I hate flashbacks in fiction.
I’m not saying don’t ever use them. I’m not even saying I don’t ever use them. But where they exist, they should:
- Be really, really short.
- Be really, really interesting.
- Actually move the main plot forward.
The problem is, nearly all flashbacks fail on one or more of these. More likely, they:
- Are very intrusive and tend to throw me out of the story.
- Serve to insert some “clever” bit of worldbuilding or backstory that would serve the actual story better by being included in more “current” events.
- Take up far more narrative space than what they’re adding warrants.
- Interrupt the flow of the narrative. Shatter the tension so that I have a hard time caring when the story gets back to the present action.
- Come across as telling me why something is the way it is rather than showing me as part of the story.
If they’re done well, they can add to the story. My experience suggests they’re rarely done well so should mostly be left out.
Even more than I hate regular flashbacks, I detest when a story opens in the “present” for a short scene and then rolls back so that the rest of the story is all of the lead up and prior events to get you to the opening scene which is just before the end. That’s some obnoxious, over-used, comic-book and TV trope-y stuff right there. Don’t do it. If it’s not something I’m reading as part of my part-time gig as a slush reader, you’ve lost me. I kind of don’t care how good the rest of the story is, you’re treating it as a flashback. If the only thing giving your story a sense of excitement or immediacy is the scene you hook the reader with then that’s probably where the story should start and it will wind up being a lot shorter.
“But what about stories that are told in more than one time frame and switch back and forth through the narrative?”
What about them? Those aren’t flashbacks. That’s a story that’s having different parts of it told in different time frames. Not the same thing. BUT, if they don’t converge somehow at some point, they might actually be two different stories and they’re probably distracting (and detracting) from each other.
And a Forest Gump style framing device doesn’t often work, either. It just sets up the old story-within-a-story trope that was old and tired not long after Mary Shelley used it for Frankenstein. We don’t need a reason for the sharing of the events in the story. Just tell the story.
There’s nothing wrong with mucking about in the timestream. Play, move things around, jumble them up if it works, have fun. But whatever you do needs to make the overall narrative work better. Sometimes, the person doing the writing is too close to the words to see when that’s not happening. I think the trick is the same with any other chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence, word. If it doesn’t really need to be there, it should probably be cut.
And that’s hard. I know. Believe me, I know. I also know that cut doesn’t mean thrown away. That’s probably a topic for another day, though.
In the meantime, stay safe and be well, everyone.by