Why your flashbacks aren’t working

A post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Why your flashbacks aren’t working.

I think getting into and out of flashbacks can be quite challenging. If you’re telling the story in simple past tense, when do you switch to past perfect? And then do you stay in past perfect through the whole flashback? Even if it’s pretty long? And if you shift from past to past perfect to past to story present (which means simple past tense again), how exactly do you make that work?

That was a nuisance in MARAG, by the way. Chapter 1 is Sinowa’s prologue, but then Chapter 2 starts with a flashback that serves as a prologue for Marag, and yes, and early reader pointed to weird verb tenses through there, and yes, I focused on cleaning that up and trying to handle verb tenses so smoothly that no other reader would ever notice the verb tenses at all. Hopefully I succeeded, since, I mean, it’s a little late to mess with the verb tenses any more now.

But I’m not sure that’s why flashbacks might not work in a broader sense. That is, I can think of other modes of failure that are worse. I am thinking about this before reading the linked post because some failure modes really leap to my mind. Maybe yours, too.

A) We started in story-present, got into some exciting situation, and NOW, whoops, we are having a flashback.

And not just for a paragraph or a page. No. We are stuck back here in the flashback for MANY pages, maybe the first half of the book.

I hate this. No matter how long the flashback lasts, I will not forget where we started. I do not like being dragged away from story present, especially at a cliffhanger moment, but actually I don’t like it period. This is just not a structure that works for me.

Except if you do it really well. Zelazny used the most remarkable flashback/flashforward technique in Doorways in the Sand. That’s how to handle this kind of technique — lean into it and do your best to make readers appreciate what you’re doing.

B) I don’t care. Whatever led the character to this point, here he is.

I don’t really want to know how he got here. Multiply this times a thousand if he is a villain. I absolutely, totally do not want to see any of the villain’s backstory. You, as the author, may find the bad guy interesting. You, as the author, may want me to be sorry that someone killed his dog when he was four. Too bad. I don’t care.

If you want to tell me something about anybody’s backstory, that character can tell a relevant anecdote about that in story-present. That works fine. if someone killed his dog when he was four, I will be very mad at them. I’m thinking of an incident in Ilona Andrews’ Burn For Me series. This is a great series because they are great writers and they would never in a million years screw up a flashback, by the way. They really showcase how to slowly reveal backstory in this series, which I do highly recommend.

Those are my biggest problems with flashbacks. Now, what does the linked post say?

You have too many flashbacks. Most interesting advice here: If you’re using lots of flashbacks to tell your story effectively, consider whether you may in fact have a multiple-timeline story. (Learn more about multiple timeline stories.) Link from the original.

The flashbacks are in the wrong place. Focus on flashback-prologues, usually a bad idea. Counterexample offered in the linked post of a flashback-prologue that does work, thus making the point that everything can work if handled well enough.

The flashbacks go on too long. Pacing issues.

They are clunky and obvious. “He remembered, as if it were yesterday, or “The scene played like a movie in her mind,” or “Suddenly she relived the moment when…” Yes to all this, and then the problem isn’t the flashback, it’s the clunky writing, which is probably going to be everywhere, not just in the flashback.

 The flashbacks don’t move the story forward. I do find this an amusing critique, not that this is wrong. Perhaps this would be better phrased: The flashbacks are unnecessary to the story / serve no purpose. The post notes, that the flashback should materially and essentially shed light on the character(s) and their arc in the main story, advance the main story with essential information, and/or raise stakes.  In other words, there’s a reason for it to be there.

The flashbacks aren’t directly relevant to the main story. Sounds like a subset of the prior point to me.

The flashbacks confuse readers.

OKAY. So: admirable use of flashback: Whispering Wood by Sharon Shinn.

This, you may recall, is a book I really loved and also a book where I noted the particularly elegant and effective use as flashbacks.

While we’re on the topic, here’s a prior post about flashbacks, in which I explained why I put two flashback chapters in SUELEN and how much I focused on smooth entry and exit of flashbacks in The Year’s Midnight.

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3 thoughts on “Why your flashbacks aren’t working”

  1. The biggest change for me is that I tend to write a much closer third person than I used to. Oh, wait, the BIGGEST change is that now I sometimes write in first person, which was prohibitively difficult when I first tried it. Flashbacks … I think I’m probably about the same with that. But I’m not sure.

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