Tuesday, January 6, 2009


One of the issues that has plagued my writing, and mainly for those who read it, is the use of flashbacks. Often the criticism takes on the following form: "Why did you slow down the action with flashback?" The problem for me is reaching the editor, or the slush reader, who wants to be drawn in immediately, and giving something good that will push them forward. As such, my goal is to hook the reader right from the first sentence, or at the least from the first paragraph, and that usually means launching the story right in the middle of a conflict. (In medias res, right?) Taking this approach, however, leaves little initial room for back story, which I also think is necessary at times for my readers to understand the character.

One of the biggest problem with flashbacks for me involves transitions--how to smoothly move the reader into the past, and then back into the present, without jarring them completely from the story. One of the articles I read in the past suggested using the past perfect tense to signal the beginning of the flash back. For example:

It had happened one night while they were driving home from the movie theater...

From then on, the article instructed the writer to simply use the past tense, as there was no need to continue on in the past perfect tense. That is all fine, I suppose, to get the reader into the flash back. The problem, though, is getting the reader back to the present time of the story. If this is not handled properly, the reader is left disoriented and frustrated. I know. I heard enough criticisms to vouch for it.

I've been thinking about flashbacks this last week as I've launched into Lisey's Story (pronounced Lee-Cee) by Stephen King. As I've been reading, it dawned on me how much this novel relies on flashbacks. In order to handle this, Mr. King has chosen to break up his novel into chapters and then sub-chapters. Here is how the first chapter starts:

I. Lisey and Amanda (Everything the Same)


From there, the novel progress on with 2, and then 3 and then up to 5 before the reader finds Chapter II. The beauty of this technique is that somewhere in the larger chapter (using sub-chapter 3 maybe) the writer can launch into a flashback without totally confusing the reader. As an alternative, the writer can use a whole chapter to provide the flashback, as Elmore Leonard did with several of his westerns.

And this has given me a new approach in writing my novel, which also needs mucho flashbacks for the reader to connect with the subtext of the story. This is just another reason, I suppose, why we need to be constantly reading while we're constantly writing.


  1. Ah... the flashback. Or, telling a story over a span of time. I open BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT in the middle of a flashback in a shrink's office. I also use journals as foils to get in the backstory.

    My latest uses a split chapter with the first scene in present and the second sliding into the past. Fun. I heart structure.

    Great post - will need to read Lisey's Story. Peace, Linda

  2. Stephen, I can't imagine WHO you're referring to when you mention this criticism. :)

    Now I have a question: Is Lisey's Story super scary? Hubby gets annoyed when I wake him at night because I see stuff lurking in the corners :)

  3. The criticism came from both the WD Forum and the EU Forum. Part of the problem may have been that the flashbacks, when used, were too soon and too long, and thus separated the reader from the current action. So, the comments may have been legitimate. Part of the issue is learning how best to use flashbacks while keeping the reader connected to the story.

    Lisey's Story is not so much scary as it is grisly. It has a couple moments (thus far) that make the reader cringe. If you don't like those kind of moments, then maybe the story is not for you.

  4. You should keep in mind the individuals from whom the criticism came from. Always.
    Always value those who's writing is similarly strong, and pay more attention to those who write the same genre.

    My greatest struggle is finding folks who write lit. I need that feedback. Peace, Linda