To flash or not to flash … ?

I will keep the post short this morning as I have to get a copy-edit in the post which means forfeiting some of my own writing (but it’s the way it has to be some days) — but that said I plan to devote all of Friday to writing 🙂

I picked a topic by randomly flicking through one of my many writing books this morning to see where it landed. In fact I did it twice. The first talked about using action and reaction in dialogue so you don’t end up with ‘talking heads.’ I say this to my lovely clients a lot — build a scene with forward movement so the actions and body language as characters interact, provides subtext, develops character and moves story.

But then I landed on flashback — something I have talked about before but relevant because of a recent conversation in Novel Group that meet today again as it happens. Our crime writer immediately condemns all flashback — outright. The rest of us disagree. Many teachers of writing condemn the use of flashback echoing the words of Sinclair Lewis the American novelist who when asked about flashback simply said, “Don’t.”

But a great many successful writers do use flashback effectively and I have to confess that I enjoy using the device. But it has to be handled with care.

Ask yourself first and foremost is it absolutely needed? Could the information be imparted in another way because what you really don’t want is to pause the action and leave the reader wondering what happened to the story. And try not to jump into flashback as soon as you start. So if you have a scene in the present and then the rest of the novel is the flashback then consider making that opening scene a prologue instead and setting the rest of the book  in the past.

You might choose an opening chapter set now and then a flashback chapter (I have seen this done very well) but make sure this is executed with care the use of past and present if used in this alternating way carry equal weight and don’t move the reader through too many heads.

I always suggest you try not to linger too long in a flashback, although I have read and written longer ones but so long as they are absolutely needed for story and really take the reader back there without stunting the flow of the story then it’s okay — but it is a skill that needs developing.

And also look carefully at how you flash in and out of the scene using carefully crafted triggers that are very immediate  Someone calls a name and next thing he’s back in the past only now it’s his dad calling him. And avoid too many past perfect tenses — like he had … I would say you might use one in the transition like ‘he’d been playing with matches that day, he must’ve only been seven years old’ … and now go into the past or present tense. So you might continue … ‘so there he was, standing outside his mom’s house, the match book pressed between his fingers and in his head he could hear that little voice saying, “Go on Tommy. Do it Boy.” And next thing he was striking that match the way he’d seen his mom do a hundred times. And it burned his fingers too. But that’s not all burned now, is it? He didn’t mean to drop the match.’

And then something from the present will pull him out, maybe someone talking and calling his name and first of all perhaps the memory continues for a while …

“Tommy — did you hear me?”

And all he kept thinking was what had he done and where was baby Frank, where was his mom, where was the dog? Still in the house as those big old flames started licking up the sides …’

“Tommy — you okay?”

And then he’d seen someone at the window, might’ve been his mom and …

“Tommy, I’ve been calling you.”

He looked at Clara. “You okay? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

“Maybe I did Clara. Maybe I did.”


Now this was written totally off the cuff but see what I mean. What I hope is the flashback becomes part of the present scene and shows just enough and has written all over it ‘to be continued.’ That way you drip feed the memory in as needed.

Have you considered using the back flash? Instead of lifting the reader out of the story and putting them in a flashback you use dialogue to show the same thing in short bursts — these act as narrative hooks. So something like —

“You remember the day of the fire?” Clara said looking over at where his mom’s house once stood.


“You remember how it started?”


“Must’ve been terrible what happened to your mom, and baby Frank.”

But he couldn’t look at her. No he could not. Of course he remembered but no way he was going to tell her how at just seven years old he learned how to play with matches.

See how this imparts the same information. In fact I tend to use a combination of techniques. And like I always say — there are many ways to tell the same story.

So when we talked at Novel Group about flashbacks I think the advice given to and now vehemently followed by our crime writer was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t always work in his style of police procedural writing, but even then I think flashback has its place. But what I will agree with, and maybe what Sinclair Lewis should’ve been saying is not just ‘don’t’ but –– if you don’t know how to do it — don’t.

But I think as one of the many devices that make our writing sharper — yes of course, but learn how to use it.

So to finish with the question I posed ‘to flash or not to flash?’  I think a little flashing once in a while is a good thing.

But be careful where you do it. He he … (snigger into hand).

Have a great day.

Should I flash at this point?..

Should I flash at this point?


1 Comment

Filed under back flash, Back-story, Bad advice for writers, being a successful writer, Flashback, Learning to be a writer, Living the dream, Novel writing, Openings, Passion for writing, Publishing, Reading, Structure, Subtext, Winning, Writing

One response to “To flash or not to flash … ?

  1. Pingback: How to use the Past Perfect, Lesson 2: avoiding the need for it | ConversationalWordsmith

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