To flashback or not to flashback, that is the question.

Now, the thing about flashbacks in fiction (or in film and TV for that matter) is that they can be a great way to show something of importance that happened to a character in the past, that impacts on their current situation or personality and helps to build that character as a believable, 3-dimensional person. The problem is that, too many of them and they become a pain, an irritation and, at worst, a killer of the main plot or any tension in the storyline. It’s all about back-story and just how you approach that.

So, with that in mind, when I set about writing my latest WIP, The Village Witch, I very deliberately decided to keep flashbacks to a minimum. There are, I think, two (maybe three – memory’s getting worse!) at the moment and I believe they are necessary to the plot/character building. Everything else that could have been told in flashbacks I have tried to do through dialogue and/or moments of memory rather than a full flashback. My concern is that in doing so I just might have lessened the roundness of my characters or not explained certain important past events well enough for the reader.

It would be relatively easy for me to go and add those flashbacks in (I know their stories well enough in my head) and, from a practical point of view, in doing so I would probably increase the length of the book by at least 50%. However, to do so might just kill the forward drive of the story and the, if I’ve done it right, growing tension of the early sections and excitement of the later.

The above are all points I have asked my reader (that’s my wife by the way, in case you didn’t know) to bear in mind as she works her way through it, crossing out half my words and scribbling harsh notes in the margins. I feel quite anxious about her feelings on the subject once she’s reached the end. Did I make the right decision in avoiding the majority of potential flashbacks, or have I made the book frustratingly vague and lacking in back-story?

Anybody out there have any opinions on flashbacks, either from a reader’s or a writer’s point of view? I’d be interested to hear.



2 thoughts on “To flashback or not to flashback, that is the question.

  1. I read a book this year where the story was told at least 50% in flashback. For me, it was like taking a road trip where I was constantly forced to drive all the way back to the house to read a map glued to my coffee table. The payoff of the book ultimately ended up lost in the shuffle back and forth. I still wish that the author had just started the story earlier in the main character’s life instead of using so many flashbacks. You are right to worry that flashbacks have the potential to kill the drive of your story. Flashbacks are a device that I, as a reader, need writers to use carefully.

  2. The character where they have been and where they are now can be done with a simple insertion of a simple statement or two as in: For Andy to get through a single day with his boss, he used the acting skills he learned when working with theatre troupes in the past. Laugh clown, laugh, man. As far as actual flashbacks used, the last book placed them in separate chapters and their relevance played out on the return to the present. I believe there were maybe 4 to 5 flashback at best. In short stories, they can be a absolute killer of the story. Piss off or confuse a reader, they will never you again.

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