Should you use flashbacks?
Expert Harvey Chapman says, “…if you can tell the story without them then so much the better.”
Author K.M. Weiland says, “Don’t let unnecessary flashbacks take over and rob the forward momentum from your story’s main conflict.”
Author Nancy Kress says, “Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over.”
Author Joëlle Anthony says, “Flashbacks inevitably go on too long and aren’t usually the best way to tell a story. A flashback is only effective if it moves the story forwards and it’s the only way to tell that part of the story.”
Screenwriter Jenna Milly says, “It’s better to see your character react to the information the writer wants to get out there in the here and now rather than have it explained in flashback.”
Personally, a recent professional critique made me realize I shouldn’t use a flashback in an opening scene. Making the story chronological gives the reader a chance to be grounded in the present. Author Bharti Kirchner says, “Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground.”
Another editor pointed out where a flashback scene in my novel wasn’t necessary. I read the story without the flashback and it made sense, so I totally cut it. Maybe writing the flashback was necessary for me to know what the characters were doing, but it wasn’t necessary for my reader.
But how do I get the information from the past into my story without a flashback?
First off, during a life and death situation, you don’t. A main character hanging by their fingertips doesn’t have time or energy to spend on memories—they’re trying to figure out how to survive!
Something from the past can be shared in brief dialogue or thoughts. And these thoughts or words could be inspired by a found object, sensory experience, or current event. In other words, something reminds the character of the past. For example, certain scents take me back to a vacation spot in the redwoods when I was a child.
Through conflict. Jenna Milly says, “Or better yet, another character notices how upset your protagonist is when he or she picks up the ring and then pushes for answers. This is how you get conflict – in the here and now – into a scene and also give us the information that would come out in the flashback.”
Use summaries. “One way to keep readers engaged with summaries is to keep them short and mix them between scenes,” Kyla Bagnall says. “You can also use a summary sentence or two as a transition between scenes.”
Tips for using flashbacks:
In her article “The Only Reason Your Story Should Have Flashbacks,” K.M. Weilland shares two reasons to have flashbacks. First, “the character has an interesting backstory.” And second, “the backstory moves the plot.”
In her article “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” Nancy Kress talks about using a flashback after a strong scene, orienting the reader in time and space, and using verb tense conventions to guide the reader in and out of the flashback.
In his article “How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing,” Harvey Chapman has three points: 1. “Make It Clear You are Moving Back in Time.” 2. “Hook the Reader First.” 3. “Make the Flashbacks Natural.”
And I love what Kayla Bagnall says, “A flashback should significantly alter either how the reader perceives the present, or how the character does.” This is from her article: “5 Ways To Handle The Passing Of Time In Your Story.”
Flashbacks can be a useful tool in nonfiction, too. This article “Time Traveling: Writing Graceful Flashbacks” by Mason Inman has interesting examples and explanations.
Writing is a solitary act for most of us. And usually we are too close to what we’ve written to see what is working and what isn’t. This is where a critique can be powerful. My favorite critiques are from other writers. (This is all separate from an editorial letter from an agent or editor, which would be after critiques.)
I’ve been in a number of critique groups as I moved around the country. Critiques of my work have caught typos, pointed out awkward or confusing sentences, asked for more depth, inspired me, taught me, and corrected me. My critique partners have suggested where to tighten, brainstormed when someone is struggling with a particular issue, shared marketing news, cheered successes, discussed possible comp titles, and become faithful friends.
So, what elements have I seen that make a good critique?
First, encouragement. It can be as simple as “Nice title” or “I like this character” or a smiley face. It could be: “I know you’ll figure this problem out.”
Second, kindness. A lot depends on how something is said. E.g. “I’m not getting this.” versus “This doesn’t make sense.”
Third, honesty. I’d much rather hear something isn’t working than be told polite lies that will become evident when others see my manuscript. E.g. “This is really good,” when it’s not.
Fourth, basic writing knowledge. Most of us don’t know everything about grammar and spelling, but critiquers need to have some basics to catch others’ mistakes.
Fifth, current readers. Those who read in the category and genre you write will have a better understanding of what is working in the current market.
Sixth, questions. Sometimes I learn more from questions than anything else. “Why is your character doing this?” “Where or when is this happening?” “What is your character’s motivation?” Oh, I haven’t made that clear, I realize. Or, I hadn’t thought about that. One of my critiquers often asks, “What’s the heart of the story?” Such a good question. Audrey Chin says, “Critiquing has taught me that the best stories are still the ones that move hearts.”
Seventh, time. It takes time to give a critique, whether it is in person or written. My favorite critique groups are face-to-face and have the writer read the material aloud. Each listener writes comments (positive and negative) on the manuscript, then the comments are shared aloud (unless someone else has already mentioned an issue). Time consuming, but so helpful, especially when one person’s comments prompt confirmation, disagreement, or suggestions from others.
Am I missing anything? Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section.
Have you ever spent time on twitter reading #tenqueries, #500queries, #querytip, or the like? If you haven’t, you might want to consider it. It’s a good reminder of what TO DO or NOT TO DO in a query and/or sample pages.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, agents post brief summaries of a sampling of the queries in their inbox on twitter and whether they would “request” or “pass.” I think we can learn from both. Sometimes you can find these on blogs and contests too.
Look at what these agents have to say:
NOT TO DO
“Mystery / suspense. Good concept but first three chapters are all backstory. Not entirely sure what this protagonist has to fear. Pass.” – Sharon Belcastro“Adult Psychological Thriller. The thriller aspect of this query is not focused on in the way it should be. It’s not the forefront of the pitch, making it feel like a subplot instead of the crux of the tension. Pass.” – Peter Knapp
“Do not, I repeat, DO NOT query a project you’re not done writing! Pass.” – Laura Zatts
“Something I see way too often in sample pages = ‘her brain rattled with shock upon seeing the dead body.’ That's going to end up in the ‘quality of writing not-quite-there-yet pile.’” – Sara Megibow
“Women's fiction. Premise is a bit flat and run of the mill. Nothing unique. Pass” – Scott Eagan
“Let me make this clear: I do not accept email submissions. And it is not in fact easier than Query Manager. If you can't respect that, I am not the agent for you.” – Natascha Morris
“If you're querying and find yourself using phrases such as your character ‘becomes someone he's not’ try to find more descriptive ways to show what the story's about. You want to pull readers into your story and to do that you need these details.” – Kortney Price
“A query letter that starts out ‘in lieu of a query I am sending...’ goes straight to spam. Email address flagged as ‘divert to spam from now on.’” – Janet Reid
“If your query focuses on a character who readers don't meet till halfway through the novel, you either started your book in the wrong spot, or you need to take another stab at that query synopsis.” – Michaela A. Cane
And WHAT TO DO!
“Your comp titles tell who your book's audience is. A quick reason why you chose them is helpful, e.g. ‘Fans of Satanic balls and political irony, as found in Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA will enjoy my super awesome book.’” – Mary C. Moore (Note: I’ve seen and heard agents say don’t tell us how good your book is.)
“Before you query, check the opening pages. Does your opening line raise a question? Does the story start in scene? Are the stakes clearly established? Make sure you engage the reader (agent).” – Jennifer March Soloway
“Pitch contests are fantastic, but never underestimate the power of an old fashioned query sent to an agent’s inbox. I’ve signed the majority of my wonderful clients from queries, so it still happens!” – Penny Moore
“Be Honest- If you previously had an Agent or your book had gone on submission to Editors before let the Agents you are querying know that.” – Christa Heschke
“If you don't mention genre or age group in your query (maybe because you're not sure?), it's obvious. Better to be decisive than to hope agents just won't notice.” – Melissa Edwards
“The query did a good job of capturing a fantastical plot with multiple surreal elements, which can be so hard to summarize, and the opening page drew me in with its voice, detail, and delicate sorrow.” – Rebecca Podos
I hope you found this selection of thoughts helpful.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.