Flashbacks: Why You Should Never

So aside from dealing with taxes and trying to rescue stuff from my screen-defunct computer, I’m also working on cleaning up my stuff in Rocky Start which is all detail work so I still don’t have stuff like the Egg Cups transferred over. But I did find one of our discussions about flashbacks which lays out why Bob loves them and I hate them, and I thought you might be distracted by picking a side and wading in.

55 thoughts on “Flashbacks: Why You Should Never

  1. Yep, I’m on the no flashbacks side. I always sigh inwardly when I hit a flashback in a story I’m reading. I’m engaged in what’s happening now, and want to know what happens next. Jenny, I think you explain so well why memories are okay and flashbacks aren’t.

      1. It’s at the end of Rocky Start, which Bob says will be out the end of June. Which is insane because I’m still rewriting part of it.

        1. Do you happen to sell signed copies of your books? I’ve been reading them since I was a pre-teen, I’m turning 30 this year so it’s been awhile!

          1. Mollie and I had talked about doing signed bookplates we could send out for the cost of the postage, but then everything else hit and we let it drop. If you or anybody else is interested, I can get that going, if Mollie has the time to do the sending.

  2. Ditto re no flashbacks. Tedious interruption to the story and to my relationship to the POV character (because no one would be exactly the same in the past).

    1. It’s such a waste, too, because what’s really interesting is why that memory pops up in the story, what triggers it, and how that person remembers it.

      That’s why I love the Leverage episode The Rashomen Job so much. Five people remembering the same event honestly and completely differently, and at the end you realize that they were all biased, and the way they were biased was directly a reflection of their characters.

      1. Perfectly put.

        I’m on the memory side: it keeps me connected to the person through which’s eyes I see the story.

          1. Thanks, Patrick!!
            German doesn’t either.
            Plus having a foggy brain thanks to a cold isn’t helping.
            And outside, we have a beautiful spring day!!

  3. I am on the side of memory too – stay in the now and express how the memory feels to you.
    Our late Queen said “recollections may differ”, typically understating but getting her point across. We each have a different view of what happened in the past, a flashback is in reality the flashback of the person narrating, thereby it is their memory. Putting in a flashback, with a different POV to the narrator’s, into a story is disrupting and making the narrator a liar and therefore an unreliable narrator. In a romance novel we want the narrator to be trustworthy.
    There has to be a better way of introducing a change of history than an intrusive flashback that disrupts the, until now, POV. A character from the past with a different recollection would bring the change of history but in the now.

    1. I dont mind a flashback if it makes sense and us well written. If it’s a flashback just for the sake of having one, that gets annoying. But if it moves the story along, I’m good with it.

      I’m pretty pumped for the Viking funeral.

  4. A flashback to Afghanistan makes me expect a blunt, This is Truth moment. It works in war stories because it emphasizes the distance and difference between Being in the Now That No One Else can Understand and Being Smugly in Comfort and the Future.

    That said, I’m not particularly drawn to the I’ve Suffered More than You Can Ever Imagine stories.

    I think that sort of flashback distances the reader from the story. As you guys had already said, there’s lots of good meat in comparing memories.

  5. Station Eleven did flashbacks really well. The show anyway, I haven’t read the book. But as a general rule, I am with the “no” crowd.

    1. I’d say flashbacks are okay in films or tv series when the “narrator” is more or less the camera.

    2. Hey, I’m tight friends with the mother of the guy who helmed the series. I’ll pass your comment along. She’ll soak it up, being his mother. No slouch herself, she’s written two hort books and lots of columns for our garden magazine. We have lots of fun together.

  6. I’m on the no flashbacks side. Sorry, Bob. I’m always rushing through to get back to the present.

  7. The book I’m reading right now if bopping back and forth between now and “a year ago” (when the couple met), and now and “10 months ago” etc. I see why the author did it, and it works for this book. I’m still no flashbacks.

    1. But definitely pro Viking funerals, I might add. I live across the street from a large creek (a river when it rains), and I keep telling people I want to have a Viking funeral on it when I die. Put me in a wooden canoe with a few prized (but unwanted by anyone else) belongings, and set it on fire, then send it down the creek. Then have a rowdy party, obviously.

      1. My husband and his Swedish friend have joked about starting a Viking funeral business.

        At least, I think they are joking.

      2. I am so with you, and I live two blocks from both a bay and an ocean. Potential! I see a book pitch in your idea. You are the one to do it. Go!

  8. When I come to flashbacks in a novel, I often skip them and see if I can pick up the result or insight up from context. I hate the change of pace and perhaps of approach. Somewhat the same reason that I hate long quotations in scholarly work. They force me to stop and change mental railroad trains, so to speak. There are probably exceptions to my dislike, but I can’t think of any offhand.

    1. Interesting, since depending on who is being quoted I am all for long quotations in scholarly work.

      1. Me too, Mary Anne. But I love footnotes because I can keep up with the sources while reading the presentation and analysis. I know I’m weird.

  9. Sorry Bob, but I too am a hard no on flashbacks. I usually skip them or just skim for key words cause the change of pace totally takes me out of the story.
    That said, I can totally get behind Viking funerals!!

  10. Really good point about different memories of the same event. I read Elephants Can Remember (a Poirot, I think) with its reliance on exactly what people had said, and was exasperated by this evening though I was much younger (and more gullible) at the time.

    I’m late for Good Book Thursday but wanted to mention Hide My Eyes by Margery Allingham, which I started reading again this morning. This time I was absolutely gripped by her descriptions of places and people, they’re wonderfully full and alive.

    I am currently sitting in Waterstones bookshop, fortifying myself with a cuppa and a piece of millionaires shortbread, before I go to a school reunion. I’m not really sure why I agreed to go – the old schoolfriend I see every week declined the invite, I decided I wouldn’t bother either, and then a very old schoolfriend (since infants ) who I rarely see asked me to go with her and I said yes. It’s organised by the cool girls, of which I definitely was not one. I am reassuring myself that I can leave whenever I want (it’s in a pub) and it’s given me the chance to buy a bagful of books.

    My pile includes:
    A Very Lively Murder by Katy Watson. I read her first book and although it had its weaknesses I liked The Three Dahlias – all actresses who had played the lead role in an Agatha Christie type series.
    Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura. It’s translated from Japanese and I’ve read a couple of other Japanese translations and really enjoyed them.
    The Wintringham Mystery by Anthony Berkeley. Classic British country house crime, written as a 30-part newspaper serial in 1927.

    1. Good luck with the reunion!!
      I usually skip tho the one time I attended it was nice to see how much better my class has held up in contrast to so many of the others. Esp. the boys (men in their late 30s back then) were a disappointment (balding, bellies, wrinkly), so I felt rather pleased with myself for not being as wrinkly, bellied and certainly not balding 😉

    2. Pleased to report I managed the reunion without any teenage flashbacks. Although several of us remembered an incident when our super disciplined maths teacher slammed open an adjoining door and stunned next doors unruly class into total silence.

  11. Personally, I’m not clear on the distinction you are making between “memory” and “flashback.” It’s my experience as a reader that when those things work, the author has dropped hints and built up a “need to know what happened” within the reader. Then the scene becomes revelatory. I totally agree with Jenny that it has to be colored by the character’s POV. As someone who loves the writing style called “deep POV,” I unbiasedly (😉) ask why anyone would ever write any other way.

    On Thursday (April 18th), Frances de Pontes Peebles is (an author of the award-winning author, 2020 Creative Writing Fellow in Literature from The National Endowment for the Arts, who teaches at StoryStudio and serves as Visiting Associate Professor of Fiction at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop) will be addressing the subject of writing flashbacks that make the story better:

    “‘All memory is subversive,’ says the writer Eduardo Galeano. In fiction, memory reveals itself as flashback. Diving into the past can ‘subvert’ a typical narrative in great ways–providing context, creating layered characters, disrupting a conventional storyline, and adding depth. But flashbacks also risk weighing down a novel, killing its pacing, and feeling arbitrary. In this talk, we will get curious about flashbacks. When should flashbacks be inserted and why? How much memory is necessary? How can we write flashbacks that propel a story rather than paralyze it? The lecture will focus on novel writing, and will include readings, exercises, and ideas to get you thinking about how flashback can be a revelatory tool.”

    The workshop will be online and recorded for those who cannot attend live.


  12. I can relate to Bob’s attachment to flashbacks, as they are part and parcel of the PTSD that soldiers and survivors of other trauma endure. That said, I think it would be cruel to subject a non-participant to the trauma and the emotions that go with it. We hear the word “Trigger” a lot these days, and that word resonates with me. But the triggers are different for different people. It’s the trigger that really matters in a story, because it is what sets off the revisit of the traumatic memory. The details of that memory are important, and form the terrifying, painful, sometimes shaming, and debilitating present. A memory is personal. A flashback isn’t as personal. So I guess I’m with Jenny on the memory being the key to the narrative.

    1. The author of The Masked Man of Cairo mysteries does a great job of integrating flashbacks into the here and now. Violent confrontations trigger flashbacks, so while the hero is in the middle of a fight of whatever sort, he is also living in the past — he is back in the WWI trenches — he really IS there in his mind — while confronting villains in 1920s Cairo.

  13. I might be on the yes side on flashbacks,
    if in fact they add to the story.
    I haven’t thought about this extensively. I am a reader/listener not a writer.
    Stories are good, better, best or not for me.

    P.S. I love your text dialogue, hilarious.

  14. I don’t read flashbacks, even if they’re whole chapters. They feel narratively clunky to me. I also hate dual timeline stories and time travel stories, though, so I clearly have a *thing* about temporality in narrative.

  15. It depends. Sometimes flashbacks are great, sometimes not. Same goes for prologues and epilogues.

    Mostly, I prefer to avoid rules. (Guidelines are useful, especially during the learning process, but they do tend to creep bit by bit in the direction of rules.)

  16. I won’t take a stand on either side of the flashback divide. I’ve read good stories with flashbacks and bad ones. I don’t think the difference was use of flashbacks vs memories. I think the difference was execution of the meme.

      1. Yikes! Killing memes is a dreadful thing to do! And also, after they’ve been executed, who’s going to rememeber them?

  17. I am squarely in the “it depends” camp. I have read flashbacks that pulled me out of the story, and I have read memories that made me say “Would you stop thinking and go DO something, please?” I have read many of both that worked well.

  18. The only story besides the already noted Leverage episode that I remember using flashbacks was the show Arrow. I actually became more interested in what had happen to him during the time he was missing, the flashback part of the story, than in the present day. That said, I didn’t finish the series because it wasn’t enough to keep me watching.

  19. I think most flashbacks are unnecessary and annoying (do NOT get me started on the whole episode of Miss Scarlet and the Duke, which was a flashback to when they first met as kids, which added nothing to what we already knew about how they met or who they are as characters), so when I see them used well, I’ve gotta tip my hat to the author.

    I’m in awe of Martha Wells’ storytelling skills for a number of reasons, and her ability to use flashbacks so effectively is just one. Huge chunks of Network Effect is flashbacks, especially in the first quarter of the book, and then all the “readme” files excerpts later in the book. IIRC, it starts in the present and immediately goes into flashback — explaining how Murderbot got shot, then jumps to the present, after it’s been shot and is starting its attack.

    So, bottom line, I think flashbacks, when used well, can be really effective, but they’re seldom used well. Sort of like how I feel about omniscient POV — generally doesn’t work for me, but in the hands of a master like Pratchett, can be absolutely brilliant.

    1. Such effective use that I didn’t categorize the readme.files as flashbacks, when they so clearly are. Well done Ms. Wells!

      1. I am reading it right now and I didn’t even think of it as I read the discussion. That’s smooooth.

  20. I agree with Jenny: flashbacks stop the story in the here and now. Maybe that’s why I dislike stories that take place in two (or three) alternative timelines. Such stories feel like the flow of the story stumbles to a halt each time the author switches the timelines.

  21. So what do you call it when a book has two or three extended sequences in the past that are preceded and followed by sequences in the present and then the second half is all in the present? I’m thinking of Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne, where as a reader I desperately wanted to know how the H and H met, became a couple, were separated, got back together —which happened over a period of 25 years, and each section had major plot segments that also fed into the main plot? All told in third person. Whatever that is, I am for it as used there.
    At the other end there is her “Intrigue and Mistletoe” where H and H tell us all we need to know by fighting about how he arrested her uncle and she didn’t stick around for his explanation …
    No flashback at all but plenty of info and it moves the plot.

    Ok I do think the world of Joanna Bourne

  22. I’m trying to remember any recent reads that featured flashbacks, in the sense of going from This Is Now to This Happened Before, and can’t really dredge any up! What I *can* remember is numerous books in which characters endlessly ruminating about the past dragged me out of Now Storyline in truly frustrating ways.

    That kind of thing generally feels like padding the word count. If you can’t SHOW me that this character has issues, TELLING me (endlessly) isn’t the remedy.

    Especially since, in those books, the characters still failed to really solve their issues in a meaningful way. It was all “oh, I have these issues, because Past” and no “let me get to the bottom of this shit so I stop having these issues or at least cope better with them.” I’m really tired of people thinking they can excuse shitty behavior by pleading the past. It’s like, sorry if you have trauma, but almost everybody does (one way or another), so fix your shitty behavior anyway. There are tools & resources, and spreading trauma around doesn’t actually make it thinner. /rant

    I’ve read plenty of good books in which characters *talk about* things that happened in the past, in the course of moving the Now Storyline along, and those scenes can be terrific for showing why people do the things they do / allowing the listener to comprehend, adjust their own expectations, and/or adjust their own response so that the relationship can progress.

    Now, of course, I wonder where I might’ve used memory or recollection in a clunky or distracting way myself. Argh. It really should be “oh shit I remember a similar situation where I reacted X way and the result was Y but I can’t react X way now because I don’t want Y result.”

    tl;dr I think I come down on the side of No to Flashbacks because it is a deliberate stepping-away from Now Storyline, and if I’m invested in the Now Characters, I want to stay with them.

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