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.