Re-Imagining the Flashback: Letting Go and Trusting Your Creativity

Flashbacks come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more appealing than others.

Flashbacks come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more appealing than others.

I’m back from holiday and writing has started again. Was it a week wasted (from a writing point of view)? Not at all. Stephen King refers, in a famous quote, to his ‘boys in the basement’. His boys are his muses, that play amongst themselves in the darkness of his subconscious. Their games become his stories. What lurks in my subconscious, I have no idea, but I do know it is/they are a lot better at writing stories than I am.

Before I left on holiday I was facing the prospect of writing one of those infamous scenes: the flashback. I scoured the net for blogs on the subject, looking for insights into how other writers had tackled it. I found wisdom, dogma, and the little bits of excrement that are par for the course when attempting to delve deeper into the craft of writing. A few writing books were consulted, and again the results were mixed. I remembered novels that had flashbacks in them, and went back to have a look. I analysed what I thought worked, and what didn’t. With so much data, my logic-brain was firing on all cylinders, and my writing was mis-firing on just as many. I was losing touch with the characters and the plot. Then my real-life holiday intervened, quashing any hopes of satiating my literary lust as effectively as finding a three-week-old kipper inside a lover’s g-string.

But all was not lost. Whatever lurks in my darkness had obviously been at play: I had inklings of ideas and premonitions of plots. I still had to shut my logic-brain up though—it still thought it knew best. Only the realisation that, whatever the writing rule on how-to or how-not-to write a flashback, there was a critically acclaimed and successful author out there who had ignored it, disregarded it, or torn out the page on which it was written, marinated it in laxative, chewed on it, and then let nature take its course. Now I was ready to write. The result? 500 words yesterday, a day filled with unpacking, followed by another 2,000 today. Flashback draft: done and dusted.

It may need significant editing, and it is long, for a flashback. However, one bit of writing advice that’s actually proven useful when assessing the merits of a scene is to ask what it achieves. What does it add to the story? As far as I can tell, this one achieves the following:

1) It explains why my main character is the way she is. In the current draft she’s a real challenge for the reader in a couple of places. In other scenes she isn’t the most relatable, or likeable. One of the writing ‘rules’ is that your protagonist should always be sympathetic. I don’t agree. It leads to carbon-copy characters and bland fiction. Some like reading/writing that style of prose. Sometimes I do too, when I’m tired or I’ve had a hard day. But, I wanted this story to have a few more teeth than an octogenarian with a toffee addiction. My protagonist does. It’s not that she’s a terrible person, but she is messed up and broken, and her edges are sharp.

2) The scene introduces a completely new and significant element, late in the game. I know about foreshadowing, when an author drops hints in the earlier narrative to prime the reader for what is to come. It’s a great technique, when used with a light touch. With my story fundamentally being an investigation there is a lot the characters, and so the reader, doesn’t know. I’ve deliberately kept foreshadowing to a minimum, hopefully only opening the possibilities to the reader as the investigation unfolds. The challenge was to invest the new element, only just discovered, with emotional weight. I think/hope this flashback scene achieves this.

3) I wanted the scene to build up some tension/expectation and frame the closing scenes of the book. A good flashback can be used to ramp up the stakes for the characters and the reader. Knowing more about their final challenge, and the dangers they will face, the main character’s weaknesses are exposed and her apprehension grows. Hopefully this will inject more charge into the narrative and lift the mid-book, often a low point in novels.

4) I have two characters who have been at loggerheads for a while in the story. I think it’s a natural outcome of their differing personalities and mutually exclusive desire for a third party, who shall, of course, remain nameless. :-) This works well as a way of introducing conflict into the story, but overused it could become tiresome. Using the flashback I can alter the basis of their relationship, adding some complexity, richness, and providing a turning point from which it can begin to change and grow. The story is enriched as a result.

Lengthy flashbacks are unusual in fiction, but even if the girth of this one is larger than normal and, perhaps, it needs cleaning up, not being exactly whiter-than-white at the moment, I think it’s promising enough to take a chance on.

Image, ‘Take Off Your Clothes And Enjoy Holidays Stock Photo‘, courtesy of Hyena Reality, hosted by

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4 Responses to Re-Imagining the Flashback: Letting Go and Trusting Your Creativity

  1. John Harper says:

    Re your point # 2 , something else to think about (but i’m sure you already have) is the insertion of hints, here and there, so discrete and innocent by themselves that no one notices, but when the reveal is made at the end the reader thinks, a) oh man, I could have figured that out, and b) man that is some clever writing!

    For some reason your point # 3 made me think of Octavia Butlers ‘Wild Seed’. One of the protagonists is an outright dick but the explanation for why is not really revealed until like the last chapter, way too late to illicit empathy, but at a brilliant place to make the reader think back and think about everything again in a new context. I think that is pretty cool.

    Also, I don’t think characters need to be sympathetic (As you say) but they kinda do need to be empathetic. There was a real good blog post about this, kicking around. Can’t find it right now but I’ll keep digging.

    • TJames says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your thoughts. As far as hints go, I think I’ve gone about as far as I can in the narrative with them without overdoing it.

      I’ve not seen ‘Wild Seed’, but it’s good to know there have been some successful fiction works that have attempted something similar to what I’m going for with my main character.

      I’m hoping I’ve struck the right balance with my main character. My alpha reader certainly related to her, but didn’t like it when she acted in a certain way. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the feedback from my beta-readers on this one, to see if I’ve got the balance right.

  2. Paul Simpson says:

    “she is messed up and broken, and her edges are sharp”

    I love that description. I’m sure I’ll feel sympathetic with your character even if, as I suspect is the case, I am shocked by some of her actions and decisions.

    • TJames says:

      Thanks, Paul.

      I hope other readers will be able to feel for the character too. I’m really interested to know what my beta-readers make of her after I’ve finished the edit of the first draft. Whether you will be ‘shocked by some of her actions and decisions’, I don’t know. I thought it was very hard to shock the wordly-wise SF reader of today.

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