April 15, 2015
3 Reasons Flashbacks are Terrible Storytelling Devices.
They’re pretty common in visual mediums because there really is no other way to express memory in an interesting way. That makes sense. But do they work for prose? I’m convinced the answer is no, no matter how relevant they might seem to the progression of your story.
1: They’re just plain incorrect.
Flashbacks, in the medical world, are associated with significant trauma and sometimes drug use. A memory so powerful as to exist vividly in present moment almost always has an extraordinary set of circumstances surrounding it. This experience is rarely, if ever, anything except disruptive, unpleasant, and frightening. I want to focus on the word disruptive. When you pause for a flashback, you’re stopping everything, including the flow of time in your world. That’s actually not unlike the perception of someone experiencing a flashback. Unless you’re ready to go in to just how personally disruptive that is, you shouldn’t interrupt the story for it. Remember that you’re taking your character there, and unless the memory is traumatic enough to trigger a PTSD episode… That’s just not how we remember things. Memory is mysterious, piecemeal, incomplete, and sensory. Not to mention the fact that many flashbacks are not visual or auditory. If you want more information about trauma and PTSD, here is a great post from someone in my family who knows a lot more about it.
2: They take the reader out of the story.
No! Straw Flashback Writer says. They get the reader deeper into my character’s head!
Have you ever genuinely laughed at a joke after the teller paused in the middle to explain part of the setup? “Oh, I actually forgot to say … ” “Wait, so, before that, this happened … ” Alright, maybe you have. But can we agree it’s still a bad way to tell a joke? That’s pretty much what Straw Flashback Writer is saying to the reader. Hold on, before we move on I have to tell you about this super important thing. You know it’s super important because I’m dedicating a page to it.
Before we move on, I should explain what inspired this article. It was a sunny day, one of the first of spring. Despite my relief at the weather I was cooped up indoors at my computer. Bloop! A skype message from a friend I hadn’t spoken to since high school popped up in my alerts. I remember thinking it was odd, but smiling to be getting back in touch. … Are you annoyed yet? That’s an important piece of information to me, because without it I wouldn’t be writing this. But I bet you don’t care about my friend or what he did that inspired me. You’re here for the info. I get it, you can’t compare a blog post to a book. But it’s still a delayed payoff for an insignificant piece of information.
Hold up. I can already hear Straw Flashback Writer again. THAT may have been insignificant, but THIS thing that happened to MY character…
3: Nothing your character remembers will ever be as important as what they’re doing at the time.
And I mean nothing. Readers want to see your characters develop based on the events over the course of the book. Not what happened before they started reading. If an event is important enough to include in enough detail to be it’s own scene, make it happen at a relevant time. Otherwise it’s just not that important. I’m not saying that your characters shouldn’t have pasts, and that the memories of those pasts shouldn’t drive and shape them. I’m saying there are so many better ways to weave memory into the plot that don’t interrupt the flow.
Memory is about evocation, and if you want to be a level 70 memory wizard, just take a look into your own mind. Sometimes a smell might remind us of a person, place, or span of time. Sometimes a name or word we recalled vividly yesterday escapes us today, but it’s still there. We know the idea we need to express, we can taste it, but it just doesn’t want to verbalize. Memory can be overwhelming. A single sound followed by a reaction will tell your reader more about a character than an entire flashback chapter. It’s a deeply personal moment and the reader gets to work it out for themselves. Why deny readers the opportunity to solve a little puzzle? I guarantee they’ll feel closer to the character for it.