Friday, July 19, 2013

More on Flashbacks: Backstory - Part III

By Karen Albright Lin

In my last two posts I discussed backstory as told through narrative, dialogue and flashback. Then I explored flashbacks more fully: 1) How to use one to add depth to character, story and the writing itself. 2) Reassured that sometimes the benefits of using flashbacks outweigh the sacrifice of immediacy. 3) When they work. 4) Clarifying time sense (present, past and past perfect). 5) Transitions. 6) And important things to consider when choosing when to use them.

Now it’s time to face hard truths. 

  • It comes too early – first chapter flashbacks are discouraged.
  • It’s so long that your real story is likely in the past.
  • You do it too often (irritating) unless you are telling a story like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
  • It seems like only an info-dump (backstory in dialogue is notorious for this).
  • You wait too long to give the flashback (frustrating to reader).
  • You give so much backstory that the novel lacks suspense.
  • You use it to “run away from conflict,” James N. Frey warns in How to Write a Damn Good Novel.
  • It stops or slows the pace of your book (probably your biggest risk).
  • It isn’t tightly linked to the front-story.
  • If it confuses the reader about what exactly the story is. (Cure: set up the rule early as Tim O’Brien did in The Things They Carried.)
  • It interrupts the momentum you’ve built.
  • It happens in an action scene like running from a murderer.
  • You go from one flashback into an even earlier one (this taxes most readers’ brains).
  • A conversation between characters can impart their life stories more elegantly.
  • You provide more information than is necessary.
  • It could be more clearly provided in the form of a prologue, thus keeping it separate from the rest of the story. (There is a risk to this, however. Some agents/editors hate these.)
  • It follows a weak scene (or sequel)
  • It is confusing (better not to do it than to do it poorly). Some authors choose to put them in italics.
  • It is before we know a character pretty well since we won’t care about his past.
  • It is put into the first chapter at a time when the reader hasn’t yet invested in the ride you are taking him on –  let alone what happened previously.
  • Your narrator is omniscient. That generally won’t work since there can’t be as much psychological impact. Deep third person and first person work well.
  • The reader can surmise the same information from the dialogue and action of current story.
  • You don’t orient the reader – time and place and who is present.
  • You fail to use clear ( like dreams), elegant, or subtle techniques like Match Cut to lock in visual motifs.
  • You fail to clearly let the reader know that you are leaving the present.


Ex: “She remembered the day her mother signed her divorce papers. She had crumpled them in her sweaty hands….” Then use past perfect “had” one or two times, then past tense within the longer flashback, and clue the reader when coming back to present by using past perfect tense again before heading back into past tense. “She had vowed never to do what her parents had done. But now wasn’t the time to think about her mother. She needed to plan the wedding and…”

Short flashback:

Past-->past perfect-->past

Longer flashback:

             Past-->past perfect-->past within flashback-->past perfect-->past




  • Use the insight to fill in gaps.
  • Be sure you are clear about what you are trying to accomplish within a given scene.
  • Make careful choices about what to reveal and what to leave out.
  • Make it riveting.
  • Use it to clarify how your world works.
  • Use it following an action-filled strong scene.  Then it can act as a sequel if it isn’t equally riveting as what just came before it.
  • Use when connected to your present action.
  • Use when the reader wants or needs to know more about the past.
  • Keep it short if possible.
  • Dole out pieces of information in bits and pieces, making your readers want to read on to learn more.
  • Avoid leaving characters dangling while you go into the past.  Be sure to connect it to their current story.


Readers are often the most accepting of this technique. 

In contrast, acceptance of Flashbacks by agents and editors is all over the board. 50 years ago it was typical to use flashbacks. Now, they are often resisted because they are believed to crush the impetus of your story chronology, slow the read, and/or they are considered “old news” in your story. 

They must be done very well to be successful in today’s market of immediacy.


  • Be sure your adviser is right and not just blanket-prejudiced against the technique.
  • Check with your critique partners to be sure you agree with the assessment.
  • Revise the chapter to remove the flashback completely.
  • Develop a timeline for the story and consider starting the action earlier.
  •  Delete the first three chapters if you’ve begun too early, and weave the backstory into the novel through dialogue and dramatic narrative.
  • Have the POV character spend less time alone thinking (Too much thinking often leads to unnecessary flashbacks). 
  • Add a character that can help you integrate backstory implying it through dialogue (not on-the-nose dialogue).
  • Use dramatic narrative NOT just a summary of facts.
  • Don’t include it all; the reader doesn’t need to know as much as the writer does. (Historical writing can have too much detail, thanks to loads of research, and fantasy writers need to realize that the world of the story will loom larger in your head than it will on the page.)

I hope you’ve found helpful my posts offering hints about deciding whether to use flashbacks and how to write them if they are called for. Looking back over the three posts, the amount of information and considerations can seem overwhelming. Luckily, those of us who are avid readers (which should be all of us, right?) will find much of this instinctual. If aspects don’t come naturally for you, study how other authors work the magic of flashbacks.

May words come easily and flashbacks be effortless. 

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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