Are Flashbacks Bad Form?

6 years ago | casanders (Member)

I recently had a conversation with an old writing professor of mine. I mentioned that in my serial, I use flashbacks as a paralell plot device and to deliver backstory. He said that he doesn't like flashbacks, that they are cliche and that a good writer should be able to deliver backstory without resorting to a trope like that. I countered that flashbacks are more interesting than simple exposition, and that stories should been written in scenes (showing) as opposed to text (telling).

What is your opinion on flashbacks?

The Watchmage of Old New York. At Jukepop Serials

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Page: 12


  1. Amy Kim Kibuishi (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    The only way to really tell if a flashback would work for your book is to write it out and see how it reads. I mean really you don't have to show it to anyone until you feel it's good, and if you do despite your professor's lack of taste for all things flashback, STICK TO YOUR GUNS. You're the only expert of your own story.

    When I was closer to college age (in other words still being influenced by my teachers' opinions on the world) I avoided flashbacks a lot because of the stigma/warning they carried. It was kind of crippling (similar to the Mary Sue idea and in comics/film the 180 rule). The more I grew, however, and the more I saw those around me grow into world-class artists and storytellers, the more I realized that a lot of these rules are meaningless.

    ANYTHING can work when done with a semblance of clear thinking and control. You can do ANYTHING. The only thing that matters is clarity and control. No matter what it is, be it flashbacks, exposition, dialogue, or wish fulfillment, it will be dull if the writer isn't present during the course of the writing. And how can a writer be present when they're afraid to write what feels natural or what works for them? You have to be fearless.

  2. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Flashbacks are a shortcut. Sometimes shortcuts are essential.

    The primary case where I personally employ flashbacks is in my interlude chapters. These are side-story chapters that feature characters other than the story's protagonist. With only 4k-10k words to tell a complete mini-story in, outlining a key event in a character's history can frame everything else for an effective narrative. Oftentimes the flashback itself will serve double or triple purposes - often imagery or themes, heightening suspense or the like.

    In an overarching novel, though, you should have no real reason to cut out of the main narrative and interject a flashback. If an event is important enough to warrant that kind of attention, then it could be outlined in dialogue with others, implied in behavior and word choice or illustrated in other ways. If it's not so important that you can't work it in somehow, then it doesn't warrant a major scene.

  3. AGreyWorld (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Are flashbacks in literature really cliche? I don't think they are really that common, and I can't think of an example in any books I've read so I don't really think they are. If I have read them I was so oblivious to them I can't remember them they clearly can't be that bad...

    I really like Worms interlude chapters (so much i nicked the idea) and they feel natural. They are certainly a lot more interesting than paragraphs of info-dump or listening to a load of characters talk about an event.

  4. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I tend to think something very similar to Amy--there are no rules, anything can work.

    That said, it doesn't mean that your professor was wrong. They can be cliche, and, in my opinion at least, doing too many flashbacks can be confusing. Still flashbacks are something I'd evaluate like anything else. If I get something out of a flashback that's necessary, and that I can't get out of a linear telling of the story, then I'll use a flashback.

    I've got to admit though, that what I'm writing right now basically doesn't use flashbacks as part of the main narrative. Like Wildbow, I do use flashbacks to other periods in short stories that are in between book length sections of the main story.

  5. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @ Greyworld - I should clarify that when I was talking about flashbacks in the interlude chapters, I was primarily talking about the chapters which feature flashbacks. Interlude 7, for example, and Brandish's interlude.

  6. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @Wildbow - I find myself a little confused. I know you show scenes in interludes that occur in the main narrative's past, so some might see this as a "flashback" whereas I think you're using the term as "a character remembering a past scene whilst in the current scene" -- am I correct?

    I just like clear terminology.

  7. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Flashbacks are valid, but they don't work in every piece. I believe that they're a tool in the writer's toolbox: it's best to understand your options and how to use it effectively. They can wind up a little cheesy and cliched - I think if you see the wobbly-blurry scene transition in your head when you read it, that's a bad sign.

    The genre or audience you're writing for can affect how suitable flashbacks are, so they're worth keeping in mind. It can also be a distraction from the main story to cut out to a different place and time, like Wildbow said, so maybe there's another way to convey the information that's better for the flow of the story. They can throw the reader out of the story. However, they can also work perfectly well and enhance the piece.

    I've been playing with flashbacks a lot lately in the Starwalker shorts I've been putting together. The shorts all feature a major flashback as the central piece, framed by events in another time in the character's life. It sounds a bit like Wildbow's interlude chapters: they're not part of the main story, and mine are purely standalone pieces, so the fragmented/flashback nature of them isn't as jarring (which is good, because that's kinda the point of them). That said, the nature of the main story (being a ship's log) doesn't lend itself well to flashbacks; the closest I've got is putting in recordings of conversations from the previous day.

  8. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @Gavin - You're right. I'm using the term as "a character remembering something from the past." Interlude 7 fits such, and Interlude 15.x (Donation Bonus #1) has a few.

  9. casanders (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Since the main character in my serial is 150 years old, I've found it hard to work things from his past into active dialog or action. The people that he interacts with wouldn't know his past. I feel that describing something from the past is even worse. Whether it works or not, you'll have to read it to decide (see what I did there?) ;)

    The Watchmage of Old New York. At Jukepop Serials
  10. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Pardon me while I stop laughing:

    See, I taught college creative writing, and was in the "academic writing" culture for a long time before that.

    Yes, there is a cliche here, and it's your writing instructor and the prejudice against flashbacks and prologues, which is handed down from teacher to student, and among critique partners. It's like the prejudice in film school against scripts that start with a character getting out of bed in the morning.

    The problem is not with any of these items, but rather with the fact that beginning writers tend to be fond of flashbacks and prologues, and when they don't know when to start a story, they start with the character getting out of bed in the morning.... and because they are beginners, they do these awkwardly (as they do everything else, even the most original thing anybody has ever done).

    So the jaded teachers, who see lots of poorly done flashbacks, tend to make up rules to force students to give them something new. It has nothing to do with quality or what is right for the story. It has to do with their sanity. I used to ask my students not to write about death -- because ALL of them wrote about death. It was a favor to me. (And yes, some of them who had a burning desire to write about death because they really had something to day, still wrote about it, and they got good grades... because they had something to say.)

    This is the problem with getting advice from writing instructors and also from people who read slush piles (and I've done some of both): they are more focused on what failed than what worked. They forget that what they've seen too much of may well be something that the end audience is starved for (because all the jaded instructors and editors kill it with prejudice before it gets to the end reader.)

    Oh! And there's another example right there. Bruce Coville, a top notch children's writer, once wrote a picture book about a little girl and a unicorn. The editor told him it was lovely, but that the market was saturated with unicorn stories for little girls. He said: "Name one." "What?" said the editor. "Name ONE picture book about a unicorn." She couldn't.

    Bruce had done his research, and there WERE no books about unicorns for little girls at that time. There were posters and bed spreads and toys and dolls, but NO books. The editor just assumed that there were because pink unicorns were so familiar to her. (And odds are, she had seen at least a few in the slush pile.) The book was a big hit, when it finally got released.

    Don't trust jaded professionals to tell you what really is or isn't a cliche. They are like people who have eaten way too much food with too much salt on it, and they can't taste anything anymore anyway.

    Write it the way that feels right for the story. And if your story starts with a prologue which contains a flashback in which someone gets out of bed in the morning and dies... well, that's what the story starts with. Don't sweat it.


  11. Dary (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Does it serve the narrative?
    YES = KEEP

  12. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    So I guess the short answer is: sure, you can use them, just don't suck at it. ;)

  13. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Good, bad... I'm the guy with the gun.

    (Sorry... just channeling my inner Ash.)

    I can say that the flashback chapters in Curveball have been my most popular so far. That doesn't prove its worth, but it does show that people like them.

    Curveball (Updating)
    A Rake by Starlight (Updating)
  14. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    First a word about professors and I think their general "bend" on things like this:

    I had a creative writing professor in college who insisted, always, that we write modern realistic fiction. No Sci Fi, no Fantasy, no Utopia, just Modern Real. Her rationale was that a good story has the same elements of story telling and mechanics regardless of genre and that when new writers try to write genre they tend to focus too much on the specifics of "that world" that the miss the chance to tell a good story and instead create a pile of nothing. The art of having good characters, good story, good pacing and good use of language requires practice without distraction. It's a bit like learning how to play scales and chords before you turn on the distortion pedal.

    For the most part I agree with her. Having done one bit of Realistic fiction and then mostly worked on Genre (except for my short stories which are mostly modern-real), I can say that even when I know it's a risk it's still VERY easy to slip into "I'll just blab on about the world for a while here" when I should be focused on the characters. To that end advice from a "master" should be understood for what it is.

    As to Flashbacks, my personal question has to do with why you're doing a flash back, and what it adds to the story. I would agree that showing the events is often better just having a character say what happened. However there are times when you just need to get the words out there, establish the fact as part of a back story and then move on, rather than continue to focus on that past. A character may have been sexually assaulted. Depending on the context, the story, the character, the role that the attack plays, and how the character continues to deal with it, the case could be made in either direction. Taking the reader to that moment via flashback, and then making them watch the event is a traumatic thing. It will stress your reader. It will evoke emotions related to that event. So, is that what you want to do? On the other hand, making it a point of dialogue and then focusing on the present, will do other things, take your readers other places, and create different opportunties. Just looking at HOW a character talks about a traumatic event from their past can reveal quite a bit of character.

    And then there's the nature of your work. A single flash back in a 400 page novel might seem out of place depending on how long it lasts and what it's about. For Bastion:TLH, I'm writing my chapters to be slightly nonsequential anyways so the idea is that we're hoping around in time throughout the story, not so much becuse I want to employ flashbacks as much as I want to answer reader questions as they come up: "Why does she say that? / Oh... that's why. / I wonder what happened before this to create this situation/ Oh, that's what happened".

    At the end of the day, your readers are the final judges of what works and doesn't work. Granted one of those readers is often a potential agent for your work so, always consider your target audience.

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days

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