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
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.
"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
"You want me, you've got to take the whole
"I say it again: only if I can be first in your
"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
"You practically lived together in the Hotel de
Corsaire, room 206, did you not?"
"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,
"What happened between her and me is none of your
"You wanted to marry her, we know you said so to
your friend the dwarf. Yes, he told us
"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
"I've got a curious nature, I like a little
murder to work on when business is slow, keeps up
"Then you deny you ever were in love with Hilde
"I love Mademoiselle Danger, I've been told.
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
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.