Stephen King thinks flashbacks are weak writing.
(Oh, and speaking of King, he’s the recipient of the 2007 Grand Master award from Mystery Writers of America. Read more on my blog here.)
When I read that, in his book ON WRITING, I was hurt. Why? Because I had just written THE HUNT and I’d included lots and lots of flashbacks. I didn’t want to think that I was a weak writer relying on worn plot devices to tell my story.
Then I thought about the story, my story, and realized that using flashbacks made the book better, the story stronger and more immediate.
I’m sure there are those who disagree with me. Fine, they’re entitled to their opinion. And flashbacks don’t always work, just like prologues. But when done right, they add a dimension to the story that wouldn’t be there if you recount particular scenes simply by retelling or remembering them through the character.
I like flashbacks because they bring immediacy to the storyline when showing a past event. It’s one thing for Miranda in THE HUNT to tell Quinn how she was hurt by him throwing her out of the FBI academy; it’s quite another to show the actual scene of him telling her she has to leave. Far more powerful, especially when other past scenes show her trust and faith in Quinn and the system, and his worry that she isn’t ready, but not wanting to hurt her by telling her that.
I also used flashbacks to show what Miranda had gone through as a captive of the Butcher, how she escaped, how she felt during her escape. To me, that was more powerful than having her “remember” through narrative her fear. Because Miranda twelve years ago is a different person than Miranda today.
Flashbacks work when they have a purpose and relate directly to the current story. My favorite flashback scene was in THE PREY. Rowan methodically, coldly, tells John the facts about what happened when her little sister was killed. But that is juxtaposed against her memory, told in italics to show that it was her reliving the event.
LOST effectively uses flashbacks. Now, some people don’t like them. Flashbacks can be confusing if there isn’t an obvious line. I picked up on LOST’s method so it didn’t confuse me.
Why do I love it? The flashbacks relate to the current episode. Without knowing the Sawyer hid under his bed while his father killed his mother, we would hate Sawyer and not see any way that he could be redeemed. We wouldn’t understand his character. But he wouldn’t just tell information to someone else. And Jack? See his life unfold, his conflict with his father, how he married–and divorced. All this goes to his personality, his motivation, his conflicts, his goals. Ha, ha . . .GMC. Sound familiar? But we wouldn’t know ANY of it because when you’re lost and stranded on an island, you don’t just sit around the campfire talking about yourself.
LOST does flashbacks better than anyone. But the STORY needs them. In DEADWOOD, flashbacks wouldn’t work as well. There’s a lot of information we get through hints in the storyline. But if we KNEW the information in the form of the flashback, we wouldn’t have those “aha” moments. Take Swearingen. We need to see him hard and “bad” at the beginning. We know he took in a handicapped woman to clean his floors and he verbally abuses her. (He verbally abuses EVERONE.) But the history between those to is gradually revealed. The writers WANT us to hate Swearingen at the beginning–the story demands it–but to feed us these tidbits that show that Swearingen isn’t ALL bad.
Maybe that’s why I love flashbacks. They are an effective way of showing GMC without resorting to have I think of as worn tricks–conversations with best friends, long narrative, introspection. All of which have a place in stories, but not at the expense of the story.
It all goes back to the story. Write what works.
My guidelines for flashbacks:
1) If the story works better showing a pivotal moment in the characters lives, or an event, in order to show CHARACTER–and if it immediately lends itself to the current story–flashbacks are okay.
2) If the flashback, no matter how well it shows character, isn’t revelent to the current story, dump it.