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Guest Blogger Chris Kelly On Flashbacks!

October 6, 2010

My Five Rules of Flashbacks

This is the first stop on my blog tour, and whilst I’m here I’m exceedingly lucky to have another fantastic author guest posting on my blog. When you’re finished browsing this fantastic blog, head over to my home on Dun Scaith to browse John Robert Lewis’s theory of steampunk. It’s really good.

First, the spiel: my name’s Chris Kelly, and I’m an indie author. My publishing company is called Scathach Publishing – don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, you will. My debut novel, Matilda Raleigh: Invictus, is available on-line right now, distributed through Smashwords. As soon as the cover is uploaded, it should be heading out to Amazon, and all the others. (My artist has been very ill, :()

I’ll tell you some more about Invictus at the end of this post, but first: I’m here to give my thoughts on flashbacks.


In general, there are two rules in flashbacks:

  • Never use them
  • Never, ever use them

If you stick with these, is the common thought, you’ll do fine. Personally, I always thought that was a load of crap. Some stories need Flashbacks. It is true that most authors (I was going to say beginning authors, but that wouldn’t be totally honest. Experienced people can suck, too) struggle with flashbacks.

I used a lot of flashbacks in the first version of Invictus (about 20k in flashback altogether) and in my opinion it worked quite well. After deciding not to go with the NY method (ie, aiming my book between 80k and 100k), I cut the flashbacks out.

The majority of the flashbacks told an entirely separate story, and work so well, I’m considering releasing them as a separate short or something. Anyway, writing so many flashbacks into my novel helped me refine the process, and come up with some rules of my own. So here goes.

Number One – the Rule of Realism

I found this article interesting, but I’m sad like that. It tries to link writing flashbacks to the way people remember things, and points to an argument that grounding fiction in reality makes for better fiction. Big Brother proved that it doesn’t but, for a more writing related point, consider dialogue. The best dialogue is nothing like real speech.

So in my rule of flashbacks, rule number one has to be:

   1. Don’t worry about realism; you are writing fiction

Number 2 – the Rule of Embedment

Most fiction writers (I wish, wish, wish I could say all) have heard of Chekhov’s gun, or understand the concept on some instinctive level. If you see a shotgun in Act One, it will be fired in Act Three. Don’t introduce things to the plot that serve no purpose. Don’t have a shotgun that doesn’t get fired.

Who knows where I’m going with this? You think you do, but I bet you don’t. This rule isn’t about “does the flashback fit the story?” It’s the rule of embedment. I thought I was making that word up, ’til spellcheck corrected it. Oh well, we learn something new every day.

Flashbacks don’t happen in a void; before your hero flashed back, he was somewhere, doing something. Think hard about that scene, and ask yourself: what does it show about my character? How does it enhance my plot? If the scene exists only to serve as a plant pot that you could embed your flashback flowers in, then it won’t work.

   2. Flashbacks don’t come from a void, make sure it comes from somewhere

Number 3 – the Rule of Exposition

In fiction there is a type of conversation called an “As you know, Bob.” It is a bad thing. “As you know, Bob, these conversations are deathly to a novel.”

“I do know that, Tom. And I’m sure you know how many bad books I’ve read that had these conversations.”

“Indeed I do, Bob. 22.”

They are contrived, they exist only as a vessel to pass information to the reader. Would you ever have a conversation with someone pointing out things you both know? Exposition needs to be handled carefully through story, mostly through the thoughts of a character, but you can also use the way people speak, or react to things, and so on.

However, some writers, on learning the “As you know…” conversations are bad, start putting all their expositions into a single flashback. It doesn’t work. I don’t know what else to say other than: it doesn’t work.

   3. Don’t use flashbacks solely as a method to give the reader information you think they need

Number Four – the Rule of Pace

Three things not to do with flashbacks. Then what is the point of a flashback, what uses do they have? Well, one such use is the control of pacing. In screen writing classes I have been taught to graph out my story’s action points. We practiced on the movie, Jaws. Each time there is an action point (it can be a fight, a sex scene, or essentially anything that gets an emotional response from the viewer) the graph rises. However, the 2nd last action point is fairly high, and the last action point not much higher. To give a full effect for the climax, a dip must be introduced.

In Jaws, whilst waiting for the sharks final appearance, there is a very slow and easy scene. They are in the boat, having a conversation. Quint tells of his experience with sharks as a survivor of the WWII sinking of the Indianapolis. This slow scene dips the action point graph to an extent that the film’s climax seems all the more exciting.

In books, you can use flashback for much the same effect.

   4. Do use flashbacks to control the pace of a story

Number Five – the Rule of Tense

When you write the story in past tense, you are writing as if it has already happened. When you go into a flashback, you are writing what has happened in the stories past (in a sense, you are writing past past tense). In this case you should use perfect past tense.

You can write the entire flashback in past tense, same as the story, and for a really long series of flashbacks that maybe the way to go. But for shorter flashbacks, you should try past perfect tense. It’s just better.
The past perfect form is had + a past participle. Her skin was cold in life becomes her skin had been cold in life. The past perfect form works well for flashbacks, because they are in the remote past (the past’s past, still).

(I owe my friend David Meadows huge kudos for explaining Rule 5 to me a while ago. Thanks, David.)

   5. Be wary of screwing up your grammar

That’s it, my five rules of flashback. The number one rule of fiction holds sway over all those rules, of course. It’s the rule of consistency. Whichever tense you use in one flashback, for example, make sure you use in them all.

And now, my book’s description.
It is 1912, and the British Empire faces the worst magical threat it has ever known, the misuse of ancient Incan crystal skulls. 72 year old former adventuress Matilda Raleigh is brought in as an adviser. But when she realises she has been lied to and betrayed, it falls on Matilda to save the Empire, and possibly the whole world.

You should buy it. My children might starve if you don’t. Well, okay, that was a lie. But you should still buy it.
You can get it here.

My blog tour kicks off today, so why don’t you follow along? Tomorrow I’ll be on Tracey Falbe’s blog, posting about my sword and sorcery influences, whilst Rachel Thompson will be posting all about the new Indie Book Collective for indie authors.

And if you like me (who doesn’t? :)), follow me on Twitter as Indiechris, and friend me on Facebook here.

Thank you, Saundra, for letting me come on here and torment your normal readers with my inanities. It’s been great fun.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2010 9:04 am

    Mmm… Past Perfect Tense… Gotta say, that’s my favourite when it comes to the shorter flashbacks in narrative.

    Dare I bring up Twilight? Oh well, I guess I just did, so I might as well finish the thought. XD When Jasper goes on and on about his past, his flashback is done terribly, in my honest opinion. I believe Meyer used simple past tense with that, but since the normal narrative is also in past tense, it was confusing. Past tense dialogue within past tense narrative. It was tedious to read and made me go cross-eyed more than once. Perhaps that’s just one example of why I prefer past perfect tense. ^_^

    Nice post. General rules for flashbacks are good. While they have their places, I have certainly seen them overused.

    Good luck with the rest of the blog tour!
    ~K. Piet

  2. October 11, 2010 12:57 pm

    Thank you.

    I haven’t read Twilight (and won’t) so I shouldn’t comment, but I thought all of Twilight was badly written? No, like I said, I haven’t read it.

  3. October 11, 2010 1:03 pm

    Oh, all of Twilight is very badly written. I haven’t read it–and I won’t read it–but I have read excerpts. It’s terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. And it rubs me raw because that shit gets published and lauded as great with middle-aged women swooning over what is essentially pedophilia while really great works are rejected because acquiring editors don’t think they can make a buck off it.

    It’s the sad state of NY publishing at its finest. -.-;

  4. October 11, 2010 1:08 pm

    Lol, that’s true.

  5. October 26, 2010 10:53 am

    I have no memory of explaining rule 5 to you but I’ll take your word for it!

    All your rules make sense to me, though. I had never thought about the pacing rule, but now that you mention it it does crop up an awful lot in fiction. But I suspect it’s a use that is very easy to misjudge.

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