#Writing tip: flashbacks (and how I avoid them)

I always think carefully before utilising flashbacks to reveal backstory. There are other techniques available.

A flashback gives information about backstory to the readers and usually involves a complete change of scene as the incident from the past takes centre stage. It moves the narrative back in time from the point it has reached – ‘flashing back’ to a prior point.

FOR: Flashbacks can be a fabulous way to manipulate a timeline – or two or more timelines – if your novel involves that structure. Or the storyline can be suspended for the flashback to take place at a point that creates a cliffhanger. Frequently, flashbacks are used to tell the readers the backstory. Some genres use them so much that their readers must enjoy them.

AGAINST: A flashback halts the action, so any momentum my story’s building up is lost. Even if it’s exciting and crammed with intrigue, a flashback looks backwards instead of forwards and so sacrifices the all-important ‘page-turning quality’ or has to build up new PTQ … only to halt that, in turn, as the flashback ends and the main narrative takes over again. I’m not a massive fan of halting narrative drive, neither as a writer or a reader. My story is a train on a journey. The readers are the passengers. To utilise a flashback, I have to stop my train and get my passengers to board a second train and then drive that forward. Then I have to stop the second train and get everyone back on the first. It can work. We’ve all had journeys like that and reached our destination. But is it the most comfortable, immersive way of enjoying the ride?

ALTERNATIVES: As my books don’t involve me manipulating the timeline and I choose to construct cliffhangers in different ways, I utilise other techniques to convey backstory so my readers don’t have to change trains.

  • Conversation. Characters talk about past events, weaving their dialogue into the present action so the reader stays with the main narrative all the time. Dialogue’s a powerful tool and can be used to bring out skeletons from closets or probe old sores, provide explanations, expose lies and reveal secrets or hitherto hidden desires and allow characters to show both reader and other characters exactly how they feel or what they know.
  • Thoughts. Weaving memories into present action via a narrator or a third-person viewpoint character who’s acting out the scene, but thinking about the past at the same time. I find this great for revealing emotion and, if I need to, keeping information between Character A and the reader. That can build up tension as the reader knows other characters don’t share the same knowledge and there’s conflict on the horizon.
  • Prologues. I’ve posted about prologues in the past and I know not everyone likes them. However, a scene at the beginning of the book that’s going to have impact later, or even affect the whole book, can be a punchy, effective way of conveying backstory. To stretch my train metaphor, it’s the train manager making a dramatic announcement before the journey begins. Ladies and gentlemen, we hope you enjoy your journey but someone’s standing on a bridge we have to pass under and they may be throwing rocks.
  • Other forms of communication. Letters, diary entries, emails, texts, newspaper articles, websites, social media posts, even graffiti can convey backstory without the train even slowing as it whizzes through a station.

If I’m honest, you might find the occasional flashback in my early books. Maybe as time went on I became a more efficient train driver.

If you liked this post you may also like:

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3 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft

3 responses to “#Writing tip: flashbacks (and how I avoid them)

  1. Reblogged this on Write to Inspire and commented:
    At the moment, I am with Sue on her opinions on the use of flashbacks. She is a much more experienced and successful author than I, so you should read her original post.
    I have recently been watching the TV series ‘The Serpent’. It makes me dizzy! It jumps back and forth in time and I spend my time trying to figure out where and when I am and putting effort into retro-fitting the current scene into the timeline that is in my head. I am determined to see it through to the end though.
    I tried to make the second chapter of my current WIP novel a flashback. The first chapter is full of action, tragedy and strong emotion. The second chapter is the main protagonist’s reflection on her very happy times with one of the characters who dies in the first chapter, a whole decade back. I just could not get it to work. It bored me, so it would slay my readers!
    Anyway, I recommend that you read Sue’s blog post. It is guaranteed to make you think.

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  2. Lindsey Russell

    It’s horses for courses really. I agree flashbacks can drag the reader out of some stories and romance is probably the worst genre to use one in. Great tips on how to avoid using them. In other genres they can enhance the story particularly crime and of course time slip where they are obviously de rigueur.. I write crime (with a romance sub plot) and have just recently used a flashback – when a detective is asking a witness who had discovered a body to describe what happened on that day six weeks ago now evidence has surfaced pointing to murder not a freak accident. I just thought it was better coming through the man’s eyes, thoughts, and feelings at the time and not as the detective asking question after question with responses of: ‘I saw this, and I saw that, felt this thought that’.

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    • I agree it’s horses for courses. Also, structure for books. What you describe works perfectly for you. I think it’s probably similar to the way I use prologues. I’m struggling to get information across without an info dump and suddenly I think, ‘Have at thee! Though art a prologue!’ and chop it all up.

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