Saturday, November 7, 2009


I recently read a novel by a first time author that included heavy use of flashbacks. The writer will, I hope, do well as he has a good style and invents interesting characters. However, the flashbacks ruined the book for me. The primary now-time story could not have sustained a novel.

The flashbacks covered the key events in the primary character's life over decades that explained his character and situation, starting at the age of five years or so. Important characters in the flashbacks had no connection with the now-time plot, which I found confusing.

This novel made me realise why I dislike flashbacks in stories. It takes a skillful author to handle the plot construction. David Drake pulled it off in one of his Venus stories but he is extremely gifted and experienced in matters of plot construction.

It also struck me that flashbacks are rarely necessaey. The story that prompted this article could easily have been constructed as a chronologically linear story, telling the protagonists tale from childhood to adult, as in Great Expectations for example.

Is this just me? Are there stories where multiple flashbacks are necessary to the plot? Are there stories that have been improved by flashbacks?


PS: As I mentioned Great Expectations, I thought you might like to see Cooling Churchyard where Pip met Magwitch. The photo shows the childrens' graves of Pip's brothers and sisters. Dickens based his stories on real places that caught hid imagination. many are on the North Kent Coast.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the reason writers use flashbacks are the current insistence on a fast hook in the first chapter.

Necessary, because it's so easy to put down the book and play a game, watch TV, read something else. Our attention span is into instant gratification too.

Not enough story for the required word count may account for a lot of it. I'd rather see complexities than history, though.

Kate said...

I'm with Matapam here. If there isn't enough story for a novel, find ways on increasing complexity rather than giving readers whiplash with excessive flashbacking.

It can be done well, but I prefer to see the vital earlier-time information Heinleined in as a short (maybe a paragraph or two) bit of reminiscence on the POV chacter's part rather than a full jump across time.

Amanda Green said...

John, I don't mind a flashback here and there. Provided, of course, that it forwards the plot and isn't a huge chunk of the scene/chapter/book. I dislike most books where you have entire chapters or even parts of the book taking place as one huge flashback. It's authorial cheating to do that, lazy imo.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Matapan

Agreed, the prologue should be exciting to grab a reader, then you can flash-back to the buildup.

John Lambshead said...

dear Kate

yes, Apart from a reader-grabbing prologue, I do not see why important earlier event cannot be told in a chronologically linear fashion. Odd bits of past info can emerge as part of the plot.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Amanda,
yes, I agree.
I think it ruins stories.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Flash back stalls the narrative pace. I'd be very judicious in their use. The problem is that the reader may like the flashback story more than the original and then not want to go back to the real narrative.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena
Good point.
I think that was the problem with the book I read. The author got me hooked on a sub plot and was dropped.