Flashbacks: Function not Fallback

I’ve doing some thinking lately about the back story of my WIP. The more I think things through, the more I realize how much impact the events & people of an earlier generation have on my MC’s current life. And of course that got me started thinking about how, where, & when to place that back story in a quickly paced, forward-moving story in the “now.” Which led me to flashbacks.

In general, I’m not a fan. That isn’t to say that wonderful flashbacks aren’t written every day–I’ve read many. But when I was editing, I frequently saw flashbacks being  used as a fallback tool, when the author couldn’t find another way to weave the information into the story. The flashback became a way for the writer to simply insert history into the present. I don’t think that’s enough reason to take your reader out of the moment, out of the scene.

I believe a flashback has to have a strong function, or purpose, to justify it’s presence in a story.

  • The flashback has to be caused by something happening in the story, at that moment.
  • The thing (object, person, event, etc) that causes the flashback has to be powerful enough to believably send the point-of-view character into the past.
  • The flashback has to impact the scene in which it takes place. In other words, the flashback cannot just be a memory. It has to be a memory that changes, in some way, the direction the point-of-view character was headed before the flashback occurred.

Again, this is a personal taste. I’m going to try and avoid setting my back story into a flashback structure. (Hopefully, this statement doesn’t come under the heading of famous last words!) One of the things I want to show is how close the past is to us, despite how far away it may feel. The less distance I can place between the immediacy of my main story and the details of this other layer, the more strongly I think I’ll be showing that connection.

What about you? Do you favor flashbacks or fend them off? 🙂

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15 thoughts on “Flashbacks: Function not Fallback

    • beckylevine says:

      I only find myself getting frustrated when they go on to long and I can’t see why they’re there. Yes, watch out for mine–thanks! 🙂

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  1. I don’t mind a flashback, but the key, for me, is to keep it tied with the present. A flashback that pulls me out of the story has no real connection between what’s really currently going on in the now and the in the past.

    And too many of them are just distracting!

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  2. Shawna says:

    I think you’ve described perfectly a good flashback. It must be strong and relevant to the present. I need to feel what the character feels on a gut level. They can be a useful tool to give our character dimension and show how much the past has shaped the present if used sparingly. That said, I tend to avoid them. It’s an easy tool to overuse.

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  3. CJ says:

    The tricky thing with using a flashback is figuring out how and where to end it so it all flows back to the present. Using flashback for exposition can be effective as long as you make your point–get in-get out- and get back to the story.

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    • beckylevine says:

      CJ–Yes, transitions are critical, too. We can’t make the reader work so hard, or start to wonder why they went “back” in the first place.

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  4. Excellent criteria to use for flashbacks.

    So far I’ve used one in my WIP to show the past relationship between two characters who hadn’t seen each other in nearly two decades. All in all, I tend not to use them, but I don’t specifically avoid them, either.

    Hmm. You gave me an idea for a blog entry. Thanks!

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