Sunday, November 8, 2009


From the Sunday morning mind of Earl Staggs

Some people, be they readers, editors, or writers, object to flashbacks. I rather like them when they’re done right and use them frequently myself.
A flashback is one method we have of inserting backstory.  When we feel something that happened before the current story began is relevant, we can stop the forward motion of the story and include the past event or information as a flashback. A flashback may be as short as a few sentences of narrative or may run for several pages and may contain dialogue, action, setting and description.

I have two problems with some flashbacks, however. The first one is length. If we detour from the current story too long, readers may get wrapped up in the flashback and forget important points from the current story. If there’s a lot of information needing to be told in flashback mode, I think it’s better to break it up into smaller portions and space them out within the current story.

My other problem is when writers overuse past perfect verb helpers (“had” and “had been,” for instance) in a flashback so readers will know they’re reading something from the past.

Here’s a brief example:

***She had divorced her husband years ago and her lawyer had been successful in negotiating a large cash settlement. Before long, she had settled into a life of lavish indulgence, which included traveling with and supporting younger men. I know because I had been one of them. Within two years, she had gone through the money and the men drifted away. Now she had been reduced to waiting tables at a diner in the seediest part of town.***

The use of so many “had’s” is considered passive writing, and can be avoided if a distinct transition is used to introduce the flashback. A good transition takes the reader into the past without a need for past perfect tense. Here’s the same example with “Ten years ago” as the transition, the passive verb helpers eliminated, and some additional tightening:

***Ten years ago, she divorced her husband and her lawyer negotiated a large cash settlement. She then settled into a life of lavish indulgence, which included traveling with and supporting younger men. I was one of them. The money and the men are gone now and she waits tables at a diner in the seediest part of town.***

But a clear transition is also needed to bring the reader out of the flashback and back to the present story.

Here’s one way:

***I remembered all that about her as I settled into a booth and she trudged over to take my order. I also wondered if she remembered me.

While some people object to flashbacks, there are times when they can be used effectively if they are brief and you have a clear transition into and out of them so readers don’t get confused.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Any other takes on it?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

These are useful tips, Earl. I think shorter is better for flashbacks, too. And smooth transitions make it much easier on the reader. Thanks for an interesting post--I'm tweeting it.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Morgan Mandel said...

Great tips. Getting in and out of flashbacks isn't easy. I like to include them in my novels also, but the reader has to be guided in and out of them carefully.

Morgan Mandel

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and Morgan, for stopping by and leaving a comment. It's always reassuring to know someone agrees with me.

Dana Fredsti said...

Like most everything else (I'm sure there are exceptions), flashbacks are useful devices when done skillfully. I like your tips!