Friday, July 1, 2011

To flashback or not to flashback?

Today Jenny B. Jones is featuring me on her blog. I adore Jenny and her books, so it was a real honor to be invited. Click here to check it out. After you read about why I no longer want to meet celebrities, you can get yourself entered to win a copy of So Over It.

In the next couple weeks, we'll be wrapping up our series on writing a novel from start to finish. In mid-July we'll start a new series on getting published. Many of you have expressed a curiosity about self-publishing, which I know very little about, so we'll have lots of guests on here talking about their experiences with self-publishing. It'll be educational for both of us.

But today we're talking about flashbacks. A writer emailed me to ask about a book that opened with a flashback, what I thought about that, and when flashbacks should be used.

These are my opinions, not rules, so take 'em or leave 'em.

I don't think books should open with a flashback.

While it may be well-written, while it may be important to the story, my feeling is the reader doesn't understand why they should care yet. Usually when a book opens with a flashback, I don't understand its significance until much later in the story. So why are we opening with it? It's better to draw the reader in with what's happening now.

Are there exceptions? Of course. In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm realizing that my current WIP opens with an event that happens a year before the story starts. In that situation, I think it works. My crit partners will have to tell me for sure. My story is about a girl whose life gets completely derailed when her best friend is killed in a car accident before their senior year of high school. So the first scene is the night of the accident, and the next scene is a year later. I've never done this before, the whole prologue/flashback thing, so we'll see if I pull it off.

As always, story is king.

Don't use a flashback (or a flash-forward) as an excuse for a flabby opening

This drives me crazy - a book opens with an action scene. You're totally into it. Then you discover this is either a flashback or a flash-forward, and the "real" story begins. It begins with something like, "It was a fine sunny day, and Joan was taking a walk through the rolling hills of her neighborhood."


That's what I call a cheater opening. To me it always reads like the writer felt chapter one was boring, so they stuck some action from another time in the character's life into the beginning in hopes of better drawing us in. I think it's lazy. This happens in Mission Impossible 3. Great movie. Lousy opening. Especially for me, since torture scenes make me want to curl up in the fetal position and suck my thumb.

Only one (maaaaybe two) flashbacks allowed per book

When I say flashbacks, I'm talking about a scene that takes place in a completely different time, where it's several pages long, possibly marked by italics, and is maybe even it's own chapter.

I'm not talking about backstory like this, where it's woven into what's currently going on. I've marked the backstory with italics:
I steal another glance at Palmer, who’s digging through his backpack, still blocking the doorway. And my ability to think clearly. I look away before he catches me watching.

When the new school year arrived, so did he. Kentucky born and raised, he has a charming southern drawl I had only heard in movies. We don’t get many southerners here in the California valley.

Palmer and I have had exactly two conversations. They went like this:

Palmer: Where’s Rachel?
Me: Bathroom.
Palmer: Oh.
Conversation number two:
Palmer: Where’s Rachel?
Me: Dentist appointment.
Palmer: Ah.

It’s embarrassing how many times I’ve relived these. Especially because Palmer Davis isn’t my type at all. Not that—being only sixteen—I’ve had much time to develop my type, but I know he’s not it. Palmer’s the kind of alpha-male hero you might be drawn to in a novel, but someone you should have the smarts to avoid in real life. He’s too good looking, too smooth, too funny. I’m more into the quiet, slightly nerdy guys. Who, if they took off their glasses and unbuttoned their shirt, could possibly be Superman.

Rachel turns in her seat. With her pencil, she gives my homework an impatient tap. “Seven or a nine?”

I lean to inspect. “Seven.”

This isn't a flashback because it isn't describing a particular incident in great detail. Instead, it's just giving the reader a quick overview of Gabby and Palmer's relationship thus far. Which is a technique that should also be used sparingly.

In her book Deep and Wide, Susan May Warren sums it up nicely. She says:

A flashback should only be used when the scene or event that happened in the past is both complex in nature - meaning it has many facets to it that relate to the character's emotional journey - as well as being relevant to the storytime plot or emotional journey of the character.

In the Skylar series, the book opens right after a big part, at which Skylar was nearly date-raped. That event is a catalyst for Skylar's journey, and she thinks about it frequently in books one and two. But it didn't become necessary to recreate that night in a detailed flashback until So Over It, when two things happen - 1. The guy returns home for the summer and she faces him again. 2. It's clear to her that the way she remembers that night isn't 100% accurate (darn roofies) and before she can officially get over it, she needs to determine what exactly happened.

In books one and two, an entire chapter retelling the party would have only bogged down the story. In So Over It, it was both relevant to the story and complex in nature, so in it went. And if you'd like to read So Over It for yourself, now's a good time to head over to Jenny's blog and get entered to win it.

Anybody else have flashback wisdom to share?


  1. When I first started writing, I had this idea that every book needed a prologue and an epilogue. Now I have, I think, one book I want to keep a prologue in--and I only let myself do it by cutting it in half. Prologues, when effective, are usually SHORT. And punchy.

  2. I agree that flashback can be effective when woven into the story in order to better show some complex back story or relationship. I have one short story that features quite a bit of this, adding bits of "action" to a plot that does not have a lot otherwise and at the same time giving the reader a reason to care about these two people, and it's received quite a bit positive feedback. Rather than say "this character is x, y, z for reason q", you can show it in a dynamic scene that gives your reader the same information while keeping them interested.

  3. You're doing a great thing here, Stephanie, encouraging the younger ones while building your own platform. Good job! I like to ck in once in awhile to keep my own "youth" blooming! lv u.


  4. Well, you completely answered my question and articulated the why of it all. Take a bow. :)
    Thanks so much, Stephanie, both for writing another darling post that I will refer back to again and again...and for referring me to yonder zippity blog. :) I didn't enter to win your book because I've already won it (and read it twice), but I will definitely be visiting Jenny's site again for MYFASE! Thank you and happy 4th!

  5. I love Jenny's blog. I want to be Jenny when I grow up. (Although, if she's older than me, I don't think it's by much.) Thanks so much to the Go Teen Writer peeps I recognized over there. Means a lot!

    Rachelle, SO glad I sufficiently answered your question. *Bows.*

    Roseanna, that's too funny about the need for a prologue and epilogue. I'm shocked - SHOCKED - by the intelligent people in my life who say to me, "Am I supposed to read prologues? I don't know what those are. Are they part of the story too?"

    Nancy, sounds very interesting! Usually flashbacks aren't filled with much action.

    Anonymous ... who is actually Carole. Glad to have you stop by! Bloom away :)

  6. Very cool! I learned so much! I always wondered about flashbacks/flashforwards, and now I have a much better idea of how they work. Thanks1