I often hear that flashbacks in fiction are always bad. Is that true? If not, then how do you know if the flashback in your novel is working? And what do you do if it isn’t?
Caroline posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am writing in first person and having difficulty with inserting back story. Currently my dilemma is with flashbacks. To use or not to use them, and if so how much is too much, or when is the best use of them? Frequently when I resort to a narrative in a flashbacks place I think what I have written is boring and stiff. What is your take on the flashback?
Randy sez: A flashback has one thing going for it and one thing going against it.
What’s good about a flashback is that it’s written in “immediate scene”–meaning that it’s shown happening right here, right now, minute by minute, without summary. That’s the most compelling kind of fiction (although if your novel is 100% immediate scene, something is probably wrong).
What’s bad about a flashback is that it’s yesterday’s news. Or last year’s news. In extreme cases, it can be last millennium’s news. It’s backstory. Flashback is a compelling way to show backstory, but it’s still backstory.
If you’re going to use a flashback, a generally good rule of thumb is to wait until the reader absolutely, positively MUST know the information contained in the flashback. Then show as little of the flashback as possible. Then return to the main story.
No reader on the planet ever said, “Wow, I’m going to buy this book because I’m dying to hear what happened before it takes place!”
Nope. Readers buy a book because they’re dying to hear what happens DURING THE MAIN STORY.
Backstory is a necessary part of any story. Strong backstory makes a strong story. But in writing fiction, practice the fine art of withholding information. That creates mystery. It creates suspense. It keeps your reader reading.
Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until at least 25% of the way into your story? If not, then maybe the real story isn’t your story. Maybe your real story is the backstory and you should have started sooner.
Can you hold off on showing any flashbacks until you’re 75% of the way into your story? If so, you might have a real killer of a story. Remember, as long as you’ve got a secret, your reader wants to know it. Once you’ve told the secret, your reader no longer wants to know it.
Delay, delay, delay on that pesky backstory, whether it’s a flashback or any other kind.
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.
Blog of the Day: Barry Eisler recently turned down a two-book deal for half a million dollars with a major publisher in order to self-publish in e-book format. Is Barry crazy? Not hardly. Read a mammoth 13,000 word dialogue between Barry and his buddy Joe Konrath on e-books, legacy publishing, agents, self-publishing, and money on Joe’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.