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.