Flashbacks–Think twice before you dwell on the past

From Rick:

Among the several sins that many new writers commit, premature flashbacks is often one of them. Two other big sins are launching into backstory too soon after the opening (or in the opening), and the use of a prologue when one isn’t warranted.

This problem was brought back to me by a recent blog article by Emma Darwin:

When A Flashback is an Alarm Bell

In this article she pretty well sums up the problem. She provides a link to a good article on the proper use and the misuse of prologues. She also wrote an article back in 2011 that deals with some problems and their solutions when backstory is needed.

Flashing, Slipping and Mixing Things Up

Many new authors seem to think that they simply must spill everything for the reader right away, and they believe that the reader won’t understand the story without all the background detail. While these details may seem fascinating to the author, they’re often far less so to the reader. At the very least, backstory stops the present story in its tracks. Consider this following opening to illustrate what I mean.


Hands shaking, Mary pointed the shotgun at her ex-husband. “I mean it, I will shoot.”

“You won’t ’cause you don’t have the balls.” He flashed that over-confident grin at her. “Besides, you know how much you want it.” Dean took a step forward.

“I-I’m w-warning y-you.”

He laughed. “You don’t know the first thing about guns. I bet you don’t even know how to load it.”

They’d gotten married ten years ago. “We were high school sweethearts,” she’d told everyone at the wedding. Never in a million years had she believed that the captain of the football team would even want to date her, let alone marry her. All through high school she’d had a crush on him, even as she watched him float from girlfriend to girlfriend. Her friends called him “use ’em and dump ’em Sawyer.” She’d overheard him boasting to his teammates how many of the girls in the school he’d had.

So, when he approached her and asked her to his senior prom, she was floored. This tall, dark, and gorgeous hunk wanted to take her, a lowly junior, to the prom?

“Don’t you do it,” her best friend, Janet, warned her. “All he wants is to get into your panties. Run away as fast as you can.”

Despite the warning, she accepted his invitation, a bit fearful at first, but there’d be a lot of people at the dance, so if things got out of hand, she’d feel things would be safe enough.

Surprising her further, he danced nearly every dance with her. Was this the same Dean Sawyer? He also surprised her by being anything but the sex fiend everyone said he was. In fact, he was a perfect gentleman all night long. After the dance, when many of the other girls were swept away to hotel rooms to spend the night, Dean took her to a small cafe where they talked, he about his plans after high school, her about… She couldn’t remember what she’d talked about. He had so captivated her with those warm brown eyes that she’d lost track of time and even what she was talking about.

It was two in the morning when he offered to take her home. Home! Not to some cheap motel. He opened the car door for her, and never once suggested any other destination than her house. On her doorstep, he asked–asked if he could kiss her goodnight. Just before she went inside he said, “I’d like to see you again.”

The next day at school, Janet asked about the date and was floored at Mary’s response. “Are we talking about Dean Sawyer, or his anti-evil twin?” Janet said.

Mary shrugged.

After that, the romance bloomed. Dean got a job in town working for an auto repair shop, and they continued to date. They went to her senior prom and two years later they married. He came from a small family, and her dad had just passed away from a long bout of cancer. With all the medical bills, her mom couldn’t afford a large wedding. But neither of them had wanted a large wedding anyway, so they’d had a small one. Since she’d gotten a decent job, they’d decided to save up for a honeymoon the following year.

All of that came back to Mary as she pointed the gun at Dean. Where had it gone wrong? He blamed her, accused her of cheating on him. She hadn’t. He was the one cheating on her.


Do you get the point? We opened with tension, then totally ruined it with an immediate flashback. Worse, the flashback isn’t even exciting. It hasn’t even gotten back to the gun scene. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read openings that don’t even begin with as much tension as this one, then they launch into less exciting background information.

Have you read any novels that started like this or, worse, that didn’t even have that much tension in the opening? And if you have, how many pages did you have to get into the novel before something interesting did happen?

This opening also has another flaw. Do you know what it is? Think about it for a few minutes before I tell you.

Meanwhile, let’s consider why an author might begin this way. For one, the author has developed the character, is fond of the character, and wants the reader to know all about Mary. In detail. In truth the reader probably doesn’t care at this stage. The reader has picked up this novel and wants to get into it, not hear about Mary’s past. Not yet, anyway.

Some of you might say that this flashback builds tension. Indeed, done properly, it could. That leads us to the second flaw: it’s all tell and no show. The reader is being told about Mary’s past with Dean, not experiencing it. Even so, it comes far too early in the novel to be of real benefit or interest.

How would we solve the problem in this narrative? You might think that perhaps it would be better just to start the story with Mary meeting Dean in the first place. That way you avoid the flashback. Problem is, you’ve now begun the novel without any tension whatsoever, and you’ve lapsed into the problem I mentioned a few paragraphs back, namely of opening with boring set up.

A good way to write this might be to weave in the backstory, through dialog, through the character’s thoughts (what is sometimes referred to as a memory flashback–a brief bit, usually just a few lines long, that hints at the past. Do this enough times along the way and you’ve woven in the same backstory and details, but it’s not intrusive and doesn’t bring the story to a dead stop.

Just so you know, the little piece above was something I pulled together off the top of my head. It’s not an excerpt from anything, but it’s typical of the problem. It is by no means a decent piece of writing, either. If you think it is, please remove your rose-colored glasses. It needs a lot of work to transform it into anything decent.

If you’re working on a novel, go back and examine your opening for backstory. While you’re at it, look at the rest of the novel, or however much you’ve written, for long flashbacks and stretches of backstory. I can almost guarantee you that they’re slowing your novel down at a time when you should be building tension.

Be aware, though, that sometimes a deftly placed flashback can markedly increase tension. It can do this by making the reader wait for what will happen next. I approached that with the opening I wrote, but I intentionally dragged it out. A great technique is to flip back and forth between past and present. A good flashback will also contain tension in its own right. Mine didn’t on purpose in order to make a point.

And if your character’s backstory is not exciting or interesting, then you need to go back and make it so. Interesting characters, particularly ones with baggage in their past, make interesting reading; characters with dull background and backstories bore readers.


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