In Defense of Flashbacks

Rachel Towne in Wood Textures

I’m not sure when I first realized it, but I’m obsessed with “the past.” I’m not talking about my own past per se, although in some ways I am. I have the occasional—OK, frequent—bouts of nostalgia.

It’s not just my life though. It’s my characters’ lives. Their pasts. Their struggles. Their transformations. That’s why I’m such a fan of the coming-of-age novel; by the time the story reaches the end, the protagonist already has a past.

I once had a writing professor who railroaded one of my short stories because it had too many “flashbacks.” Great professor, great class, learned a lot…but the man DESPISED flashbacks! In fact, he discouraged it, saying something along the lines of, “There’s nothing worse than the middle aged-man-on-the-front-porch-reflection story.” Gasp! How about the woman-in-the-bathtub-with-glass-of-red-reflection story? No? Oh…

In hindsight, I see what he was doing. He was encouraging us to write forward-moving stories. Page turners. Narrative arcs that built up conflict, climbed to their pinnacles without interruption. And in some ways, it’s true—particularly in short stories—that a story’s action must constantly be accelerating, driving towards something. And certainly meaningless, random, and miscellaneous flashbacks that do nothing to advance the plot have no place in literature.

But the well-crafted breed? To me, there’s nothing better in fiction. Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story says this of flashbacks:

“…one very rich source of characterization-driven plotting can found in flashbacks, giving the reader information about what is traditionally called “backstory,” or the past of the story. Flashbacks are very important to plot—which, you may remember, is those events arranged in the proper order the writer thinks best, not necessarily chronological order” (334).

Not only are flashbacks important to plot, but they’re critical to characterization. Take the show Lost for instance. A plane crashes on an island, and its new inhabitants are forced to forge a new lifestyle. What I love about that show…drum roll, please…are the character flashbacks. In every episode, we see glimpses of the characters’ life pre-freaky island adventure. Each ‘back story’ gives the audience insight into why the character took the dreaded flight from Australia to LA, and what he or she went through before taking the voyage. It helps put each character’s motivations, actions, and personalities into perspective. Without the flashbacks, it would just be the singular setting of the island, and thus, the characters would be strangers—to both the audience and each other.

Some of the best books I’ve ever read contain flashbacks. In Kristin Hannah’s novel Winter Garden, the prologue itself is a flashback that sets the tone—an incident that causes a lifelong riff between a mother and her two daughters—for the remainder of the story. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, a chance encounter with an old roommate delves the protagonist into memories of the late 1960s that lasts nearly one-third of the book, and of course, serves the foundation for the overall plot. In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the narrator, who is dealing with a schizophrenic twin brother, goes back and forth from present day (the early 1990s in the story) to the late ‘60s when his brother was first showing signs of the disease, as well as deeply developed family histories of the characters.

Luckily, there is no one recipe for flashbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a substantial portion of the book, they can come and go like musical riffs, they can be stretched out over the length of novel, building on each other as they go along. They can be scenes, blurbs or simply a quick, character reflection (such as on the front porch or in the bathtub).

In any event, flashbacks, when done correctly, breathe more life onto the page. They should be used as an opportunity to develop characters, expand the plot, heighten readers’ awareness, and most importantly, make the story unforgettable.



Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure

9 responses to “In Defense of Flashbacks

  1. I agree, some of the best stories I’ve read had well crafted flashbacks.

  2. I’m pretty in love with the past as well. So intriguing to imagine how things must have been. And I do like flashbacks, but in moderation. There are times when time-hopping can become dizzying & distracting, usually when done in excess, you know? There was a point in ‘Lost’ where they lost me! Tried to hang in there, but eventually veered away in disappointment. That is to say that everything, including & maybe even especially flashbacks, in moderation…

  3. I’m still getting the hang of flashbacks. I love them, and often write them in first draft as a way to get to know my characters better. What’s tricky for me is to put them in the right place, and give a reader just enough backstory to connect with a character–but not to slow the story down in the process!

    I loved ‘Lost’ too, but don’t get me started on how disappointed I was when all those juicy plot threads ended up in …what? (Okay, no spoilers, but… huh?)
    I guess that’s what happens when you fire good writers. 😉

    • Yes, sometimes I write character flashbacks that never make it into the story. Regardless, it’s a great character development strategy. The more you, the writer, knows about the character, the more evolved he or she will be on the page.

      I’m definitely late in the game, but my husband and I just started watching Lost on Netflix. We’re going season by season, and right now we’re only in the middle of season 2…so thanks for halting right before crashing into the spoiler! 🙂

  4. Very interesting take seeing as though I just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and was obsessed and couldn’t stop reading….didn’t contain many flashbacks.However, I too, find flashbacks to be important for character development.

    • Yes, I agree fully (hence, my post). Even in real life, I think it’s impossible to really know someone in the present moment only. Everyday we are a collection of our past experiences. It’s what makes us who we are. It works the same way for characters…and as avid readers, we want realistic characters!

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