Flashbacks can explain a lot about your character. Adding them into your story often gives the reader a glimpse of the texture that explains why your character does what she does—and goodness knows, we spend a lot of time thinking about how our characters got to where they are when we start telling their stories.
But implementing those flashbacks is a tricky process. Who hasn’t begun writing a novel only to have a mad urge to start with loads of explanation of what happened before That Moment?
Like everything in writing, it’s all about using them well. And then there’s the placement and length of the flashback.
I asked the Facebook group for the Women's Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) about flashbacks, in particular about starting novels with them, and they responded in full force (it’s a terrific group!). I’m sharing some of their wisdom here with you with the four following guidelines for using flashbacks:
1. The flashback should relate to what’s happening now.
Flashbacks stop your current story; that’s their nature. They show what happened before. So how do you connect before with now?
WFWA writers weighed in.
“I don't mind flashbacks as long as going back and forth doesn't become too confusing.”
This comment sums up the biggest problem with flashbacks: they shouldn’t jar the reader. The reader needs to stay present in the story – no one wants to be confused. Don’t use flashbacks to explain, but rather to show information that has bearing on the plot.
“Flashbacks can be tricky - and fascinating when done well,” said another writer. “I suspect the key is whether or not we NOTICE there's a flashback or are so wrapped up in the story we don't.”
So what if you’re champing at the bit to start your start with flashback? You want to use it to explain why your character is about to do something. For example, what if a character did something in the past that she’s never let go of, and it directly influences the choice she makes at the catalyst point in your story? What then?
Incidentally, and perhaps not coincidentally, this was exactly the problem I was working through in my own manuscript when I asked this question of the group. I couldn’t see any way around explaining how my character would make the decision she makes without first showing where she’d been.
WFWA members had a lot to say about starting the action with flashbacks.
One writer said, “As a reader, I'm okay with it, but personally prefer it to be very short and only if I really need it to move forward. I'm good with flashbacks throughout a story, but it definitely can be iffy right at the beginning.”
Another writer agreed. “Two things I've learned: 1- readers like to be kept guessing and 2- readers are smart and must be kept in suspense. Consequently, the set up should not explain too much.”
One debut author said, “I wouldn't advise starting with the flashback. Try to put it a little bit further on in the narrative, once the reader is hooked.”
Your reader hopefully falls in love with the story in the first page or three,” said another writer. “If you open with a flashback, then it will be very easy to fall out of love when the story shifts to the present. It's like bait and switch, or at least that's the general thinking about no flashbacks up front.”
Yet another writer agreed. “Remember, your opening is your promise to the reader. You must make good on that promise.”
Margaret Dilloway, author of How to be An American Housewife, and a member of WFWA weighed in with, “For How to be An American Housewife, my first book, my editor had me start with an emotionally resonant flashback. I think it just depends. Like with everything. Is that vague enough for you?”
Dilloway’s novel starts with an arresting scene of the narrator as a young girl, and then eases into the present, but connects the two with the idea that the memory is significant to the narrative going forward. We sense that the memory, and the fact that the narrator had forgotten it for years, is going to have a big impact on what happens.
In the end, I put aside the flashback and ended up chopping it up into memories here and there. It definitely didn’t belong right up front. The transition between present and past was just too big a jump. My advice there is, if you feel the urge to stick it in up front, do it. Then write the rest of the story and then see if you still feel the same way. Chances are, you’ll see other places to use that flashback—or you’ll find you’ve colored the character with the salient points anyway.
2. Readers are more forgiving of flashbacks, but agents may not be.
Most of the comments I got from the WFWA members agreed on one thing: agents hate them. So if you’re a writer seeking representation, rethink a novel that starts with a flashback. One published author of the group said, “I think there's a lot more leeway with an established author and his or her publisher when there's a known readership.”
The issue of starting the story with a flashback is that it’s rarely handled well. These types of flashbacks are often backstory and info dumps rather than skillfully woven setup—easing into the action in a way the reader doesn’t even realize is difficult.
What about prologues, you might be wondering? Be careful here. The biggest rule of thumb is don’t make the transition between past and present jarring for the reader. If a reader has invested time and emotion into the scene of the flashback prologue, then jumping into the future should be handled in a way that doesn’t jostle your reader’s brain.
3. Keep an eye on the length.
Remember that the story stops when you slip into a flashback. That means the driving force behind your narrative takes a pause to go to the bathroom at a rest stop, and while rest stops can be interesting, they’re generally hot and boring with a shocking lack of decent snacks, so they darn well should be quick and they should relate to the main story.
If a flashback takes up half the word count of the novel, you’ve probably lost your reader. Short, powerful scenes of remembering are useful, but if the memory goes longer, then treat it as a chapter—or consider cutting it down to the key moments.
Other ways to handle flashbacks so they don’t bog down the narrative or blast it with too short a memory is to frame them as a letter, diary, dream, or even a conversation between two characters.
“Remember when you stuck a fork in that toaster?” Sally asked Marian.
“Do I,” Marian said, rubbing her scarred forearm. “You were such a jerk that day, goading me into doing something to impress Troy. You were wearing that ridiculous red hat and I had just come home from my swim lesson and was dripping water all over the kitchen floor.”
Sally laughed. “Yeah, the dripping water was, in retrospect, a bad idea. But it worked with Troy, right? He was impressed. The look on his face as your hair stood on end and the kitchen caught fire was priceless. I’ll never forget it.”
Marian stared at her scars and wondered where Troy was now. If he’d been impressed by the toaster incident, he’d never said a damn thing.
(Hey, did you get thrown out of the post while reading that? I kind of did! See?)
4. For all the rules, do what works for YOUR story.
It’s important to remember that although anecdotal evidence suggests agents will not only reject us but also make the sign of the cross and douse their keyboards with holy water if we submit stories that start with flashbacks, and that while flashbacks can be jarring and must not veer off the course of the narrative, every story is different. If you are writing something that simply can’t be told without jumping back, do it.
Author Kristan Higgins, whose novel If You Only Knew deals with a recently divorced woman whose ex marries her best friend (now there’s a drama bomb of a flashback waiting to be read!) said, “I think every single one of my books has flashbacks in them. I love backstory, and my readers seem to as well. I guess the answer is, do it if it works. No rules are absolute.”
What has been your experience with flashbacks? How do you position their length, their placement in the story, and how they affect the characters? Tell us in the comments!
Sierra Godfrey writes fiction with international settings and always a mention of football (soccer) or two. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a quarterly contributor to the Writers in the Storm. Her non-fiction essays have been featured on Maria Shriver’s Shriver Report and Architects of Change website, and in the anthology, Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions (Nothing But the Truth Press, 2014). She writes weekly for Football.com and other blogs, and is also a freelance graphic designer. She lives in the foggy wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Come visit her at www.sierragodfrey.com or talk with her on Twitter @sierragodfrey.