Two flashback-like gimmicks to avoid

Last time we looked at how to use flashbacks effectively.

But in new writers’ stories I often see a couple of ineffective ploys akin to flashbacks. One is what I call the Pointless Flashback—it flashes back to something that happened within the span of the story’s timeline.

A flashback is a fully dramatized scene that shows an event that happened before the story’s timeline. So there’s no reason to use a flashback for something that happens during the story’s timeline.

Here’s what I think leads people to do this. They’re writing along, and they get to chapter twenty and think of something really important that must have happened three weeks prior in order for the story to work. So they write a Three Weeks Ago flashback.

© creative soul •
© creative soul •

In first draft mode, let that go, but in editing, grab that flashback and move it to where it belongs in the timeline. Make it a plain ol’ scene.

Another similar trick—I see this a lot—is the False Start and Back Up. The character is shown doing something, often the kind of mindless thing that encourages rumination, and then they start thinking about an incident that happened earlier in the storyline. The author then backs up in time just a bit to show that. Here’s what that looks like:

Joann drove her car out of the office parking lot and headed home, still fuming over the argument with her boss. He had stepped into her cubicle, thrown a stack of reports on her desk, and shouted “What kind of mess is this?” loud enough for everyone on the floor to hear…

And so on, with an extended description of the argument. Just omit the driving home part, and dramatize the argument at its proper place in the storyline. This may be an attempt to show how in real life we mull over stuff like this, but fiction needs to be more interesting than real life, and that means showing the incident, not the character thinking about the incident.

The difference between flashback and backstory

Backstory is everything that happened prior to the story, whether you dramatize it or not. So all flashbacks are backstory, but not all backstory is a flashback.

Backstory, where necessary to move the plot forward, is woven into the story briefly using engaging dialogue or interior monologue.

This item is phrased so as to exclude flashbacks, which we already talked about.

Backstory contained in dialogue or interior monologue needs to be engaging, and ideally it moves the story forward. Don’t include information just because you know, for example, that the heroine took a CPR class at the Red Cross. Only mention that at the point where her co-worker has a heart attack and she jumps in.

Bob: Do you know what you’re doing?
Joann: Yes, I took a CPR class at the Red Cross.

Now, it is possible to bring in backstory to illuminate the character. When this is true, keep it brief. If Joann goes to visit her co-worker in the hospital and gets anxious because the last time she was in a hospital her grandmother died, we only need one line of her thoughts to get that. Maybe two, if it’s a really profound emotional reaction to a sensory stimulus. Then get back to the story.

We discussed this subject earlier when we talked about avoiding narrative info dumps in our character history. Something in the story may remind your character of something from her past, but don’t let her ruminate about it. Characters thinking about stuff does not make for engaging fiction. Readers want to see characters doing stuff.

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