Flashbacks: Helpful or Hurtful?

Recently I posted a piece of writing online (an action scene containing a lengthy flashback to an event occurring in the protagonist’s childhood) and asked for some reader feedback about flashbacks in fiction writing. Readers were split in their opinions about flashbacks: some loved them and some hated them.

As a psychologist, I adore flashbacks. I believe that our pasts have immense influence on our present experiences and world views, and catching a glimpse of that past can be enlightening for the reader. However, other authors totally avoid flashbacks in their writing. I recall when author Jennifer Crusie shared her negative opinion in a writer’s workshop I attended.

“What do you think of flashbacks?” one scruffy, young male author had asked.

Jennifer Crusie wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I think they’re a sign of a lazy writer. If you can’t figure out a way to explain plot and character in the present, you probably shouldn’t be doing this.”

I felt dismayed by her answer, thinking about the nine-hundred and thirty-three flashbacks in my recently completed novel.

Another author, this one a large-and-in-charge woman in her fifties, butted in. “But don’t flashbacks give insight into the character, if they’re well done?”

“Flashbacks totally interrupt the flow of the narrative,” Jennifer dismissively replied.

A sense of panic set up camp in my stomach.

And we’re back to the present. Hi, reader! *waves* I bet you didn’t expect a flashback in a blog entry, eh? I told you that I loved them!

I believe that flashbacks can have their place in an emotionally evocative story, as long as they are not too plentiful, confusing to the timeline, or disruptive to the narrative. eHow.com has some tips for managing flashbacks effectively here, for example. What do YOU think of flashbacks?

It’s time again for Meet an Author Monday! If you like, you can flash back to the past three Mondays and read the instructions for our blog hop, but it’s basically a chance to meet new authors, hopping from one blog to another.

20 thoughts on “Flashbacks: Helpful or Hurtful?”

  1. You're so clever weaving in that flashback—and it's a fine example of a flashback well done. I didn't even realize until you pointed it out!Doing it well is the key, because I have read stories where the flashbacks only proved jarring and confusing, but handled in the right way, the story will flow and readers will get some fantastic insight into the character's psyche.


  2. Hi,Neat flashback!So what if Jennifer Crusie said flashbacks are the sign of a lazy writer.Same can be said of a writer who virtually relies on dialogue throughout a novel as its driving force: to such an extent it becomes obvious the author is either too damn lazy to put effort into the deeper side of a character's psyche, or lacks the wherewithall to do it in a stylish and unobtrusive way. ;)bestF


  3. Francine! Thanks for commenting on the blog.Your comment was similar to some reader feedback I received: you have to stay with what works for YOU as a writer. Flashbacks might not be Jennifer Crusie's thing, but they are definitely part of my style, and I need to accept that and move forward. I guess moderation is key with any element of the story, as well as skill.


  4. I have rules that I follow in my flashbacks :1) They should be short so as not to interrupt the flow of the present narrative.2) They should pertain to what came before it, illuminating that scene in ways that couldn't be done in the present.3) They should begin and end with a hook to ramp up reader interest.But you are an author who is about to have her book published, where I am but a struggling writer yet to find an agent.You must go with your instincts. You think Hemingway, Faulkner, or Chandler listened to nay-sayers?May your book hit the best seller lists. Roland


  5. Thank you for the comments, Roland! Another recommendation to go with my gut about what works best for my stories. May you find the bestest agent ever, followed by a kickass book contract. I was feeling rather downtrodden when I couldn't find an agent but then I came across a small publisher that was the perfect fit for me. Who knows when that moment will happen for you!


  6. Hey Jen!LOL at your blog flashback! Next time try a flashback WITHIN a flashback! ;DThe way I see flashbacks: Some writers use them; others don't. If they're used well, then they add to the story immensely; if they're written poorly, it's disjunctive. It's a matter of style and skill!That's an interesting eHow.com article. As a reader (and not a writer), I don't analyse HOW things are written, unless I specifically put my mind to it — I just get carried along by the story. I adore you writing, so you must be using flashbacks effectively! 🙂


  7. Hee hee, I found that kitty on Roland's blog and promptly stole it, mwa ha ha.A flashback within a flashback? I like the way you're thinking! I've tried a therapy flashback within a therapy scene, but I don't think I've tackled the double flashback yet.It's comical to me that I haven't really studied the craft of writing much either. I'm learning a lot, AFTER WGB was published. :)Thanks for your comments!


  8. I loved your flashback when describing what happened, very clever.Personally, I think it's up to the author and their preference, but flashbacks can be helpful when a simple retelling of the scene just won't cut it. How the author manages the flow and segue into the flashback is important.


  9. Hi Jennifer! As most have said, I'm all for flashbacks so long as they are done well, move the story, and are relatively short. Although, I recently read The Reincarnationist by MJ Rose that was done fabulously, I thought anyway. The main character bounced around with lengthy flashbacks from the 16th and 18th centuries, but it was so well done you couldn't help enjoy it.So I say, hellya! Go with your gut and flash away! 🙂


  10. Oo, I'm getting some great recommendations for authors deftly handling flashbacks. I just added The Reincarnationist to my Goodreads \”to-read\” shelf.Now I'll return to \”flashing away\”! Thanks, Ella. Jen


  11. Hi Katie, thanks for your comment! Hopefully editors can help flashbacks from being too confusing. I am wanting to use them more carefully and sparingly after all the feedback I'm hearing.


  12. Hi Elizabeth, facebook friend! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. No worries if flashbacks aren't your thing–we all have different opinions. I'm curious, though, what made you change from adoring them to not liking them?


  13. As a reader, I hate lazy flashbacks – those dreaded info dumps disguised as flashbacks that give the reader \”ALL OF THE CHARACTER'S BACKGROUND RIGHT UP FRONT\”. LOL I think as writers we all have our writing styles – mine's very circular and layered, so I tend to like digression in my plots and flashbacks certainly work into that but for other writers they feel it pulls them away from their characters forward momentum. I think it depends on the writer and it depends on the characters they're working with, too.Elyse


  14. Thank you for your comment, Elyse! I haven't come across many of those \”info dumps\” ha ha but those do sound unappealing. I think I understand a layered style, but what makes your style circular? You're not telling the story chronologically? I do agree that whether or not flashbacks are used or are effective depend on the writer's style.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s