The flashback is dead. It’s at least on life support. Readers don’t want excursions into the past, complete with scenes and dialogue, to learn about a character. As writers of fiction, we’ve got to stick to the storyline.
I guess this is pretty sound advice. Flashbacks handled poorly just interrupt the narrative train and slow things down. But I have to say that handled well, I think they can be magical, blurring the line between past and present and showing how one leads into the other. Check out Dennis McFarland’s novel, The Music Room, one of my favorites. It’s chockfull of flashbacks, and they’re as memorable as the storyline, if not more so.
But flashbacks do present myriad structural challenges, and that’s why I’m keeping away from them in my new project. A workshop teacher once told me that flashbacks are evidence that the writer isn’t able to “bring the past into the story in a natural, seamless way.” This isn’t always the case, of course, but I think it’s probably dead-on in many instances.
A novel’s structure, this teacher said, includes scenes and summaries, with the latter serving as passages between scenes. Summaries are a way of telling events. They can be used to bring information from the past into the story. But they are NOT flashbacks. Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction has more to say on summaries. Check it out, if any of this is resonating with you.
2 thoughts on “Stick To The Point”
Grace, I couldn’t agree anymore. As far as I’m concerned, no fictional tool is off-limits. Execution is everything, as McFarland so aptly proves. Glad you chimed in. Nice to find McFarland fans. Cheers, Karen
So loved The Music Room. McFarland handles flashbacks the way we all should–deftly and with details that pull us in and make us forget we’re suddenly in a different place and time and we’re being filled in on what’s past. Flashbacks don’t need to be done away with. They just need to be done well.