Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Pros and Cons of Flashbacks

UPDATED: Thanks to all those who have commented on this post in the past week.

I will be "teaching" my Teaching Creative Writing class tomorrow. We are allowed to choose our own topics. I've decided my presentation will be about flashbacks. So, as preparation, I thought I'd test the waters with a post first.

First off: what is a flashback?

If you're a writer or even an avid movie watcher, you probably just read that question and thought "DUH," but starting a class with a definition seems pertinent. It also gets people talking :)

There are probably better definitions out there, but plain and simple, a flashback is a scene that references an event that took place prior to the occasion of the telling. If put the "present action" of the story in a frame, the flashback describes an event the took place outside the frame, prior to the starting point of the story. ***I think there could be a valid argument that flashback and reminiscence are not the same. I'd love to hear some other writers' thoughts on this. Can we say a memory is a flashback? Are all flashbacks memories? Haha, those are the type of questions I used to hate when profs would ask. Bring on the crickets.

What are the cons of a flashback?

Obviously not all stories are meant to be told in a linear fashion. However, the drawback to a flashback is that it has already happened and thus, arguably lack immediacy. Therefore, flashbacks should only be used if they reveal information about that drives the story forward. Also, flashbacks often have clunky verbage. I'll explain what I mean by that below.

What are the pros?

Flashbacks can reveal information about a character's desires, motives, emotional state. Showing a character's past sheds light on the type of person they are in the present and can help give the reader insight into the character's present actions. Therefore, an effective flashback is one that reveals information relevant to the character's present. Flashbacks can also slow the pacing of the story down if it is moving too quickly. (The con of this would be that too many flashbacks would make the story's pace too slow.) Also, flashbacks allow us to show pre-story moments in scene rather than in summation.

How to signal a flashback:

What is the tense of the first verb used in the story? This becomes the operational tense. If the story is told in past tense, then the flashback needs to be one tense removed from that--past perfect. If the story is told in the present tense, the flashback would be in the past tense. Past perfect can be clunky. Generally speaking, if the flashback is meant to be in past perfect, one should use the past perfect tense three times to signal to the reader that they are reading a flashback,  then the writer can use the past tense to streamline the verbage. One moves out of a flashback the way one enters it. If you have decided to switch to past tense in the middle of the flashback, the last three verbs of the flashback should be past perfect. This will signal that the flashback is ending and we are returning to the story's operational tense--that the flashback is over and we are continuing on with the rising action of the story. Flashbacks can also be formatted with extra white space--an additional line or two--before and after the flashback to visually illustrate that the scene is separate from the rest of the text.

Some writers chose not to write flashbacks in one tense removed from the operational tense. I'm not one who typically breaks conventions and find it annoying when I have to reread a paragraph because halfway through I realize its a flashback. I prefer the flashback to be hinted at through verb choice, but not all writers do this. All I can say is that I personally don't want my readers to be confused. I want them to be engaged, so I try my best to follow verb conventions when writing flashbacks.

**Another formatting option is to italicize the flashback.

Other types of flashbacks:
*dreams (Personally, I think dreams are overdone, especially by young writers, so I would avoid writing about a dream, but it is an option.)
*extended flashback: Flashbacks can be a paragraph, chapter, or even the majority of the text. It is possible to have a "story within a story" in which the flashback is "book-ended" by the present action.

I would also like to point out that flashbacks can be in poetry as well. A great example is the poem "Spring Rain," by Sara Teasdale.

**If anyone has any good citations for examples in fiction or nonfiction, please let me know. I know there are so many out there. (UPDATED: the Madeleine scene from Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Also, The Things They Carried has flashback scenes. I've read that book three times and I can remember the flashbacks, but since I don't have a copy with me here in Vancouver I can't pull any excerpts.)

Thanks for reading. If you found this helpful or have something to add, I'd love to hear from you. Look for a post about  how "body parts are not characters" coming in the next couple days.



  1. Hi I'm Michael, following via Katherine's blog hop. Good post and helpful, I'd probably italicize a flashback if I included one and try to keep it short and meaningful. Good luck with the class. I'm trying to think of good citations of flashback examples for you to use...but I can't at the moment. All I can think of is the tv programme Lost and how effectively they were used by the writers of that script.

  2. also visiting from the Blog Hop Follow Swap.

    I agree that flashbacks are different from reminiscence. Reminiscence tends to be much more brief. It's a thought away from the story that reflects on the current action. Flashback is a full dramatization of a past event.

    And I liked your suggestion about putting perfect tense markers only at the beginning and end of the flashback. With shorter flashbacks, only two markers might suffice. But yes, perfect tense is clunky and draws attention to itself too much. Excellent point!

  3. Thank you both for the feedback. It's much appreciated!

  4. I liked the point about whether memories count as flashbacks, but agree with Laurel that flashbacks tend to be more purposeful

  5. Wow, I'm a little bit concerned that I've never heard of past perfect before. :/ Thanks for joining in the Follow-Swap Blog Hop!