Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Good Flashback vs Bad Flashback

Since last Thursday I've been reading through Don Maass' newest craft book, The Breakout Novelist. If you've ever read one of Don's books before, then you know you can't just read them. You have to digest them. It's a slow read because you have to let things sink in before you move on to the next point. The pages I've read so far are marked up, underlined, notes in the margins... it looks like an old school text book.

And it's all good stuff that I'll refer back to again and again. But every so often a single point will take me by surprise with how immediately clear it is, and how quickly my brain soaks it up and applies it to what I already know.

Last night, I read this:

Journeys into the past to uncover a long-hidden secret are another contemporary staple, but they have a challenge: making long-ago events feel urgent in the present. The key lies in linking a present problem to the past.
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass, p. 59

By "contemporary" he doesn't mean contemporary fiction, but contemporary writers. Meaning, the technique mentioned here is something seen often in modern-day fiction, regardless of genre or non-genre. (Taken out of context from the rest of the chapter, it might not have been clear.)

Upon reading this, two things popped into my brain:

1. A montage of every annoying use of flashback I've ever read in novels.

2. The TV series Cold Case.

The first thing was a list of utterly bad examples, the second was an entirely good example, if not perfect.

I think the reason that flashbacks are such a hot/controversial topic in writerly circles is because the bad examples stick with you more than the good ones, and we get angry when we think back on the not-so pleasant reading experience. But if a flashback is done well, the reader moves along the story smoothly, accepting the flashback as a necessary element.

Necessary. As in, if it wasn't there then something would feel wrong. Remember that everything in a plot has to be vital, no room for extra moving parts or the whole thing might destroy itself once it builds speed.

I've seen this very thing happen with some of my own stories. It ain't pretty.

Bad flashbacks come in many forms. Dreams. Random memories (that don't feel justified in the scene they occur in). And the worst offenders, a separate, detailed scene or chapter that is nothing but flashback.

There are ways you can show the past during the front story, without going into a flashback. Think of yourself, your day to day life. Do you never talk, or think, about the past? Not likely, especially in certain situations.

But even so, all of those techniques can be used in good flashbacks, if you remember the key Donald Maass highlighted in the above quote. Link a present problem with the past. Make it feel urgent.

This is a tricky thing to explain to the flashback abuser, though. When writing a first draft it is often necessary to write things that will never make it to the final draft. They are necessary for you, the author, to gain an understanding of your own creation. But they are not always necessary for the story.

The best way I can show what I mean by necessary and relevant, and what I'm almost certain Don Maass meant by link and urgent, is with the premise of the TV series Cold Case.

What the above terms do NOT mean is character development, world-building, and irrelevant backstory or character histories.

What those terms DO mean is this:

Every episode of Cold Case has an inciting incident in present day that requires digging into a cold case file to determine the truth, solve the mystery. The present day mystery is so interwoven with the past mystery that the investigators wouldn't have all the necessary clues if they only looked at one case or the other. The past and the present stories need each other. Without those flashbacks, the plot would fail because the plot wouldn't exist.

So the next time you're considering using a flashback in your story, don't ask yourself whether or not you like flashbacks, or what side of the debate has a louder argument. Simply put, there is no argument. There is only good use of the technique and bad use of it.

The questions you should be asking are: does the flashblack move the story forward? And, how vital is the flashback to understanding my plot? Not to understanding my characters or my world. To understanding my plot. Because unless you want to (potentially) annoy your readers, plot and forward movement are the only things that matter in flashbacks.

Obviously, many will disagree with this sentiment because I see "world-building flashbacks", also known as infodumps, and "character development flashbacks" most often in novels. As if that is the only way you can garner sympathy for an unlikeable character, or clarify character motivations, is through flashback.

Why can't you do so through your character's present day?

You're a writer. Get creative. Put your characters in situations in the here-and-now that show who she is, where she is, what she wants, why she wants it, and how she plans to get it. Save the flashbacks for plot-related details that you can't show otherwise.

In order to do this effectively, you have to have a deep understanding of your own plot and premise, which is another area where I think flashback abusers fall short. They're too close to their story to see it for what it really is. They will argue up and down that their flashbacks are necessary, and they will truly believe it with every fiber of their being.

But getting the reader to believe it? That's a completely different slice of pie.

Happy writing,


  1. Mmmmm, pie.... Thanks for sharing this, I'd never really thought of flashbacks this way. I think I'm going to go and investigate the way I've used flashbacks in my own writing now! In the process of editing, I'm backspacing all of that necessary-in-the-first-draft-for-my-sake-but-never-to-make-it-to-the-final-draft material anyway.

  2. Okay, I do not own this book yet, but now I know I need to get it too! This post was so spot-on, it made me think of my own scenes as I read along with your examples. It's such a tricky thing to do and I think one of the keys is "moderation"--make a quick link to the past (one or two sentences if possible) and move on. :D Thanks!

  3. Ah, the wisdom of Maestro Maass. You're wisdom is pretty good too. I like your Cold Case analogy.

  4. Great post. I use flashback a couple of times in my first novel, but it's barely a page each time and fits seamlessly. It's my second novel that I'm struggling with the flashback aspect. It feels right, but I can't figure out how to make it work neatly.

  5. But but annoying readers is fun. :P

    I've seen dreams and random memories used effectively and poorly and you are SO right. I truly only remember the bad ones. I guess anything that sticks out annoys readers.

  6. Oh I can't wait to read this book. I do get a lot out of Maass' books, especially Writing The Breakout Novel. Great breakdown on flashbacks. Done well, the reader lives the moment and done poorly, it dies on the page.

  7. Like Christina Lee, I found myself thinking about every time I used a flashback in my stories. Definitely a thing to consider...

    And I think we could extend the "there is no argument" to other pieces of fiction that tend to get done wrong. For example prologues? And your Cold Case example works there too. =D

  8. I have this book as well!! It's fantastic.

  9. Very guilty in the current book of the dream flashbacks, but of course, I feel very justified in the use of them (don't we all). I know when I come to a normal flashback scene (the WIP's aren't normal), there's always the decision--do you separate it out to show the scene completely, do you keep it in narration and tell the scene, or do you show the scene in narration and deal with the tense issues? At least those are the questions I come up with. And it all comes down to how detailed the scene in question needs to be. If all that's needed is a few facts, it's no question. Telling is the way to go. But it's when the details, the dialogue, the imagery, etc. is needed that the decision becomes more difficult.

  10. Hi Lydia. Thanks for the book recommendation. It sounds fascinating and I'll pick it up. I'm looking for anything that will help me to be able to describe backstories (or flashbacks) in a way that quickly grab the readers' attention. Yes, kind of like Cold Case. Which I haven't watched in years, by the way. :)

  11. Wow, this is awesome! I was a flashback abuser with my first novel, which will never ever see the light of day. I've gotten much better, though. One of my favorite uses of flashbacks was in the novel Shine. The flashback was relevant, and showed why the main character cared so much for her friend who was in a coma. Great stuff.

  12. Wonderful info. I myself was guilty of a chapter-long flashback tie-in, until my editor asked if it was moving things forward, which it was definitely NOT! Sharing this w/my Christian writing peeps!


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