. . . because, obviously, we’re talking about flashbacks. And, of course, the number one piece of advice on flashbacks is simple as pie. Don’t.
Wait. What? Back the trolley up. One look at modern media shows clearly that flashbacks, nonlinear storytelling, and in media res are all used often and to good effect. So why are we told to avoid flashbacks at all costs?
This is a piece of writing advice that I have had to re-examine for my own story lately. I read and listened to some good advice from very good writers, writers who were absolutely against flashbacks. The common consensus was to go back to the first moment of the story, wherever that may be, and start the story there. Then proceed in a linear fashion. And I wanted to listen to that advice. It seemed sound, and flashbacks are very challenging. Done wrong they can tank a story, so I was happy to avoid them.
However, there are reasons beyond dramatic effect for using flashbacks and nonlinear story effects, and I stuck to my “no flashback” guns right up to the moment that my own story had a problem that I could not solve. I considered cutting out a large segment of my story, but I couldn’t see how to do that without it being a detriment. I considered trying to weave the information in through exposition in the present-day story, but it lost something there, too. My remaining two options were either to include the past story as a large chunk at the beginning, which played havoc with my pacing, or to utilize flashbacks.
You’ll come up against things like this. You will hear another writer’s opinion, and it will seem like good advice, so you take it on as your own. Then you write a story that makes you re-examine that. I’m finding that it is always a good idea to hold hard-and-fast rules about writing in a loose grip because, as writers, we are always learning, changing, evolving.
I started with two questions in this re-examination. Why was the advice given? And have I ever seen it done well?
After some thought, I believe the advice was given because flashbacks are so challenging. There are so many clichés and traps that the storyteller can fall into, and it is easier to tell a writer to avoid them completely than to guide them through how to do it well. In fact, I suspect that most of the people who say not to use flashbacks have never learned to do it well themselves. You simply cannot teach something you don’t know.
As for seeing it done well, some of my favorite stories have used this technique. In both books and television, it has been used to great effect. When the story is powerful and the flashbacks are woven in seamlessly, it leads to a much greater payoff than either part of the story could have achieved on its own.
In a few weeks, I would like to look at some of my own ideas on how to learn the art of the flashback. I would like to examine some of the why’s and wherefore’s along with some of the pitfalls of attempting such a challenging technique. For now, however, it is enough to say that there was a landscape where I dared not to tread, but I am setting out into it, and, however the journey goes, I will be a better writer for it in the end.