1. Another helpful rule of thumb is: If the flashback contains important emotional content that you need the audience to empathize with, and can only get the audience to empathize with if you pull them through a visceral scene filled with sensory detail and action that helps the reader feel and understand the current emotions that the character is experiencing (/decisions she’s about to make), then the flashback is justified and even preferable to the alternative.

    If the above is true, it’s totally possible to have a flashback that’s 6 pages long and perfectly preferable–it just has to tick a lot of boxes to get there.

  2. Jill says:

    Brief is definitely the rule re American books. Read a British book, and you might get a 50-pg flashback. It becomes a story within a story. I’m fine with that, but I do find it interesting how tastes/rules differ.

  3. I agree, at least for the most part. Though there’s going to be times when longer flashbacks are probably ok. It seems like a lot of writing rules are made to be broken.

    There’ve been lots of times when anime has used flashbacks in a way that’s very effective, so experimenting with ways to translate that to a written novel can be useful. Something I picked up from watching Fate Zero is the idea of having flashbacks take place at the beginning of a scene or chapter, which reduces the amount of transition needed, so long as the flashback is introduced with a few things that reference what time in the person’s life it takes place in.

    Kiritsugu’s backstory, for instance, was separated off into two different episodes that could actually be fairly stand alone if need be. There were a lot of strategic aspects in where those episodes were placed in the anime(midway through the second/last season, when people would be interested in learning more about him) and after a very impactful scene(Kiritsugu destroys one of his opponents in a deceitful and heinous way, which gets him into an argument with Arthur. Kiritsugu’s bitterness really comes forth in this scene, which ends up drawing Arthur’s sympathy, causing her to basically say that only a former idealistic hero that’s been through hell would be as bitter as Kiritsugu. He scowls at her, indicating she hit a nerve.) If I recall correctly, the next two episodes are his backstory, showing exactly what hell he’d been through to become the person he is as an adult.

    It’s nice that the anime simply cuts to the chase and directly shows us his childhood so WE can take that journey into his mind and understand, without compromising his personality. (Kiritsugu certainly isn’t going to pour his life’s story out to Arthur, so having him go on a diatribe about his past wouldn’t work very well).

    One of the classic ways of doing backstory IS of course to just have a character start explaining his past to others, which is great as long as it isn’t too annoyingly contrived(though the audience is probably somewhat willing to forgive contrivance if the backstory is cool enough). Some stories use dreams to communicate backstory as well, which can be really fun.

    I’ve gotten to experiment with some of these things in my Naruto fanfic lately. This chapter uses the idea of starting with the flashback, rather than trying to transition to one in the middle of a scene. One goal for me lately is to make the transitions in and out of flashbacks subtle enough that italics aren’t needed, so a little bit of that is in here too(the chapter starts when Haku is a little kid, then leads up to the time the rest of the story takes place in):


  4. I used to get a lot of criticism in my writer’s group for using flashbacks. After a while, I realized the reason was because the people in it were not familiar with how to use them and how they are a part of good literature. We want uninterrupted story lines (because our primary reference is TV, not books). And, Jill’s remark is good. If you read British literature you will get lots of flashbacks, some of them very long. A wise critic once remarked that the British write like Jane Austen while American authors write like Ernest Hemingway. Both of those authors have their strengths. But flashbacks are absolutely necessary to a good story. We want action, high-speed chases, no description–in other words, we want our books and stories to resemble a TV show. If we write like this, our writing will be as shallow as a TV show and worse off, since the written word doesn’t have a sound track!

What do you think?