Here’s a post by James Scott Bell about flashbacks: The Fundamentals of Flashbacks

I like this post because it points to a use of flashbacks that I hadn’t thought of, even though I’ve used flashbacks that way myself:

A flashback is used to give us essential backstory information about a character and/or the plot. It helps readers understand why a character is acting a certain way in the story present. Or it may reveal plot points to give us a fuller understanding of the story beats. Often it’s a combination of both.

There’s also a strategic use. A flashback can be a suspense interlude. When you leave your main story at a point where the readers are on tenterhooks, they will read that flashback in a pleasurable state of anticipation—which is what drives a page turner.

A suspense interlude! I immediately recognized that because I used a flashback like that in Suelen.

Two more days to preorder this book, by the way!

That wasn’t the only reason I put in two flashbacks. I did that for several reasons:

First, flashbacks allow the reader have a couple of scenes with Aras, who does not appear in the actual story otherwise. I like Aras, I hope everyone else likes Aras, I’d be sorry not to let him appear in a Tuyo-world book, so I did flashbacks just to the previous day in order to show Suelen’s meeting with him.

I could, obviously, have written the story straight from front to back, but inserting that meeting as flashbacks let me do several things that straight chronological order wouldn’t have allowed.

First, by using flashbacks, I could start the story at almost the moment Suelen’s decision to enter the winter country becomes irrevocable — the moment when he meets Ugaro warriors. After that, turning back is really not an option.

Second, by using flashbacks, I could split the meeting with Aras into two scenes and show one early in the story and the other later. That one meeting is therefore shown in chapter two and chapter seven. And why did I want part of it to be shown later in the book? Because, yes, that creates a suspense interlude, just as James Scott Bell says. I didn’t think of it that way … well, maybe I did. I certainly did deliberately break off at a suspenseful moment, put in the interlude, and then went back to the main story line.

For this particular story, I wasn’t using flashbacks to build backstory at all. Well, maybe a tiny amount, but seriously, not much. In general, I’m not crazy about using flashbacks for that purpose. I think that kind of flashback often makes me impatient. How about two sentences of backstory and let’s move on? I’m reading a book right now that made me feel exactly like that. I didn’t like the backstory scene; the important detail could have been conveyed in two sentences of telling rather than pages and pages of showing and I would have liked that a lot better.

Personally, despite the examples Bell provides as good examples, I very strongly (VERY STRONGLY) prefer authors to signal that they are entering a flashback with use of the past perfect OR with a chapter break OR both. I detest the use of the simple past tense at the beginning of a flashback. I mean, if the story is being told in third person past tense; in that case simple past is not appropriate for moving into a flashback. Shifting subtly from past perfect to simple past in the first paragraphs of an extended flashback is part of the artistry of storytelling and I hereby recommend that authors pay attention to that. I got plenty of practice at making that transition smoothly when writing the Death’s Lady trilogy, where almost the only fantasy elements in the first book are provided in flashbacks and the flashbacks are integrated into story-present conversations. Believe me, I focused hard on getting into and out of flashbacks smoothly and the biggest part of that is shifting from past perfect to simple past and then back to story present.

However, in that trilogy, I didn’t use flashbacks as suspense interludes at all, while that’s perhaps the primary function of the flashbacks in Suelen. Hopefully that will work well for readers! I’m really impatient for Friday, when Suelen will hit Kindle devises everywhere. Oh, that reminds me, I better make a note to hit publish on Thursday for the paperback.

By the way, I’ve had requests to do a hardcover edition for it. I hadn’t intended to because it’s rather short — remember, about 75,000 words — and hardcovers have to be 6×9, which will make it look very short indeed. But, hey, a couple requests plus I would kind of like it in hardcover myself, so I’ve asked the artist to do a hardcover cover for me. It won’t be ready by Friday, but it should be ready pretty soon.

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6 thoughts on “Flashbacks”

  1. I am very worried about Aras. His continued lapses scare me. I want him to be the better than everyone, kinder than everyone, more ethically strict than everyone. I may be too invested in your characters.

  2. Alison, it’s not possible to be too invested in my characters!

    I’m trying hard not to give too much away. I better not say anything at all.

  3. Huh. I don’t use flashbacks much at all. Past events tend to be recounted, not remembered.

  4. Backstory flashbacks really irritate me. I feel often that the writer has been given the advice “show, don’t tell” and followed it without thinking it through. In that situation, I feel like that advice is often ruinously wrong. A lot of times I’ll skim or even skip those scenes because I find them so boring. I also feel very strongly about the past perfect, even if it’s just used initially to signal the start of the backstory, because otherwise I’m thinking about verb tenses instead of the story. I’ve also seen flashbacks used to beef up a word count. There is one epic fantasy I won’t name that probably wouldn’t have been epic fantasy length without them, so the author made up almost half the word count with flashbacks filling in details of things that were revealed in the first book in an organic and intriguing way. And the flashbacks were in italics. It went beyond boring to annoying and if I hadn’t been so invested in the characters I would have given up on the book.

  5. R. Morgan, wow, I’m kind of appalled at the the idea of having half the word count be in italics, regardless of whether it’s also flashbacks. And yes, exactly, thinking grumpily IT SHOULD BE HAD BEEN is not conducive to an immersive reading experience!

    Jeff Vandermeer referring to Show, Don’t Tell as Zombie Advice in his book on writing has, I think, strengthened my feeling that this advice goes beyond overstated to largely wrong. If the author isn’t shifting smoothly between showing and telling as appropriate for the story, then they need to consider whether they’re contorting into pretzel shapes to avoid telling and whether that actually works well. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work well.)

  6. Re: show and tell, I recently read Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, in which she argues, sensibly, for a balance between the two, according to what’s necessary for the story. She also advises considering which ideas or characters are told versus shown. I found her examples (mostly from The Great Gatsby) fun and enlightening.

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