prologue and epilogue giving it present context. I’m not exactly sure how that will work out, but its the kind of story I would like to read anyway. 🙂

  8. I have a big honking flashback in my WIP, the revelation of the horrible experience that set heroine on her path. The flashback is when she finally lets the hero in emotional and reveals to him her Big Secret. I’ve been deliberating on the past participle use b/c of its length, but think for clarity’s sake, it’s necessary. I also have flashback scene clearly set apart in the text to maintain clarity for the reader.

  9. @Sarah: I love out-of-chronology stories when they’re done well. Tthey can be tricky to pull off, but what you’re talking about shouldn’t be overly tough, since readers won’t view the body of your story as a flashback, so much as the framing device being a flashforward.

    @Kiersten: On lengthy flashbacks, authors can (and often should) get away with signaling the switch into the flashback via past participle verbs, then easing back into simple past test, to encourage flow and immediacy.

  10. None in any of my current works, but I have done flashbacks before. I try to make them either explain an action of some character, or provide some background.
    Thnx for another great article. 😀

  11. Flashbacks have to be a story for a reason, and explaining characterization and providing background are both legitimate and worthy reasons.

  12. I’ve done a couple flashbacks, though I can’t really say if they are flashbacks or more like a separate scene where a character tells the other characters of past events he or she experienced. I write in third person, but for those special flashbacks, I have the character speak in first person. I’m becoming rather fond of the technique, since the voice is different in every respect and brings a bit of flavor to the narrative.

    I wouldn’t do it too often though, or for too long.

  13. A character relating, via dialogue, a past event isn’t technically considered a flashback, and it’s definitely something you don’t want to risk overusing in lengthy sections. As with any dialogue, it’s important the characters don’t go on for more than a paragraph without other characters interjecting.

  14. I think flashbacks are a good way to ‘hook’ the readers, dangling just a little hook in front of them to make them want to read more.

  15. Good way to put it, although it’s important to remember that, in order for the reader to be able to swallow it, the hook can’t be so big it chokes them!

  16. Thanks for the great tips as always! 🙂 My current WIP is not at all turning out how I thought it would… what I thought was the main relationship has so far ended up being wholly in flashbacks. 😛 It’s probably going to need a lot of reworking at some point – once I know how it’s actually supposed to go – but these will help. 😀

  17. It’s always fun when stories take off on their own steam. Of course, it can also be frustrating – since it creates scads of new problems in the editing stages!

  18. of course the situation calls for the style, but I would say I am a flashy mostly, unless the fb calls for a chapter, then you can call me flabby.

  19. Flashbacks that are long enough to monopolize an entire chapter usually fall under the “flabby” header for me too. There are, of course, exceptions, but, as a general rule, shorter is almost always better.

  20. These are very good tips! I am dealing with a book that relies heavily on flashbacks as the main character has visions, so I am working on trying to find the balance between story telling and the visions.

  21. Flashbacks are one of those techniques that are tricky to get right, but, when we do, they often present uniquely engaging stories. Some of my favorite books rely heavily on flashbacks.

  22. Anonymous says

    I need flashbacks because in my wip the character has to learn about the past of the vampire coven she is being asked to join. The vampires sit down and tell her key incidents of what happened to them in their past.

  23. If the flashbacks are extended, you’d probably do best to put them in their own scenes. Lengthy dialogue explanations can grow tedious for readers.

  24. my writing tends to follow the tender is the night model. 3 parts and the 2nd is back story. it try to keep in entertaining and important. any thoughts?

  25. As a matter of coincidence, I just finished Tender Is the Night yesterday! I actually like the “flashforward” or “backshadowing” technique of beginning with a scene late in the book and then backing up to explain what’s going on. It doesn’t work in every story, but it can definitely prove very effective.

  26. I’m currently working on a necessary flashback scene in my novel(written in 3rd person) and I was hoping you could answer a couple questions for me. Is it correct to ‘tell’ or ‘show’ a flashback? What about a mixture? I could simply tell the flashback and it will total to be about five pages long, but I’m having trouble making it emotionally engaging. I think it would be more engaging for the reader if it was shown, at least partly, but I don’t know if that’s correct and I’m afraid it might be too long. Any suggestions?

  27. Usually, deciding between telling and showing in a flashback comes down to length. If we’re talking a paragraph or two, telling or a mix of telling and showing will usually be your best best, since you don’t want it to slow down the main plot. However, if you feel an in-depth flashback is needed (as would seem to be the case in your book if the summary requires five pages), opt for showing. You can’t risk losing readers with that long a telling.

  28. Flash backs are kind of like waking dreams right? My main pov had a dream where she was re living the occurrences of the past in a nightmare state every time she went to sleep. The problem with it was:

    Your flashback would be more powerful told in “real time.”

    Your flashback is too long.

    What it realy wanted to be was the first chapter in ‘real time’ and it was far to long for a dream. Breaking it up into different chapters only caused confusion, so don’t go there. xP

    It was quite a bit of work fixing that mess.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Lengthy flashbacks are often more trouble than they’re worth. Often, it’s better to find a reason to work the information into the real time of the plot and dialogue.

      • -nods- yes you’re right. I had to revise several chapters, but now the story is better for it. :)I got it down to the nitty gritty and people telling me that it’s much more fast paced. 🙂

  29. R.D. McAllister says

    The story I’m writing right now has a couple of flashbacks. The body of the story is third person narrative, mostly main character POV. I thought to make her flashbacks, which are incredibly intense and emotional, be told in the first person, so the reader could really see how those experiences affected her. Would that be too awkward or confusing? It just seemed rather dry and not nearly as important told in the third person.
    Any thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My first-blush instinct is that this might be too jarring within the rest of the narrative. But you never know: it could be brilliant. I’d give it a try, run it by some beta readers, and see what they think.

    • I think the choice of “person” is not as important as this question: Can I, the reader, “see” and “feel” myself in the story, as if the events were happening to me or in front of me? Is it vivid?

  30. Brad Mathews says

    In my current WIP, the narrative and characters hint at a traumatic event in the protagonist’s life. These little gems are scattered through the story. The final chapter begins with a flashback. which symbolizes the main character coping with that event, which sums up the personal character arc. It was difficult to do, but my betas say it was beautiful.

  31. The entire book “Frankenstein” is written in the form of a sort of flashback: it is a story told to an explorer in the Far North by Dr. Frankenstein, who was intercepted or rescued while in hot pursuit of his “fiend” (the book never says “monster”).

  32. I have a longish flashback in my WIP that may be (at least for now) my favorite scene in the whole book. I keep having this sinking feeling that right-thinking people will tell me to cut it. But I love it so much, I can’t stand to. It shows my hero meeting her mentor for the first time: how he saved her life and won her undying respect. It shows him rescuing her from some villains who will pop up again later in the main story. I feel like they’re more richly nasty because we know their history of brutalizing the hero.

  33. Hannah Killian says

    I was thinking of adding flashbacks in my fairytale, but now I might make a small prequel.

  34. Are flashbacks necessary? That depends on the story I suppose. Lately I have seen too many flashbacks in stories, with excessive lengths, that quite honestly don’t move the story forward. Now when I read the first chapters on kindle books if I see a flashback on on page I stop and move onto the next book. Why? If they are starting their book with a flash back they either don’t know where to start the book or feel the backstory is more important or exciting that the current story.

    For me, when I write my first draft (almost always riddled with flash backs) I pull out every flashback scene before I reread the “book” as a reader would. If I am not writing NM or NJ in the margin (NM= needs more information NJ= Need Justification) I don’t even bother with the flash back scene for that portion. If I do I look at the scene and see if it needs to be a flash back (aka took place before the story begins) or is an actual scene in my story but earlier than when I wrote it. Sometimes the flashbacks are or can be actual events in the story and an author should consider that option before writing a long flashback scene.

  35. This is the piece of info I really needed to read. I am chp 17 of 35 in my second draft and decided I needed a bit of information to be filled out that happened to a side character while my main character was not present. It has a massive impact on the story and now so I wrote it as dialogue at first. And it was so boring! Now I’ve been fussing with it for a few days. It’s becoming a relatively large bug in my side. Usually when a scene isn’t working for me it’s my brain telling me it doesn’t need to be there. -_- so Now I’m frustrated with all the effort I put into such an amazing scene, and it may be just info dumping.

    I can easily add the info I need in a powerful manner in the previous chapter, and gloss over the side stuff. It’s almost aggravating because I feel like the flashback would be a fun way to get all the bits and bobs going since the other character knows more about this world and could open more info into the story.

    Oh my. It’s obvious how flustered I am.

  36. I didn’t want to put them in but ended up having to, so I made it a partial scene then stopped at a good spot. The problem is finding a place to put in the rest of the flashback/back story in. Hunm … Well just going to have to really look hard at every scene and chapter.

    So much to learn, wish I didn’t need sleep.

  37. Hannah Killian says

    I started my story kinda like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but I’m not sure if it works or not.

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