Monday, May 10, 2010


Years ago, I wrote the sequel to Before the Storm, During the Fire v. 1.0. Which sucked.

That turned out to be a good thing in the long run, because looking back on that particular Cautionary Tale, I can see exactly what mistakes I made and can be sure to do better in v. 2.0, on which I’m working right now. But one of those mistakes was so… striking, for lack of a better word, that I thought I’d write about it.

In v. 1.0 there were ten chapters, three of which were flashbacks. Now the story revolved around several murders that had been committed over a decade ago, and the flashbacks were meant to show everything that led up to those. But there were certain problems.

1. Length of the flashback

The longer a flashback is, the longer the readers will be away from the main plot. If something tense or fascinating is happening in the present, they may be justifiably annoyed at the time-travel to the past.

And if nothing especially exciting is happening in the present, and if the flashback is a long one, they might have forgotten what’s going on in the main plot by the end of the flashback.

So there’s really no excuse for a chapter-length flashback, much less three of them. I’d planned the book to be written in the zipper format, with the two timelines more or less converging at the end of the novel, but the fact remained that I could have condensed the events of the past to a page or two – which I’m doing now. And that page itself will be broken up into paragraphs dispersed through the narrative.

If the forward motion of the plot were a car, it would have a bumper sticker saying “I brake for flashbacks”. Brake too often, or too long, and the readers seek another conveyance.

2. Repetitiveness

One problem with the flashbacks in v. 1.0 – that I only realized after writing the book – was that since they explained what had happened in the past, it would be redundant for the protagonist to piece that together in the present as well. And yet he had to do so, or the crimes would have been left unsolved.

Flashbacks are better used for something the characters don’t or cannot know, or to show brief incidents in the past that illustrate the characters’ current feelings or motivations.

3. Flashbacks say what you don’t need to say

It’s always a good idea to consider long flashbacks and see if they’re telling the readers something they don’t need to know.

For instance, let’s say that at the start of the book, the protagonist’s marriage has broken up, and the rest of the book will be about how she slowly falls in love again. It wouldn’t help to have a long flashback dwelling on incidents in her marriage. If this occurs at the start of the novel, it might even give readers the impression that the story is going to be about how she gets back together with this person in the flashback.

And it may also be more effective to provide a few, specific points and let readers fill in the gaps. “I fitted into the second-hand Toyota. I was lost in the new X300” takes less time than explaining all the details and consequences of one person preferring the simpler working-class life while the other aimed higher and grew to enjoy wealth and luxuries.

Was writing v. 1.0 a waste? No. Not only did it show me what not to do in terms of plot, the worldbuilding in it is solid and I’m using that foundation to reconstruct the mystery as I work on v. 2.0. No writing is wasted if you put your heart into it.

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LM Preston said...

Thanks for posting this. I don't do flashback personally, but I read quite a bit of betas that do. Sometimes they are pretty well done, no more than a paragraph and very specific to the plot of the book. Other times, they just don't work. You've pointed out great reasons why. Thanks for posting.

mlouisalocke said...

Thoughtful post. I found when I was working on rewriting my first novel I kept paring away at the flashbacks as well. What I realized is that those flashbacks were really the step I now take of writing a fairly detailed biography for the main characters. Once I have that mini biography (including descriptions of some main events in their lives) it is easier to slip in references to that past without doing an extended flashbacks.

Marian Perera said...

Glad you liked it, LM. As you mentioned, though, sometimes they're necessary to the plot of the book, and I've read some books that were all flashback.

You know - they begin with a suspenseful situation and then show everything leading up to that moment. Like "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" at the start of Lace.

mlouisalocke - That's an excellent use of flashbacks! Thanks for explaining it.