Pros and Cons of Flashbacks

The main character is faced with a conflict. Life is happening. Plot is happening. Story is happening. You’re really getting into it, on the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next when…

*three years ago*

I haven’t read too many books that make frequent uses of flashbacks, but they definitely exist here and there. And since I’ve read a few recently, I decided to make a discussion post talking about my thoughts on flashbacks.

Flashbacks can be very useful for telling something that happened earlier in the narrator’s life. I love really learning about a character, and learning about their motive behind their actions. Often this is because of something that happened in the past, and as the reader, we have no way of knowing this without them telling us.

Flashbacks can also be good for really putting the reader in the moment of what happened. By going back to that time, the author can really show and paint a picture of what happened, rather than just summarizing it in the protagonist’s thoughts as a simple, direct sentence.

Flashbacks can also be used to pretty much tell two stories in one: the story of when the main character was younger, and the story that’s happening now. I enjoyed the way flashbacks were used in The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, with the main story being of Leigh in Taiwan now, but the reader periodically getting to see the events in her past that led up to this.

Image result for astonishing color of after

On the other hand, flashbacks can really take you out of a story. For example, in Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, the flashbacks occur mid chapter, being indicated by a different, font, and then goes back to the regular chapter when they’re done. These felt really abrupt to me, and random. It almost felt like info dumping, like there was no way the author could show us the information without shoving it down our throats right before it became necessary.

Image result for since youve been gone

Another example is The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, where the flashbacks were separate chapters themselves from when the narrator was a different age. There didn’t really pertain to the story, since they were from a different time, and some weren’t even relevant to the main story, and were about random secondary characters who didn’t even exist in the present day part. Furthermore, when they were entire chapters long, I quickly got bored of them, skimming through to get to the actual story that I was interested in.

Image result for the summer i turned pretty

One way to avoid flashbacks would be to just have the narrator describe what happened in past tense. This can avoid taking the reader out of the action but still get the point across, allowing the author to spend more time on making the present day story a masterpiece without any random disturbances. On the other hand, this too can end up being an info dumb with too much “telling” instead of “showing.”

Flashbacks really aren’t either good or bad; when done right they can be wonderful, and other times they can be horrible! And it’s really just a matter of personal preference. For example, I typically do not like flashbacks for all the reasons listed above, and it often turns me off a story. But that’s just me! What do you think–do you like flashbacks in books or not? I haven’t really talked to people about this, so I’m really curious 🙂

29 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Flashbacks

  1. I don’t really like flashbacks either but I did like them in The Astonishing Colour of After! I feel like in that case it really added to the story and the whole reflection period that Leigh kinda goes through.

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  2. I totally agree with you that it’s a matter of personal preferences. Flashbacks are very hard to pull off without disrupting the flow of the story in the present, but if a writer does pull it off they really can be amazing. What I especially love is when flashbacks are used to only show the reader parts of what happened from the point of view of one character – so that we sometimes draw the wrong conclusions or misinterpret the memory’s true meaning. That can make for some awesome plot twists later on 🙂

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  3. This is a really great post!! I think you’re right: flashbacks work if they’re done right, but otherwise they can really take you out of the story. I really love when flashbacks are used to tell a second story in novels– multiple plot lines are so fun and interesting to read.

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  4. I understand the use of flashbacks, but I don’t really like them. A lot of thrillers use them to slowly reveal the killers identity, but they just could’ve started the story from before the crime instead of constantly flashing back every other chapter.

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  5. This was such a wonderful discussion! I’m not really a fan of flashbacks — especially the ones where they alternate chapter to chapter from past to present — but I guess in some stories they’re necessary to things making sense for the reader. I totally agree that they sometimes feel like info-dumps tho!

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  6. i love this post so much! flashbacks are such a polarizing/central part of so many books yet i haven’t really seen anyone discussing them. i almost always hate flashbacks – i feel like they’re confusing and take me out of the story. sometimes i love books in spite of their flashbacks (like since you’ve been gone!) but almost never because of them :/

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  7. I like flashbacks that are done well and make sense that they’re there. Like if the character is telling another character what happened to them and there’s a flashback. But if they’re too frequent or too long they’re really annoying, especially when they just interject the story

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  8. Really like this post because I’m wracking my brain to think of a book where I did like the use of flashbacks. I know instantly one I didn’t like (that I read recently) which was Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert. There were two sets of flashbacks, alternating semi-cryptic flashbacks to a young child’s memories, and then the main narrative would also stream of consciousness ramble into flashbacks so lengthy I’d be jarred/confused when the narrative went back to the present. ROUGH STUFF. Oh! I really liked the flashbacks in A Million Junes by Emily Henry – they were beautiful and lovely and completely necessary to advancing the plot. And just glancing at my shelves // there are alternating flashbacks in Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers that are well done, maybe that’s just alternating narratives, but it’s a young man in present day Amsterdam and then a woman his grandfather knew during WWII. OH also Harry Potter, that was creative, having flashbacks be tangible with the Pensieve, coolcoolcool.

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  9. I’ve always been a fan of flashback so long as they contribute to the story. If they’re used to create tension and give context, I’m all for it. However, if flashbacks are just wasted pages and give information that could have been presented as part of the rest of the story, then I’m not a fan. To me, it really depends on how the author weaves them into the narrative. Great post!!

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