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Are Flashbacks Allowed in Your Novel?

So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?

Paul posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?

Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)

But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.

The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)

Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.

But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.

One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.

Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.

If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.

So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.

If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


Avoiding Sameness In Your Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that all your characters talk alike. What can you do to avoid that pesky sameness in your dialogue?

Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a issue with having my characters sound a like. I have great details on each of their personalities but other one secondary character they all seem the Sam. One is the dialogue, how do I make the sound different?

Randy sez: That’s a great question, Tim. It’s a question every novelist faces.

Let’s try to understand first WHY all your characters are sounding alike in their dialogue.

The reason is because all your characters inherit quite a bit of their personality from you. That is necessarily true. Your characters aren’t real. They spring out of your imagination. They exist because you thought them into existence.

Which means they are limited by you and your experiences. If you’re an American and have never met any Germans, it would be really hard for you to write a German character. If you’re a southerner and have never met any yankees, then you’ll have a hard time writing a yankee character.

So the solution to getting rid of the sameness in your dialogue come in two steps:

  1. Meet more people.
  2. Steal their voices.

Let’s look at each of those in a little more detail.

Meet More People

When I say you need to meet more people, I mean people who are different from you. Wildly different. One of the best things I ever did for my writing career was to spend six years at UC Berkeley working on my Ph.D. in physics.

While I was at Berkeley, I met an amazing assortment of people. Panhandlers. Nobel laureates. Religious nuts. Political fanatics on the far right and far left.

My classmates came from all across the US and all around the world. I spent a lot of time with people from China, India, Korea, eastern Europe.

One of my close friends was an 80-year-old woman. Another had cerebral palsy. I had friends getting degrees in history, English literature, engineering. And I was a teaching assistant for a while and wound up trying to explain physics to a lot of normal people who don’t speak math.

I’m an introvert, but in my time at Berkeley, I got a serious education in the enormous differences in how people think. Which comes out in the way they talk.

Steal Their Voices

This has been immensely valuable to me in my fiction writing, because I had a huge number of people whose voices I could steal.

In one of my novels, I needed a cranky old midwife. No problem. One of my best friends at Berkeley was an 80-year-old woman who always said exactly what she was thinking. She didn’t have an internal censor. So when I was writing dialogue for my cranky midwife, I just asked myself how my friend would say it. I’d actually hear her voice in my head and then I’d just write down what she said.

In another book, I had a minor character who was an exuberant extroverted Israeli archaeologist. He spoke English with the same charming accent as my tour guide when I visited Israel. I remember listening to that guide and memorizing the sound of his voice because I knew I was going to put him in a book someday.

Whenever I have a character who’s very different from me, I ask myself what real person I’ve known who was like that character. Then I try to imagine having a conversation with that real person, and listen to their voice. What pet words do they overuse? What slang do they use? How do they think about the world?

Don’t Copy Too Exactly

One thing you want to avoid is trying to reproduce a person’s accent too exactly. If you’ve ever read GONE WITH THE WIND, you probably struggled to understand the way-too-literal reproduction of the speech patterns of slaves from the Civil War era. Every word is misspelled the way it sounds, making it almost unreadable for modern readers. In cases like this, spell the words correctly but misuse the grammar the way the speaker actually says it. That strikes a balance that your reader can understand.

Different people tend to use different  thought patterns. Try to capture those as exactly as you can. If you have a character who isn’t very original, he might use a lot of cliches when he talks.

One thing to be wary of is capturing the exact slang-of-the-moment. That might work for a year or two, but slang tends to go out of style pretty quickly and then it sounds dated. So if you’re going to use slang, make it up. Then it can never go out of style.

Tim, I hope that answers your question. You get better at writing dialogue by writing a lot of dialogue. You get better at writing in different voices by writing in different voices.

Naked Dialogue

Here’s an exercise to force you to build your dialogue muscles: Write an entire scene in dialogue without using any tags to identify the characters. This means you can’t use “Joe said” or “Mary said” anywhere in the scene. And you can’t even use action tags, such as “Voldemort slammed his fist on the table.”

You have to write the whole scene in what I call “naked dialogue”–just the dialogue, without action or description or interior monologue or interior emotion or narrative summary or exposition.

It’s hard to do, but it forces you to learn the tricks that help distinguish between your characters’ voices.

You will rarely use naked dialogue in an actual scene of a book, but writing it as an exercise will build your skills in dialogue fast.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


Are Cliches Always Wrong in Fiction Writing?

So you’re writing a novel and you’re worried that the whole idea is just a cliche. Are you automatically nailed? Should you quit that book and start another one? What if that’s also based on a cliche?

Michael posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hey Randy,

So I hope I am not overloading you with questions, but you seem to be very knowlegable. I have been consuming your blog post with the fervor of a child eating cookies, but have noticed a lack of topics pertaining to cliches. It seems to me that cliches are numerous in fiction, and can be the untimely demise of an, otherwise, great novel. On the other hand, it would seem that certain cliches can be used to my advantage.

As an example, I have always been a fan of the coming of age cliche. It started with Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.” The young teen coming of age is a cliche that has been used countless times, but is loved by many fans. How do I differentiate between useable cliches, and the old moth-chewed cliches.

Randy sez: Hi Michael, I’m glad you like my blog. I’ve been traveling a lot this fall, and haven’t had much time to blog. In late October, I made the difficult decision to move the hosting for the blog away from Hostgator (they just couldn’t seem to handle the traffic to my web site). My web developer moved my site to WPEngine, and the site has been rock-solid ever since.

Oops, “rock-solid” was a cliche, wasn’t it? Well, it did the job, and you know what I meant, but it wasn’t the most original way to say it.

And that’s the subject of today’s blog. Are cliches always wrong in fiction?

First, let’s define what we mean by a “cliche.” I use this word to mean a pithy phrase that’s so good that other writers copy it and turn it into part of the language.

If you read Shakespeare, you’ll see loads of cliches in his writing. Not because he was lazy. Because he was the first to use hundreds of pithy phrases, which other writers then reused forever.

Cliches are shortcuts. They save time, because you don’t have to think up some new way to say something.

The problem comes when you never do any original thinking. When you rely on cliches for everything. When you have absolutely nothing new to say.

No writer should do that. A writer’s job is to come up with original ideas. OR to present old ideas in original ways.

Now there’s one place where cliches most definitely belong in your fiction: When you have a character who’s a mediocre thinker, one way to show that is to have him use too many cliches. This shows the reader what the character’s like, rather than telling the reader.

“Show, don’t tell,” is a standard cliche in the world of fiction writing.

Cliches are supposed to be bad writing, because they lack originality.

Let’s be clear that readers aren’t reading mainly for “originality.” They’re reading mainly to get a “powerful emotional experience.” There are plenty of writers out there making a good living by giving their readers powerful emotional experiences, and using loads of cliches in the process.

Now let’s look at your question. You believe that the coming of age novel is a cliche. Personally, I would just call this a design pattern for a story. “Design pattern” is a term that came originally from architecture and then was adopted by software engineers.

A design pattern is an idea that recurs frequently, but can be redone in zillions of different ways so as to allow for some original thinking each time. In architecture, a door is one example of a design pattern. Doors are needed to let people move into and out of a room. Sure, you can buy a stock door from Home Depot and that takes no real thought. Or you can design it to be amazingly original. It’s up to you. So a door can be done in a cliched way, or not, depending on the architect.

I‘d say that the coming of age idea is similar. Sure you can do it in a cliched way. But you can also do it in a new, fresh way.

What this means is that the coming of age idea is not itself a cliche. It’s a design pattern.

There just aren’t that many original ideas. In fact, you can’t copyright an idea. What you copyright is the presentation of the idea. Because there are zillions of ways to present any idea, and it’s possible to be original in the presentation.

So don’t worry too much if the category or subcategory that you’re writing is a cliche. Worry first about putting in that powerful emotion experience. And then worry about presenting your story in a new and original way.

It’s a rare writer who can invent a whole new category. Tolkien did it, when he invented the fantasy genre. Tom Clancy probably invented the technothriller subcategory.

But most writers most of the time are writing in standard categories and subcategories. Nothing wrong with that.

Good luck with your writing, Michael, and have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. Of course, I can’t possibly answer all questions, but I do what I can.


Three Men And A Manuscript

Awhile back, my friend Larry Brooks suggested to me that he and I and Jim Bell do a joint blog post on fiction writing. Larry is the author of Story Engineering and Story Physics and runs a popular blog at Jim is the author Plot & Structure and many others, and does business at And I am the author of Writing Fiction for Dummies.

Between the three of us, we’ve written several of the most popular books on the craft of fiction writing. So it makes sense to do a joint blog article.

Larry was the organizer for this, so the full blog post is on his site at StoryFix.

I’m posting just the first chunk of the blog post, to give you a flavor for what we came up with. Here’s the first question we tackled:

1.  There’s so much “butt-in-chair, nothing else matters” writing advice out there, and it’s creating problems for newer writers in particular.  If, in some alternate universe, you were asked to define the Holy Grail of advice-for-fiction-writers, the context-setting, everything-stems-from-this piece of gold… and you only got to chip in one answer, what would it be?  My guess is there may be more than one answer competing for this title… so if there’s no breaking the tie, please share those candidates, too.

Jim: Every scene needs an objective housed in the mind of the point-of-view character. Vonnegut said the character must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. And then you must put obstacles in the way of that objective, or the scene becomes boring. Finally, the outcome of the scene should put the Lead in a worse spot—or maybe give a temporary gain followed by more trouble. Trouble is our business, so we need to make it happen. If the writer uses scene objectives that relate to the overall story question, then the novel has organic unity and feels like there’s forward motion.

RANDY: Success in writing comes from the following three-part formula, which you will repeat until you die:

1) Write fiction on a regular schedule that lets you predict how long it’ll take you to create your next project.

2) Get pieces of it critiqued frequently and apply what you learned to your writing.

3) Read from the recognized experts on the craft and marketing of your work and apply what you learned to your writing.

Why is writing regularly important?  I don’t put much stock in native talent.  I’m sure it exists, but you learn to write fiction the way you learn to play tennis – by doing it.

Why is getting critiqued important?  After all, there are hazards to getting critiqued.  We all have thin skins.  There are bad critiquers out there.  Despite these hazards, every writer desperately needs an outside opinion.  You won’t get better unless you know what the problems are in your writing.  The only writers I’ve ever seen that I considered hopeless were the ones who couldn’t accept critiques of their work.

Why is studying the experts important?  Because your critiquers can tell you what’s wrong with your work, but only a good teacher can tell you how to fix it.  There is no point in reinventing the wheel.  Learn from the experts.  Write better next time.

LARRY: A great story is never just about something… a place, a time, an event, a theme.  A great story is about something happening.

Write with courage.  Jump in.  But don’t jump out of the airplane without a parachute.  One with the words Principles of Storytelling Craft printed on it, visible from all points on the ground… where the readers are.

That was the first question. If you want to read the answers to all five questions, hop on over to Larry’s blog at and have fun!