Flashbacks

There was some talk on my chapter loop yesterday about flashbacks and I thought I’d share my comments with you here.

Flashbacks are one of those storytelling devices that don’t get a lot of respect. There are many writing instructors who state that flashbacks – like prologues, another much-maligned device, or dreams – should never ever be used. There are a couple of reasons for these injunctions:

• flashbacks move the focus of the story from the present to the past
• flashbacks can interrupt the flow and progression of the story
• flashbacks can slow the pacing
• because flashbacks can be simply information dumps, they are common examples of lazy writing.

That said, a flashback can be a very useful storytelling device. The trick is using flashbacks appropriately and with discretion.

And I think a big part of that is knowing what kind of book you’re writing. Genre fiction – like romance – tends to be more linear in structure, and devices like flashbacks are less commonly found there. (Or they work well less frequently.) This is because the focus of the story is so tight.

In a romance, for example, the story is that of the developing romantic relationship. A romance begins with the Meet and ends with the HEA. Every single scene needs to move the plot forward and take the characters closer to their HEA – a scene that drops the reader into the past is more likely to interrupt the flow than to progress it.

Additionally, the flashback will likely be of an emotionally potent experience from the life of one protagonist – by definition, that excludes the other protagonist, which makes it less likely that the flashback will advance the plot. It still can, but there are risks.

Besides, there might be better ways to deal with that information. Consider that the emotionally scarring experience might well be the internal conflict of that protagonist, the thing that keeps him or her from fully trusting in the other protagonist. So, it can be much more effective writing and storytelling for the emotionally-wounded character to confide in the other – because intimacy isn’t just about sex. Sharing secrets and revealing emotional wounds indicates trust and the building of the bond between the two protagonists, and is key to a plausible conclusion in a romance.

If the second character acknowledges the burden of this pain and takes steps to help the first character heal, that’s progressing the plot even further. The author has revisited the past and addressed its legacy in a compelling and active way, without a flashback.

Another example is a romance in which the two protagonists have a shared past. (These are sometimes called “epic romances”, because they often take the better part of a lifetime to resolve.) In this case, the flashback might be to shared experience – perhaps their falling in love, or their breaking up. It will often be quite emotionally charged. But in order to propel the plot forward, the flashback must do more than inform the reader – it must impact the characters. So, the character having the flashback will see a new side of the incident as a result of recent interactions with the other protagonist, and choose to act differently in future. That progresses the story because it should change the other protagonist’s reactions, getting the pair out of a behavior rut that hasn’t worked in the past.

Alternatively, the protagonists could argue, or experience something together that changes their view of the past and compels them to make different choices than they have before. This can address the same issue in a more active way, without a flashback, and may be more compelling.

The pacing may well slow down, but the epic romance often has slower pacing anyway, by merit of the time span of the story. In a way, it’s a story that is closer to women’s fiction, which is closer to literary fiction, than it is to romance.

Flashbacks are more common in women’s fiction, literary fiction and historical fiction, because these books are about the emotional journey of one protagonist. It is more likely then that a flashback will work in advancing the plot – because the whole story is keyed to the protagonist’s character arc. It begins with the character needing to change – by choice or by circumstance – and ends when the character finds a new point of balance. That requires review of his/her life, new understandings and new choices. Those are also more squishy departure points and destinations than in a romance, so there’s more room to accommodate devices like flashbacks.

People advise keeping flashbacks short, but the real issue is to keep them pertinent. They must change something, or provoke change in the protagonist – and like all scenes, they must earn their page allotment by moving the plot closer to its resolution. The genre of your book will also be a variable in determining whether the flashback is appropriate, or whether there’s a better way to deal with the information.

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