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.
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.
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.
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 🙂