Monday, November 24, 2014

Flashbacks: Do Them Right, Or Not At All

Alright, here's a disclaimer: I think flashbacks are one of those things that some like and some hate and some are indifferent toward; please keep in mind that my comments about this aspect of novel-writing are coming from a mostly inexperienced writer currently learning the craft and trying to improve, and that I'm probably coming as much from a reader, today, as I'm coming from a writer. Also, every novel is different, and, obviously, I cannot tell you what to do with your life or your books.

So that being said: flashbacks. Also, I'm going to try to work on making my posts not-so-exceedingly-long, so I'll just dive in, shall I?

There are reasons to use flashbacks, and there are reasons not to use flashbacks.

Do not rely on flashbacks to give out simple background information about any aspect of your novel. If you find that you're using flashbacks a lot to let the reader know about things that happened in the past, then maybe consider starting your book earlier?

Do use flashbacks as a garnish. Or a frosting. Or sprinkles. Whichever metaphor you choose, you want more of the actual meat of the novel than the extras.  They're supposed to enhance the narrative, not completely overwhelm it. Don't make your reader search for what's happening in the here and now (besides, too many flashbacks can give your reader whiplash much in the same way that changing POVs too often does).

Do not mix flavors that have no business being anywhere near each other (to go back to the food metaphors). Flashbacks are like those random memories you get in the middle of your day: something somebody says or does, or something you see, or something that happens, etc. brings up certain and specific memories. Those are flashbacks. Which means that if you're using a flashback, it should have some kind of connection to what's happening in the here and now of your character's life. Don't let it be something random; otherwise, it looks like you panicked, opened to a random page, and just kind of shoved it in. Give the reader a lead-in, and make it obvious why you're putting it where you're putting it.

Do give it some sort of emotional significance. This is my personal alternative for using them as background information: the narrative of the here and now should explain to the reader why this event is important. Use the flashback to explain to the reader exactly how the character felt. Emotion and tension go a long way in putting the reader in the shoes of your character and explaining to them why the event is so significant in their mind (that is: why they're thinking of it).

Basically use flashbacks far and few between. My advice is to stay away from them if you can, but then again there are some instances where they will do a far better job at getting your point across. I've personally used them, and I enjoy using them only if I know I can do them right. Likewise, I love reading them only if they're done right.

My biggest pet peeve goes all the way to point number one: if you're relying on a flashback to give background information to the reader, please reconsider your options. They become tedious that way, and you want every word that you write to pack the biggest punch.

So, honestly: what are ya'll's thoughts on flashbacks? When should you use them, when should you shy away? I'm genuinely curious: let's have a discussion about this, shall we?

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Flashbacks are a tricky matter. @Rae_Slater shares her opinions on when to use them, and when to seek other options. (Click to Tweet)

To use a flashback, or not to use a flashback. @Rae_Slater shares her opinion and asks: what do you think? (Click to Tweet)

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