Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Time Travel Anyone?

The comments from my last post--along with the novel I am working on--have reminded me how common it is for writers to use flashbacks in their work. Flashbacks are a great way to show previous experiences leading up to a present character's development. In a pretty brief episode, readers can see what happened and thus understand a current expression or flaw in a character's thinking, or find justification for a character's emotional reaction to the current circumstances.

However--and this is a big however--far too often flashbacks are completely overused. Some novels, like John Carroll's The Ghost in Love, include around a hundred little flashbacks to let readers in on tiny background details. These details add little to the actual conversation, but merely seem to make the characters sound more quirky, or interrupt the action at hand. 

And then, of course, television offers a bunch of these sorts of things, too. Lost and other shows sometimes spend whole episodes in one character's past, and these episodes risk losing an entire audience who really wanted to keep following the current story.

I tend to dislike rules in general, but I do keep a few things in mind when I use a flashback, even a brief one:

1. The flashback should illustrate the bigger story, not take it over.

2. Clarity is crucial, for confusion can lead readers to stop reading.

3. A character's history is not nearly as important as what he is doing now.

I create tons of history for all of my characters--past experiences, old relationships, etc.--but I tend in my own life to be caught up in the present, so I like my novel reading to be the same. That is why I thought The Ghost in Love was a pretty lame novel (boring and lame). It's also why I don't watch Lost (not since season 2)

Still, flashbacks have a place in writing, even in my own writing. Knowing the past of a character can help readers understand them more in the present. I just use this technique sparingly, to minimize the distraction. 

How do all of you use flashbacks? What purpose do they serve in your own writing? 


  1. You know, I don't spend a lot of time on flashbacks. If I do one, it's often one person telling another about something that happened in the past - tells the reader and other characters at the same time.

    In one of my novels, I did use the flashbacks for an effect, but they were flashbacks to a pivotal person in history to explain a very quirky culture. And, even there, I used a magical device that allowed people to relive the past (which also explained how they had kept their origins so untainted through centuries) via magic.

    In the novel I'm working on now, no flashbacks at all and I really didn't have more than very brief couple lines describing, but not reliving events.

  2. I use flashbacks on a very limited basis.

    But when I do, the reason for having them is because the thought is overwhelming in shaping the characters psychological profile. And the character having the flashback would in real life (if they were alive) Spend time lamenting the fact this little part of their past.

    I use them to show natural behavior, just like everyone that has live through something horrible we spend some time thinking back on the subject/event.

    But I agree 1 or 2 flashbacks a book is plenty. If you get to many they hurt the story and slow the flow….

  3. I wrote one where the present was used in conjunction with the flash backs but the main gist of the story was told in the flash backs until the the time was right for present and past to merge in the final chapter.

    Then I have another where the flashbacks are spare and minimal just to allow the reader to see why the character feels what he does. In that I think less than a thousand of the forty thousand words is in flashback.

    Personally I think only you, as the writer, can determine how the history of a character can be determined. Some scream for a linear progression and other need to have their history told.

    Either way it is the quality of the story telling which grabs the reader isn't it?