Favorite Writing Rules To Break – Flashbacks

Writing rules – and our favorite ones to break – has been a topic that repeatedly comes up at Ferret Business Meetings when we’re just chattering. (Yes, we have business meetings! Those are what keeps this blog on track!) One of the more common sayings in the writing community is that you have to know the writing rules before you break them, so you know how and when to break them properly.

But sometimes writing ‘rules’ are really writing pet peeves, and so much of it is dependent on genre. (Note: we are not talking about grammar rules here. Those are necessary, and while they can be bent, most of them cannot be completely broken. Learn them. Know them. Become one with them.)

In the last few years in the writing world, especially those who write/read fantasy, I’ve heard a lot of negative comments about flashbacks. It took me a bit by surprise.

Flashbacks can fall both into the writing rules and writing pet peeves classifications. Flashbacks are not appropriate for every story, and especially not for every point of view. They work best in stories that are in third person or first person, but they have to be consistent to the specific character with the main point of view in that scene. And flashbacks can easily fall into being cumbersome – especially if there are too many of them.

But flashbacks can be an amazing tool when executed well. Without the use of flashbacks, a writer is limited to only using exposition to convey a relevant past experience that is necessary to the story.

Make note of that clause: necessary to the story. That’s your criteria for any flashback you want to include.

Flashbacks can add a lot of depth to a story, and to the characters. An antagonist’s motivation can be more easily revealed to the reader even if the POV character is not aware of it, because the reader can visualize the past incident and pick up on tone and body language cues that the character may be missing themselves.

We can also learn a lot about the characters themselves through flashbacks.

Flashbacks can show how drastically – or how little – someone has changed or grown in their life. Even if we don’t know what it was that spurred that change, or lack thereof, seeing a glimpse at how a character was in the past can spark curiosity in the reader. They’ll continue reading because they want to know why things are the way they are.

Flashbacks can also be disguised. In my work-in-progress novel, Catalyst, I use flashbacks between chapters for insight into Sachi, one of the characters. The flashbacks read more like journal entries, or like she’s talking about a memory with someone else.

You can also use them as actual, real-life flashbacks if you’re dealing with a character that has been traumatized. These types of flashbacks may be disjointed, but not always.

Just remember – the information given in the flashback must be necessary to the story.

How To Use Flashbacks

  1. Sparingly. If your story is constantly overrun with flashbacks, then you started your story at the wrong point of your timeline.
  2. To Show, Not Tell. Exposition can often take the ‘oomph’ out of a moment. When a the story would benefit most from seeing something as it happened in the character’s past, use a flashback.
  3. With Clear Formatting. This is the deal-breaker for all flashbacks. It must be clear when and where the flashback begins and ends. This can be as simple as italicizing the entire flashback. Don’t forget that this is just a memory the character is experiencing, though, and have a little bit of a lead in (“She remembered that night clearly…”) and something that pulls them out of the memory when it ends (“The kitchen timer went off, pulling her from her thoughts.”)


Do you like or dislike flashbacks? Are there any writing rules that you like to break?


2 thoughts on “Favorite Writing Rules To Break – Flashbacks

  1. I actually like flashbacks! Definitely for some of the reasons you mention, like establishing – or, rather, letting the reader see/intuit for themselves – things the POV character may not have picked up themselves by showing them scenes from the past (rather than trying to crowbar in telling them somewhere). Sometimes it can really help figure out things about even the POV character, I think – maybe things they don’t want to think about or don’t realise about themselves.

    I do think flashbacks are very easy to use in less-than-ideal ways, and perhaps that is why so many people disdain them. I’ve read many stories peppered with flashbacks that weren’t necessary – also, if there is more ‘flashback’ than ‘now’ in a story for multiple chapters on end it starts feeling like the author wanted to tell a different story than they’re trying to. And you can forget what is actually going on in the ‘present’.

    Flashbacks can work if they are confusing, but really only in certain ways (one of those ‘technically you can but maybe don’t try it’ sorts of techniques perhaps?) and I feel like I have read a lot of flashbacks that try to be mysterious to draw your interest and really just leave a reader feeling like they have a) no idea what’s going on, and b) like the flashback was pointless. Not a good effect. Generally speaking, it shouldn’t leave me feeling more lost and confused than before, it should explain something! Or at least give me something to puzzle at.

    That said . . . I do really like them, when used properly, despite having read many examples (in many different ways) of what doesn’t really work. And I have to say, especially as a reader – and writer – with fantasy as my home base, I was very surprised the first time I read/heard that ‘flashbacks are bad’ advice. (Much like the ‘nobody reads prologues, skip them‘ advice, which- Well, that’s another ramble entirely from me. >.>)

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