Skill 4.8: Flashbacks vs Information Dump


A flashback is a scene or memory from a previous time interjected into a story for dramatic impact. Flashbacks share a moment in a character’s history with the reader, used at a time and place in the story that makes sense. It should be natural. Snippets of history help create a fully-lived character.

However—a novice writers mistakenly dump the life history of a character into the opening chapters of a book, thinking it is necessary “to explain a character’s motivation.” I mentioned earlier, but it’s worth repeating—you do not start a story with friends by giving them your life’s history. So, why would you write this way? You get your friend interested in your story, blow-by-blow, detail by detail. Same for writing. Get the reader interested in your character and the storyline. Stay with that only.

In Unveiling, a few characters tell stories during the course of the main story (ala 1001 Arabian Nights). This was difficult to pull off. I even trashed an entire story that did not work, no matter what I tried. It was the right decision. My novel opens with the father reading a story to his young daughter, which I set off as a Prologue to signal the reader that the event came “before” the main story. Another story in the novel is a long flashback from the POV of the family servant (once a slave sold in the marketplace). All of this pushed my novel into the “literary” category. Remember that flashbacks break the continuity of the main story, and every time you break that flow, you risk losing the reader, unless the flashback is woven seamlessly into the novel. For this reason, follow these rules:

  • Limit the flashbacks. Use only as needed for dramatic impact (never as explanation).
  • Write the flashback so that it is riveting, poignant, amusing or shocking—in other words—extremely entertaining. Ask yourself. Is this historical nugget worthy of going back in time or breaking the flow of the main story?
  • Never (rule of thumb) put a flashback in Chapter One. Same for “dream sequences,” which are still a form of flashback in that they are not really happening. This is a common novice mistake.
  • Remember that even a flashback is a live scene—not an information dump or explanation. The reader wants to “live” in this person’s shoes.
  • There must be a natural segue (pronounced seg—way) or transition into a flashback and back out again.

Go to Skill 4.9: Direct and Indirect Characterization




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