Sunday, July 5, 2009

Flashback or Not?

By Beth Cotten

A fellow writer, who admitted to being new at the game of novel writing, asked a group of our members how to go about properly using the writing technique known as the “flashback.” Several opinions were rendered by those present about whether flashbacks were the way to go. Of course there were varied opinions. One mentioned that it was probably not the best technique to use although many writers have used it and have been published. The conversation left me curious about what actually were the disadvantages, technically speaking, of using this method of writing.

I had purchased the book written by Chris Roerden Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: Save Your Manuscript From Turing Up D.O.A. and thought it might cover this subject. It does. Roerden dedicates eight pages to “Fatal Flashbacks.” Since the space available for this blog is much less, I will try to shrink that information to fit the requirement.

Correctly used, a flashback makes the present story clearer in a significant way. The technique is tempting, but the publishing gurus highly suggest that new writers stay away from using it as “even experienced writers have problems with it.” Why? Roerden gives eight objections to using flashbacks which I have paraphrased below.

1. A flashback requires the writer to make a shift in time which is challenging to every writer.
2. It not only stops the story’s forward motion, it actually reverses it which can be fatal to the storyline.
3. Often it inspires writers to include information that adds no value to the story.
4. Less history is needed by the reader than many writers think and can be presented in the current story in a less disruptive manner.
5. Longer flashbacks cause a greater risk of damaging the forward thrust of the plot.
6. A flashback from within a current scene is hard to segue into and then smoothly return to the action.
7. When some readers detect an impending flashback they simply jump ahead in their reading.
8. Many writers like to use flashbacks for their own convenience and not for its primary purpose.

Roerden goes on to explain in detail and through example the ways in which flashbacks and what are called mini-flashbacks can be used effectively. He cautions writers to avoid taking readers into the past if a way can be found to include “brief…selected highlights from the past” in the current action.

I highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to be published (aren’t we all?) and especially to a newbie like me.


purpleprose 78 said...

That is a seriously excellent book! I learn a lot from reading writing books, articles, and blogs. I want to be published so I don't want to do the stupid stuff that editors and agents hate.

Kalayna Price said...

I second PurpleProse's praise of the book. Chris is a wonderful resource and a great speaker if you ever get a chance to go to one of her workshops.