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  1. #1
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    How do you feel about flashbacks?

    So, I've been outlining the novel I'm planning on writing and for quite some time I've been planning on including some flashbacks to flesh out the back stories of several of the main characters. (Especially the main protagonist) However, in an attempt to improve upon my writing I have been reading a lot on the internet about different writing methods and have, on more than one occasion, come across the advice to avoid flashbacks at all cost. What are your personal opinions on flashbacks? Should they be done? Can they be done well enough to be included in a novel, or should they be avoided completely and the backstories expressed in some other way? How much is too much? Any advice on this would be greatly appreciated.

  2. #2
    and Noumenon was his name Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    I'm having a really intense one, right now.

  3. #3
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Leon Hudson View Post
    I'm having a really intense one, right now.
    No, silly. Those are hot flashes, not flashbacks.

    Don't mind him, locofife. We've all had one of those days.

    Flashbacks are...well, let's be honest, shall we? We've all used them at one point or another. It is hard not to want to use them.

    They seem so dramatic and exciting, but really they are like huge detour signs in the middle of the road. You can see where you want to go, it's just right over there and all you want to do is keep going, but there's this friggin' detour. If it goes on too long, you might just get lost. Or worse, you stop.

    Unless you are Cormac McCarthy and are about to show us when the protagonist's wife is about to off-herself, refrain from using flashbacks.

    However, if you are basing your story on flashbacks, like, that's the writing gimmick (for lack of a better term) you want to use, then by all means, go for it. The worse feedback you'll get is that it didn't work.

  4. #4
    and Noumenon was his name Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by N. E. White View Post
    No, silly. Those are hot flashes, not flashbacks.
    I can be having both.

    Nila got in there ahead of me, I see, but here's me tuppence.

    As with all things writerly, the first rule is, There Are No Absolutes But This One. Flashbacks, like any other tool of story-telling, can be used well or poorly. For me, good reasons might include wanting to explain an apparent revelation after it happens rather than before, or wanting to overturn a belief about the past which you've built up in the reader's mind, etc. - in effect, as a tool for working an effect upon the reader. However, simply deciding "hmm, think I'll have a flashback here" sounds less like a useful choice.

    From what you say here, I'm not totally convinced that fleshing out the backstories of various characters is an overwhelming reason to risk (maybe repeatedly) derailing your foreground narrative. If these flashback events are themselves cool little sequences, effectively chapters in their own right, it may be that you're simply starting your narrative too late; maybe they would be better placed at the beginning of the story in chronological sequence, where they just go towards establishing your characters as we meet them.

    If, on the other hand, the flashbacks contain vital data which would spoil the story if the reader was informed from the outset, that would be different. To take the mystery genre as an example, a murder investigation story could make very entertaining use of flashbacks. Instead of having each witness just tell Miss Marple what they did or saw in dialogue, we could segue into their subjective experiences directly - and the final parlour-room reveal could also be a flashback, only one that discards all the errors and erroneous detail in favour of The True Facts Of The Case.

    Anyway, my general opinion (one of them anyway) would be that you should have a good reason for using them, and if you do go that way, less is probably more. I have read a lengthy novel by a friend (unpublished, and here's a reason why) in which he used a flashback structure at the start of no less than every single one of thirty plus chapters, some of which also had flashbacks in them. That might sound amusing, but believe me, it wears thin quick. There's no telling some people though...

    A second, counter example: another member of the same writers group as that guy has what she describes as a flashback in her novel. It's a monster, thirty pages long all told, and since it took the form of several chapters it's debatable whether we're even talking about the same kind of thing - yet it is a flashback, really. I've just finished convincing her to relocate it deeper into the book (she confirmed it this morning!), and if I have my way it'll eventually come out as a discrete section in its own right. But this is something more in the sense of the mystery example above - it will serve an interesting, experiential purpose for a reader not yet fully informed; it will take them from being in the dark alongside the main character to knowing more than they do, both of which can be highly motivating positions to occupy.
    Last edited by Andrew Leon Hudson; February 4th, 2015 at 05:52 PM.

  5. #5
    The Happy Nephandus Yzabel's Avatar
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    "Avoid at all cost" is one of those pieces of advice I'd take with a grain of salt. After all, I've seen "avoid prologues at all costs", yet so many fantasy novels use them. "Avoid using too many dialogue tags at all costs"... but then, don't forget to make it easy for the reader to know who's talking. And so on.

    Do you have to avoid flashbacks at all cost? No. Are they necesary in general? No. Can you pull flashbacks in a seamless way, integrating them properly within your story, and with an actual aim to boot (not just "it's cool" or "I need some filler here")? OK, go for it.

    IMHO, like so many aspects of writing, it's how you do it that matters. (Also, you'll always find someone who'll tell you the exact contrary of what you've just read, so at some point, you have to sift through all the avice, and see what YOU can make out of it, with your own skills.)

  6. #6
    Random Guy Ralph Rotten's Avatar
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    Flashbacks are a key method of character development. They give you insight to the characters, and characters are everything.

    I don't know if I'd really use the term flashback. That almost implies being jerked back in time, like something from a Mack Bolan novel. But there is nothing wrong with a non-linear timeline.

  7. #7
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Why don't you read Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora and see if you like that as a style for you, locofife. It is a story told on two timetracks, one in the present and the other flashbacks of the past when the main characters were younger. It was a World Fantasy and British Fantasy Society award nominee, and a category bestseller. You can also take a look at The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. It's a bestselling novel and it's written almost entirely in flashback, with a present day framing device of the story being told. The flashbacks are in fact the main point of the trilogy that Rothfuss is writing. There's also Stephen King's It, one of his most successful horror novels, made into a miniseries and it won the British Fantasy Award and was nominated for several others. It also has two alternating timelines, past and present, that are connected.

    The people who advocate no flashbacks are promoting a particular sort of style. Which is fine if you want to go with that sort of style. Otherwise, it's not very helpful advice. Anything that tells you that you should never do some sort of writing technique or narrative device is not very helpful advice. It's unrealistic and impractical and usually ignores half the market.

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    Thank you all for your sound advice. I will re-examine my story and make some decisions about whether the story needs flashbacks, whether I should incorporate the information in another way, or whether I should begin the story at an earlier point in time.

  9. #9
    Dreamer and Author K.S. Crooks's Avatar
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    I would treat it the same as a dream sequence. Use it marginally for a specific reason. Perhaps limit it to only the main character who the flashback is for. The flashback can happen through another character and may be a way to show their perspective. Stay in the now as much as possible.

  10. #10
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    Flashbacks are an important literary tool. But like any tool, you should only pull flashbacks out of your tool bag when you need them.

    So look at this tool and see what it's good for (this is a partial list, I'm sure):

    * Withholding events in a character's past until said events become necessary to the story. Most of the time, though, you can fill in little bits of a character's past as the story goes along:

    ...But even Heads had seen contracts dwindle to almost nothing over the past half–century. So maybe the debacle over his last mission had nothing to do with his prolonged unemployment. After all, he had been cleared of all wrongdoing.

    Somehow, though, he doubted it.
    That's an excerpt from a novella of mine. It's a foreshadowing of a flashback that happens much later in the book. I've prepared the reader that there was some problem with the protagonist's last mission, that he had been cleared of doing bad things, but it probably had still come with consequences. At this point in the story there was no need to expound upon all that. It would become more relevant later and hopefully when the flashback comes, it's not (as Nila mentioned above) a "huge detour" but rather an anticipated explanation...Ah, now we find the real details! kind of moment.

    * Plot reveals, i.e. withholding important info that would be a massive spoiler if told too soon.
    * Revealing forgotten or suppressed events to your characters...i.e., they can be used for psychological development.
    * Story structure. I've seen whole books where flashbacks are an integral part of the story's architecture (Iain M. Banks's Use of Weapons, for example...oh...and my own NightBird Calling actually). In this case, the flashbacks are a means of pacing and plot unfolding.
    * The Rashomon effect where flashbacks are used from the POV of different characters to tell conflicting perspectives of the same story (or part of a story).
    * Unreliable narrator: flashbacks are often essential to pulling off this classic trope. The flashbacks revealing the "truth" . . . or not.

    So there are many reasons to use the, but none of them are "just to fill in back story" because they then become a prime means of massive data dumps.

    And, just as data dumps should be avoided in general, flashbacks are sometimes necessary or desirable.

  11. #11
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    Oh...and worst use of flashback ever...I won't name the book, it's not that famous or popular. The main character has a long flashback, during which the author changes scenes and gives a conversation between two characters that the main character was not a party to.

    0_O

    Yes, that's right, in the middle of a flashback from the MC's POV we witness something the MC doesn't know. It's not like we were pulled back out of the flashback or anything, this was right smack in the middle of it, and it was the only really important piece of information we learned from the flashback...

    My brain still hurts over that one. (How does this kind of thing even get published?)

  12. #12
    Random Guy Ralph Rotten's Avatar
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    It's all about the characters, and any trick that makes the readers like your characters more is fair game. It doesn't matter how enticing your storyline is, if the reader does not fall in love with your character within the first 3 pages then your books will never sell in the first place (since amazon provides 30+ pages of pre-viewing.)

    But flashbacks can be done all wrong and give a cheap effect, true enough. However, judiciously applied they can break up a linear storyline nicely while better endearing your characters to the reader. In fact, inserting a flashback is a low-impact way of pumping up your heros without cutting the hell outta the existing storyline (as you will find yourself doing during the edit phase.)

  13. #13
    Man of Ways and Means kennychaffin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew Leon Hudson View Post
    I'm having a really intense one, right now.
    Ha! Mee too!

    as far as the question, it really all depends on how it's handled.....Narration is Everything in my book....

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