Eliminating or Reducing Flashbacks

Authors like to use flashbacks to show backstory. Unfortunately the use of flashbacks can stop the narrative flow in its tracks. Rather than increasing dramatic tension, flashbacks tend to drain it. Readers experience them not as enhancements to the text but as interruptions. Readers, as a rule, don’t care about what happened in the past. They care about what happens next.

Authors often use flashbacks as a way to solve a problem. (In fact, most developmental problems are attempted solutions to other problems.) If you can identify the problem the author is trying to solve, you can offer editorial guidance that will solve the problem in a way that does not require the use of a flashback. Here are three common problems authors try to solve with flashbacks:

  • Author is afraid the character’s motivation won’t be clear without a visit to the experience that shaped the motivation. So the ms ends up with something like: “Anna didn’t want to get involved. She remembered the last time she’d gotten involved. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anna’s meddling backfired once.]”
  • Author is afraid the emotional impact of a current scene won’t be felt unless the reader knows what led up to the scene: “Anthony watched in horror as the dog ran across the street. [Cue long, convoluted flashback about how Anthony’s dog was run over by a truck when he was nine years old.]”
  • Author is attempting to “show, don’t tell.” Take, for example, the following passage: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. The last time a boss had set up a meeting without explaining why, she’d been fired.” An author may recognize that as telling, rather than showing, and remembering that they are supposed to show instead of tell, may seize upon the opportunity to show: “Regina wondered what her boss wanted. She remembered [cue long, convoluted flashback to a scene where Regina is fired.]”

Depending on the situation, a writer who is overly reliant on flashbacks to tell the story may have started the story in the wrong place or is telling the wrong story. In one of the recent edits I’ve done where flashbacks did too much heavy lifting, I asked the author to reflect on what her story is about. In essence, she is telling the tale of a woman’s disintegrating marriage, but where such a story starts can vary. Is she telling the story of how the marital problems arise? Or is she telling the story of what happens after the protagonist realizes her marriage is in jeopardy and she must make a decision? My author wanted to tell story #2, but she was telling story #1 in the flashbacks.

Now, of course it’s possible for an approach like this to work, with flashbacks expertly entwined with the forward action, but probably not, and rarely in an inexperienced author’s hands. So the solution was to have the author commit to telling story #2 and to prune out as much of the backstory as possible. For story #2, how the protagonist got to where she is when the story opens isn’t as interesting to the reader as what happens next: “Marriage is in trouble? Okay, got it.” That’s basically all the reader needs for the story to get underway.

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