Early in my writing career, I was telling instead of showing. Recently, I discovered I’ve been showing through repetitive flashbacks and my writing has become predictable, often times reading like the chapters of a Biology textbook. Although my writing has a veterinary medical background, when I’m creating fiction, I need to alter my style to be sure my flashbacks serve their story telling purpose.
I’ve researched how to conduct a health check on my flashbacks to ensure they fulfill their purpose of delivering backstory, highlighting a character’s motivations or adding context and meaning.
When flashbacks are done well, they add depth and emotional resonance. Done poorly, the reader can become confused, bored or disengaged with your story.
Here is an essential check list to test the health your flashbacks. Set up a small list to answer the following critical and key areas.
- LOCATION 2. TRANSITION 3. SUCCINCTNESS 4. PURPOSE 5.TRANSITION
Write down the start page for your flashback. This way you can judge the length and find a flashback in the case you need to make changes.
- LOCATION- Is your flashback in the best location in your novel?
A flashback should ideally follow a strong scene. A flashback is better received after an interesting and vivid scene that brings your character to life or action that is critical to your central story. Ask yourself, does the reader care about your character before you flashback? Have you waited as long as possible before delivering the essential information your flashback is designed to share?
- TRANSITION- How have you transitioned the reader into the flashback?
Is there a smooth transition into the flashback or does your reader get lost along the way? Is there a trigger to ignite the flashback or an event to carry the reader into this memory or moment? Have you oriented your reader in time and provided a place? If the reader needs to work too hard to stay with you, they will disengage. Does your flashback integrate smoothly into your story? Imagine this as the opening bookend to your flashback.
- SUCCINCTNESS- Have you kept your flashback as succinct as possible?
Remember, your reader wants to be with your main story line, otherwise, you need to ask yourself where your story really begins and what your story is really about? The most effective flashbacks deliver the core of what the reader needs to know with texture and no unnecessary information.
- PURPOSE- Does the flashback advance the main story?
A flashback should advance what is happening in the present. If that is not the case, even if the writing is Giller Prize worthy, you need to ask yourself if it belongs. Is your reader engaged in the action? Does the flashback lead your reader to re-interpret your character? Do you have a clear sense of purpose for your flashback?
- TRANSITION- How have you brought the reader back to the main story?
Is your character jarred back into the present or do they come into consciousness as if arising from a fog? What is the emotion your reader is left with? Is your transition strategic? Does it leave your reader with the desired emotion? What kind of mood are you trying to evoke? This is the closing bookend to your flashback.
Write down the end page for your flashback. Now you can calculate the length of your main story break.
Finally, ask yourself, have I made it worthwhile for my reader? Did the flashback achieve it’s purpose?
After completing this health checklist, you will be better able to judge the effectiveness of your flashbacks. Use your checklist to smooth out your transitions or to perhaps consider cutting unnecessary flashbacks for the betterment of your novel.
Donna Judy Curtin
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