Flashback scenes are tempting. They can solve a ton of problems. You’re writing along and you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, and your character has no reason to feel the way she does about the way her boyfriend/boss/sister is confronting her. So instead of slowing down and reacquainting with the character, a writer will decide that this would be a terrific opportunity for a flashback.
The flashback will inevitably be something high drama like being in the back of a car with a drunk college boy and getting raped or watching a mother get run over by a car something. There, thinks the writer, brushing her hands together, I’ve done it. I’ve explained everything.
This speaks to a thing I notice in a lot of the writing I read for money, and a thing that really has no place in published fiction: writers think their readers are stupid.
It’s best to think of your reader as the smartest, sneakiest fox there is: Someone who will get it no matter what you’re doing; the jerk who always knows what’s going to happen in the first scene of the movie.
You need to write on your A-game.
It also means that there’s a lot of other stuff to consider in terms of your self-promotion gene, your chutzpah, and your commitment to all the stuff that comes along with the writing life, both before and after you have a draft. (Comments here are as helpful as the post).
I find flashbacks to be particularly vexing when the author has carefully peppered the exposition and rising action with all the pertinent details that they then proceed to bludgeon me with in the flashback.
Okay, but what if a flashback is the only way?
I doubt that is the case, but if it is, there are some tips at the end of this post.
Here are some things to do if you find yourself in a situation where you want to flash back.
1. Do a free write with the character in whose point of view the flashback would occur. Write in first person, and answer the question that spurs the flashback in your prose. If you are stuck and can’t figure out why, start answering the mundane questions like what your character does for work, how she feels about her parents, whether she’s ever had an eating disorder. Flash back with your character, outside of the context of the story. Your character may show you the way, if you let her.
2. Really look at your plot. Plots generally have an arc structure: roughly rising action, climax, then denoument. Maybe you’ve got a dip in the rising action and you need to up the ante. Maybe what you thought was the climax is really the inciting incident. You have to open your mind about your story. You have to be ready to let your characters foil your plans, however well-laid they are. You have to be ready for your characters to do something you find to be deplorable or abhorrent, and still love them.
3. Talk it out. Call your favorite writing buddy or critique partner, and give them a synopsis. They probably will not need to say anything. Hearing yourself tell it out loud will likely do the trick. If not, maybe your buddy can help by asking you pointed questions about what else you need to show your reader to earn the thing that makes you think you need a flash back.
4. Do the flashback. Let it in the draft, then keep writing. When you’re revising, figure out how to chunk that flashback up and give whispers of it throughout the exposition and rising action, letting out one crucial detail at a time. Giving it all up too early will be like feeding your reader sleeping pills. You have to give your characters dimension along the way.
How to Tell if You Can Keep Your Flashback
1. Your flashback gives information (i.e. specific details about an event in a character’s past) that is crucial to the story, and that it’s nor appropriate to give in any other way (when you character was a child they had a particular experience that they’ve repressed or something).
2. Your flashback propels the plot.
3. The flashback gives a bit of the story that isn’t or can’t be mentioned in any other context of the story.
4. The flashback contains its own narrative arc (exposition, rising action, inciting incident, climax, denoument) that is 100% necessary to the rest of the story.
For each of these, I would caution that you or people who love you or are related to you should probably not try to make the assessment. Ask for help from an editor or professor or casual, writing acquaintence. Get yourself some beta readers (they are generally inexpensive, can provide stunning insight, and are typically pleased with an extremely small stipend or a copy of the book once it’s published, if it is).
Have any great stories about overcoming the urge to flash back, or can you remember reading a story that made you feel like the reader thought you were stupid by telling you what she already showed you by throwing it all into a flashback, too? Or in some other way?
If you wanna hang out and talk more about this kind of stuff, and do some writing, too, you should look into my workshops.