Monday, October 1, 2012

Skip the Flashback

I'm reading a book right now that inspired me to share my thoughts with you about flashbacks. I'm leaving out the author and title.

I'm a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers. And not just books. Movies and television too. When you tell me the story is about a woman who's been abducted, I say, "someone took her? Let's find out what happens NEXT."

Explain to me why authors feel the need to use flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story like stale bread crumbs to show characterization? I want to discover the characters, decide if I like them or not, through the actions they take AFTER the inciting incident. Not before. I'm not a big fan of what our hero did when he was 12. That's for the author to know. I watch a character come to life when he or she is forced to make a choice under pressure. If my hero is an adult, his choices at 12 have about as much pressure as a three day old latex balloon filled with helium.

Yet, these very books make the top of the best sellers list. Is it because most readers enjoy looking through the kitchen window from the outside? Are they saying with each turn of the page, "I can watch all the nasties that lie around the kitchen floor and clutter the table. No one will ever know how I sit and watch you because I'm outside and you're inside with the lights on." Maybe deep down in places we don't like to admit exist we all have a little dark side.

Let's not take away the fact that many, but not all, authors have a way with prose. Their words dress up a page like evening wear. The words catch the light and make us gasp for breath. We put a fluttering hand to our hearts and say, "if only..." Pretty words aside, do you know what I say to most flashbacks? Who cares?

Show me how the hero's world is rocked and leave out what he did when he was 12. Unless he's 12 NOW. A good author can make me care about our hero without telling me every detail of the hero's upbringing. Robert McKee says, "why a man does a thing is of little interest once we see the thing he does. A character is the choices he makes to take the actions he takes. Once the deed is done his reasons why begin to dissolve into irrelevancy."

In other words, the fact the hero's father took him to the baseball game when he was 12 and made him leave that game early has nothing to do with the fact his wife is missing NOW.

Your thoughts on flashback?


  1. I don't mind flashbacks when they are relevant and not too long. I like to learn a little more about the character that way. But you're right in that it does stop the forward momentum of the story.

  2. Flashbacks are more palatable when they are short. But relevant? I'm not sure they ever are. The action has already happened. Isn't there some way to reveal the character by having a current action take place? Maybe it's just my tastes. Who knows?!