On Flashbacks

By James N. Frey

This article was originally published in the German magazine TextArt: Magazin für Kreatives Schreiben (The magazine for creative writers) in a question/answer column.

In your book How to Write a Damn Good Novel you advised people to avoid flashbacks if possible. I find that when I give the background information without using a flashback, it gets boring. Being boring is, to me, the biggest sin. What do I do?

Okay, first let me make a confession. When I made my attack on flashbacks I did so because I'd found that in working with beginning writers they often would break off a very interesting story to go into a flashback that was often totally unnecessary. My theory was that they did this because when their stories were heating up and the characters were under a lot of stress--which is very good for drama--the beginning authors felt the stress in their own bellies. This stress made them uncomfortable and so they would decide to show the reader a flashback to relieve their own stress. Creative writing teachers call this "running away from conflict." Lots of beginning writers do it, so in HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL I advised them to use a flashback only when they had to.

Flashbacks are not in themselves evil. In fact, they may contribute immensely to the understanding of the characters.

First, let's be clear about our terms. A flashback is a scene or series of scenes that dramatically shows the reader an event or series of events that happened prior to the time frame of the present story. Say you're writing about a murder that happens in 2001, but you want to dramatically show an affair the murderer and the victim had ten years before in 1991. You decide to show this through a flashback scene.

So you'd start in the present time frame and then slip into the flashback scene that is back in 1991, like this:

Sam went back to his office, poured himself a tall glass of bourbon, and looked deep into its rich, brown color. He leaned back in his old rocker and put his feet up on his roll-top desk, took a sip of bourbon, and thought about Hilde and that horrible, stupid, meeting at the Cafe de Fleur on Rue de Rivoli, on that rainy March day in 1991.

Hilde wore a blue blouse that matched, he remembered, the deep blue of her lustrous eyes as she looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup.

"I could love you Sam," she said.


"Yes, could."

"For the sake of argument, why don't you?"

"I can't stand to be second."

"You're first with me, Hilde."

"No, I'm not. You love this dance you do with death. You love only Mademoiselle Danger, not me."

"You want me, you've got to take the whole package."

"I say it again: only if I can be first in your life."

"I'm a detective," he said flatly. "I could no more change that than I can drink the Seine dry."

Now, in his office, he stared into the glass of bourbon and thought of what he should have said. That for her he could be a cobbler or cab driver or street car conductor, anything at all...

This is effective in that it brings the characters alive and is dramatic on its own, and comes at a place in the story that would hopefully bring the relationship of the characters into sharper focus. It would be an effective device to use and is not just a case of the author running away from conflict.

What a flashback shows is called "antecedent action." There are other ways of presenting antecedent action. One way is to have what happened come out in dramatic conflict. As an example, in the present in the story, say Sam is being questioned about Hilde's tragic death.

Inspector Deveraux took a long drag on his Galloise and sneered at Sam sitting at the other side of the table in the gray-walled interrogation room. "You knew Hilde Schmidt in Paris in March, 1991, didn't you?"

"You seem to know everything, why don't you tell me?"

"You practically lived together in the Hotel de Corsaire, room 206, did you not?"

"Did we?"

"You fell in love like two gooey-eyed teenagers, and you walked arm in arm through the Tuileries...do not try to deny it. You loved her and she threw you over for an Italian count, didn't she?"

"What happened between her and me is none of your goddamn business."

"You wanted to marry her, we know you said so to your friend the dwarf. Yes, he told us everything."

"He should learn to keep his mouth shut, and I'm just the guy to teach the little bastard how."

"She wanted you to give up this private-eye business, but no, you wouldn't, and so she ran out on you. Admit it."

"You're full of soup. Okay, I knew her, we had a few laughs. She went to Naples with the Italian and his money, let's not make so much of it. Look, pal, women are like the common cold--you get a little fever, you lose your appetite, but then you take it easy, drink orange juice, and you get well again real quick."

"Why then, after her murder, did you hound Monsieur Gillant and beat him if you did not care for her?"

"I've got a curious nature, I like a little murder to work on when business is slow, keeps up my skills."

"Then you deny you ever were in love with Hilde Schmidt?"

"I love Mademoiselle Danger, I've been told. Nobody else."

You see, despite the indirect dialogue, the reader gets the picture: they had an affair, they loved each other, but she couldn't stand his being a detective.

But the most common, and usually the most effective, way of making the antecedent action clear to the reader is to simply tell it in dramatic narrative.

Let's say our detective Sam has just seen the body and it's not clear to the reader why he's in shock and suddenly ready to beat the snot out of Monsieur Gillant to get information out of him. The reader needs to know this now but you don't want to slow things down with a flashback.

This is often done in a summary fashion:

Sam knew Hilde in Paris ten years before. They'd met quite by accident on the street one day, and before long were having an affair. He loved her, but she insisted he quit the detective business and he couldn't do it, so they split up. She went to Naples with an Italian count.

Ugh! That's terrible writing, as stinking and flat as old road kill. Dramatic narrative is NOT simply a summary of the facts. Antecedent action should not simply be summarized for the facts, it should be shown in dramatic narrative--narrative that is as exciting and colorful as if it were written in scene. Like this:

As he drove away from the morgue, Sam remembered the last time he'd seen her, on that rainy March night in the Cafe de Fleur on the Rue de Rivoli. She wore her blue blouse that matched her lustrous eyes, and she looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup and said she could love him. Could, that was the word she used. If only, she said, she were not second in his life, second to Mademoiselle Danger, his true love. But he was not ready to quit being a detective for her, he said, then added ruefully that it would be easier to drink the Seine dry. What a fool he'd been, he thought now...

The whole idea of fiction writing is to create a continuous drama in the theater of the reader's mind. Flashbacks, dramatic dialogue about the past, and dramatic narrative of antecedent action can help to create that drama more fully. They all assist the reader in understanding and empathizing with the characters.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]