If you’re writing fiction, sooner or later someone will tell you that your flashbacks are unnecessary — they’re ruining your novel. That’s because your flashbacks bring your story to a halt. They kill the pace of your novel, and you lose readers.
Readers just want to know what happens next. They don’t care what happened in the past.
Writing fiction and want to use flashbacks? Don’t.
I can hear you thinking, “yes, but readers need to know…”
Trust readers to figure it out. A great slab of backstory/ flashback disorients readers and stops them reading. They’ll never come back.
Here are a couple of tips for using flashbacks without losing readers.
1. Keep all flashbacks super-short: integrate them into your story
You can do a lot with a single sentence: “she remembered that they’d rarely quarreled, but now they raged at each other.”
Alternatively, you can integrate a flashback into a scene, so your story keeps its forward momentum.
The first line of a scene: “He’s left me.”
Naturally, the other person in the scene wants to know what happened. When did he leave? Why? Readers will have the same questions; this helps you to integrate a flashback.
2. If flashbacks are essential: feature them
What if you truly need flashbacks, and don’t want to cut them from your novel?
Feature them. Use a “now, and then” technique. Many novels are written this way. Your story begins in the present day. The next chapter begins “20 years ago.” Keep alternating time spans: present day, and the past.
Alternatively, use a different viewpoint character for your “then” chapters. In essence, you have parallel plots: the present, and the past.
Both plots keep their forward momentum. Done well, this technique builds suspense, and keeps readers reading.
Here’s another technique for featuring your flashbacks. Use a diary or newspaper stories to reveal what happened in the past. Start a scene with a diary entry, or create an entire (short) chapter from a newspaper story. This can build suspense too.
Check your current work in progress for flashbacks
If you find that you’re studding your current novel with flashbacks, consider that they may be killing your novel’s pace. Can you integrate the flashbacks in short sentences, or paragraphs?
If you absolutely need them, try making them a feature of your novel. This can work in many genres: romance, mysteries, thrillers, and fantasy too.
Flashbacks can enhance your novel, and can make writing fiction more fun too. 🙂