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Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Flashbacks -- Absobloominlutely Not

Should you  use flashbacks?
Why do so many new writers try to use flashbacks?
What is backstory, anyway?
Use the mystery

Should You Use Flashbacks?

No.  Not.  Forget it.  Just stop right there.  Don't even think about it.

That was a bit vehement, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

You ask, why not?  Well, in general, a flashback is lazy, irritating, and cheating.  Lazy, because you should have worked the backstory in using dialog and description.  Irritating to your readers, because they have to wade through this, then reset the mental gears to the "present."  Cheating to you as a writer, because you are not doing your best, and to the readers, who are not getting your best.  So, no.  Don't do it.

One of the major problems with flashbacks is that readers already know that the character has survived or lived past this point.  I don't mean this in only a thriller-suspense sort of way.  I mean that the character's emotional and psychological growth has already occurred.  A flashback forces readers to look at a less-mature version of the character after they have already seen better.  If, instead, you present backstory in sequence (even if there are timeline jumps) or through dialog and pacing (excellent tools for this), the character grows throughout the story.  Readers do not have to look at characters who are out of place in their own stories.

If you absolutely insist on a flashback, at least make it short, and provide only relevant information.  Don't do one of those meandering, five-page reminiscences.  Most of that text won't even be necessary.  It will be filler to turn what should have been a hint or mention in the dialog into an organized, fleshed-out scene.

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Why Do So Many New Writers Try to Use Flashbacks?

Because the writers do not know yet how to work backstory in to the novel.  They have not yet honed their skills in dialog, characterization, or description enough to unfold a character's history in a smooth, uncontrived manner.  Instead, they fall into the trap of the flashback.

It is easy, they think, to just write the scene that explains what is happening "now."  However, if the story started back in 1982, then, by gawd, start the story in 1982, not in the "now."  If the story started when Jack hit Jill, put that in Chapter 1 and begin there.

A flashback is a cheap and easy tool.  A couple of paragraphs, okay.  That is more like a quick aside than a flashback.  More than a page, though, and you should start looking at the way you have your characters interact.  If you cannot bring the history out in dialog or through other actions, you need to spend more time developing basic skills:  dialog, pacing, description.

There is nothing wrong with using a prologue to introduce a backstory scene to the book.  There is also nothing wrong with starting the story in, for example, 1982 in Chapter 1, then starting Chapter 2 in 2001, where the characters pick up again.  Either approach avoids the out-of-sequence confusion of a flashback.

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What Is Backstory, Anyway?

Backstory is the history and the why behind the character's current actions or situation.  This includes information (refer to the character worksheet) about the character's education, job, friendships, and major life events.

For example, take Mac and Neal.  Mac never graduated from high school and didn't attend college.  Instead, he worked his way from being a security guard to prison guard to street cop to detective.  He is sensitive about his lack of formal education, doesn't do math well, and doesn't like to read.  Only one of his friends -- Neal -- knows the truth.  Neal does Mac's taxes as well as other favors.  In return, Mac backs Neal on moonlight jobs, which Neal takes for extra money.  Three years ago, they two got into trouble when a weekend security detail turned into a drug war.  Mac saved Neal's life, but was stabbed and lost some nerves in his left arm.  He hides the debility in the same way that he hides his lack of education.  Neal covers for Mac on the job.  And so on.

Do you say all that in Chapter 1 of your story?  No.  Why not?  Because it is mystery which drives us.  Readers don't need to know -- and don't want to know -- Mac's entire history in Chapter 1.  Readers need to know only that Something Occurred to Mac, and the anticipation of this will push them into Chapter 2.

Look at the example with Neal and Mac.  Perhaps, in Chapter 1, in a conversation with a rookie cop, Mac derides the newbie by saying that he, himself learned the hard way, coming up from the streets, learning about the perps first-hand.  None of this nose-in-the-air academy crap for him.  Later, Neal might ask Mac if he has the weekend free.  Mac understands that this is for another moonlight job, and he says yes, in spite of the fact that he had tentative plans for a beer-and-poker night with the other cops, including the rookie.  The rookie questions this, and Mac says merely that friends stand by friends.  In Chapter 3, you find out that Mac and Neal have a long-standing arrangement this way, and that there was some sort of trouble 3 years ago.  In Chapter 5, you find out about the trouble, but not that Mac saved Neal's life--the implication is that Neal is always covering for Mac.  Etc., etc.

If you are having trouble putting in the backstory, make a list of the elements of your character's life.  Figure out which elements are most important and why.  Figure out which elements would become known quickly to an acquaintance, and which would remain private for a time.  Allow the private elements of the character's life to unfold, piece by piece, in different scenes.  This will help you pace your characters as well as your plot.

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Use the Mystery

Think of your readers as friends.  You don't get to know your friends in the first hour after meeting them.  It is only after time and by sharing activities or events that you begin to find out and share the secrets, histories, dreams, humiliations, triumphs and goals of these people.

The history and makeup of your characters should be revealed the same way--smoothly, over time, and with a sense of discovery.  Don't destroy the mystery with a flashback.  Let that mystery work for you to add dimension to your characters, and to propel the reader on.

I like to have a thing suggested rather than told in full.  
When every detail is given, the mind rests satisfied, and the
imagination loses the desire to use its own wings.

                                 - Thomas Aldrich, Leaves from a Notebook

Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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