The Hidden EVIL of Flashbacks

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So you want to be a writer. Okay. I’ll be blunt because that’s my superpower. Check your conscience at the door keyboard. Writers are not civilized humans. In fact, we are the opposite. We are the reptilian brain to the power of a million. We probe and prod and poke the weak places. Great storytellers are nothing short of sadists. We take a perfectly empathetic/likable person, toss their life in a Vita-Mix and blend, churning that mixture from Level 1-1000.

That is called conflict.

Stories are about people with problems to be solved. Everything else is a travel brochure.

One of the reasons I LOVE teaching craft is I get to see the work/stories of other writers. Recently, I held my First Five Pages class and could hear the collective groans when I said, “NO FLASHBACKS. EVER.” But I am a benevolent dictator and instructed those submitting pages, that if they believed they positively-absolutely-must-have the flashback and had no idea how to extract it? Send it anyway.

I was really happy I did, because I noticed something I’d never before been able to articulate. Sure, flashbacks make the writing jaunty. We get going forward and then we (readers) have to reorient to a new timeline, then to another. But, there was a hidden evil lurking that I’d never so clearly spotted until I received a SUPERB sample from one of my students. Her writing was AWESOME…and that was the problem.


If you read my earlier post, I talked about how to hook readers. It doesn’t have to be a bomb, a car chase, a murder. In fact, some of the best tension is in the everyday and it is even more intense because regular people can relate. Most of us can’t relate to a bomb ticking down but two words—Family Reunion. One word—WEDDING.

This writer’s story began with a poor wedding planner trying to herd badly hungover bridesmaids to a wedding (in Mexico). She is trying to repair dresses, cater to a prima donna maid of honor, and placate a bride who is passive and used to others walking over her.

Between trying to get enough outlets in a hundred-year-old church, bridesmaids barfing on their shoes, and a meddling mother of the bride, we have the perfect STEW of DRAMA and a FANTASTIC HOOK! Perfect understanding of in medias res.

We feel compassion for the poor wedding planner and worry if she will get these sick-half-drunk girls to the wedding without using a stun-gun on someone.

I was RIVETED…and then the author went back and explained how the wedding came to be held in Mexico.



This sample of writing was fantastic, but she did two things that undermined her piece.

NOTHING Should Work

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Juha-Matti Herrala.

When the wedding planner gives the bridesmaids Pepto, it makes them feel better. Okay, I will go with that. But to enhance this? It makes them feel better…moments before at least one of them (or ALL of them) barfs pink all over the wedding planner’s bag, or the bride’s veil, or the bouquet. Now, the problem isn’t only the sickly maids and bride, but how the heck can the wedding planner get out of THIS?

Character is demonstrated by solving (or not solving) problems. Since wedding planner is the protagonist, maybe she has been through this before and just as the bride is about to have a breakdown because her veil is ruined? Wedding planner pulls out a spare. She always orders two after that wedding she put together in Oklahoma where the chain-smoking bride set fire to her own veil (showing she is calm and resourceful).


So when you put your characters in any scenario, ask, “Can I make it WORSE?” Then make it worse. Then ask that question again and again until you can’t make it worse without making it weird (I.e. sudden alien abduction in a Women’s Fiction).

Part of becoming a writer is to train out any human sensitivity. When we make life easier on our characters, we are doing it because WE feel tension and are seeking to alleviate that. Ah, but TENSION is the fuel of fiction, so do the opposite of what civilized humans would do and MAKE IT WORSE.

Flashback Fizzle

I could tell this writer was doing a SUPERB job of winding our nerves tighter than a Hollywood facelift. How? She backed off to explain…

How many of you have jerk friends, family or acquaintances? Or all of the above? Or maybe you’ve had a moment where you’ve shown your butt? I have all of the above. What do we do to ease others? To make them relax?

We explain.

Sorry about my Mom. She’s not been the same since my father died. 

Ok, so we leave out the part that Dad died 15 years ago. It works. It makes others give grace to Mom for acting like a horse’s behind.

I apologize for blowing up like that. I had a flat tire, migraine, no sleep, allergy medicine overdose, etc.

EXPLAINING is what civilized humans do to break the tension. STOP IT! CUT! CUT! CUT!

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

Original image via Flickr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

All of us will feel a NEED to explain why a character is moody, angry, broken, bawdy, whatever. DON’T. Resist the urge to EXPLAIN. In fact, if readers don’t know WHY, they will want to turn pages to find out WHY.

Frankly, as writers, we are GOD, so we really don’t have to explain ourselves anyway. Let the readers suffer until the very end, when you finally allow resolution. Suffering good for readers (and book sales).

***And, like anything, I am sure someone somewhere used a flashback and it was AWESOME. Like any writing “rule” we can break this one, too. But, we have to know the rules to break the rules 😉 .***

Flashback Fodder in Real-Time Adds Mystery

When this writer flashed back to explain how the wedding ended up in Mexico instead of Mom’s choice (Napa Valley), she inadvertently missed two opportunities:

1) Increase tension.

2) Show character.

If she’d had this flashback real-time, Mom could have come in, seen the sea foam green bridesmaids (faces and dresses matching) and thrown a fit. “THIS is why I wanted to have this in Napa. It’s Montezuma’s Revenge. I told you wine country was a better choice. Why don’t you ever listen to me?”

The poor bride, who never stands up for herself is defeated and losing ground on what should be HER day. Wedding planner can come to the rescue and usher Mom out with the skill of an ambassador in a war zone (or try and fail). Either way, we LIKE her for trying.

THIS is “Show don’t tell.” Having critical information from a flashback in the current thread of time allows readers to see people act and react. It makes us wonder. It makes us tense. We want to ease the pressure and the only way to do that is to KEEP READING and HOPE it will eventually all  turn out for the better.

Now y’all know why I take away your flashbacks. I am being mean, but it’s good for you. Flashbacks will ease your nerves, but is it worth losing the reader? And we often don’t recognize we are doing this. Even I have to go back through my writing and hunt for places I backed off the throttle because I was uncomfortable.

What are your thoughts? What makes you tense? Do you find you fall in love with your characters and go too easy on them?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of APRIL, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you want more help with plot problems, antagonists, structure, beginnings, then I have a FANTASTIC class coming up to help you!


Understanding the Antagonist

If you are struggling with plot or have a book that seems to be in the Never-Ending Hole of Chasing Your Tail or maybe you’d like to learn how to plot a series, I am also teaching my ever-popular Understanding the Antagonist Class on May 10th from NOON to 2:00 P.M. (A SATURDAY). This is a fabulous class for understanding all the different types of antagonists and how to use them to maintain and increase story tension.

Remember, a story is only as strong as its problem 😉 . This is a GREAT class for streamlining a story and making it pitch-ready.

Additionally, why pay thousands for an editor or hundreds for a book doctor? This is a VERY affordable way to make sure your entire story is clear and interesting. Also, it will help you learn to plot far faster and cleaner in the future.

Again, use WANA10 for $10 off.

I’ll be running the First Five Pages again at the end of May, so stay tuned.

And, if you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.



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  1. I will definitely be checking my works for this issue. I never thought about it like that before but it totally makes sense. And it really IS fun to keep the readers wondering till the very end (and even beyond…as writers we don’t have to always divulge every piece of info)

  2. Reblogged this on Dr. Shay West and commented:
    More delightful advice from Kristin Lamb. Trust me, you’ll thank her for not letting you have your flashbacks. She just better not go after my cookies…

  3. Loved this post! The example did a perfect job of demonstrating your points. Thank you! I’m going to go through my book and reduce the explanations/flashbacks!

  4. It makes sense to put them closer to the resolution to give them that real time feel.

  5. Finally, a reason for cutting flashbacks that adds to the story. Until now the advice has been justified to me as ‘you have to keep the action moving forward’ which, whilst a good reason, doesn’t really help with understanding why revealing through flashback detracts from the content. Thank you, this is a really useful example.

  6. Reblogged this on everwalker.

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  8. Great post. Thanks.

    • Jason Gallagher on April 28, 2014 at 11:33 am
    • Reply

    Hmmmm…great ideas as always Kristen. It’s just that it doesn’t explain why my favorite works of fiction (books, movies, TV) are the ones that use flashback brilliantly. I feel like it’s my favorite storytelling device because it can give us a deeper look into the mind and motivation of the main character. Of course, I am weird and don’t always enjoy the same things the masses enjoy.

    1. You might be working with parallel timelines. That is different. Those are separate scenes designed to enhance tension, not explain it. And be careful with movies and TV. Easier because it is visual. With writing, we can lose people or confuse them.

        • Jason Gallagher on April 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm
        • Reply

        One of my absolute all time favorite novels is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, and he uses flashback brilliantly in my opinion. Structurally, I don’t know why it works, or why at least it works for me, but it seems I’m not the only one as it was a best selling novel. Here is a reviewer who has a pet peeve against flashback who said she was frustrated at first by the flashback, but ultimately liked the novel…

      1. Exactly this.

        It’s okay to visualise your scenes being like a TV show, but there is no neat way of doing a flash and fade to greyscale in text.

        What you can do though, is tell a story within the story. One character relating (telling) and others asking questions or reacting to the story.

        But be smart – if your characters are flying on a shuttle into hostile airspace, the storytelling is going to be interrupted. And that’s okay, it means the reader may be doubly invested in the resolution of the resulting conflict when they read that part.

  9. Thought-provoking, Kristen. I have one flashback in my WIP and now I’m going to have to really consider whether I want to keep it in there. Thank you… I think.

    • Martha Carr on April 28, 2014 at 11:40 am
    • Reply

    Great post – totally agree. If something’s really worth putting into a story there’s gotta be a way to put it into present action and not slow down the story. Flashbacks are like commercial interruptions.

  10. This is an absolute life saver. Thank you so much, Kristen!

  11. I agree with suggestion that explanatory flashbacks can weaken tension; however, I don’t think it applies to all flashbacks, so “No flashbacks ever” is too strong.

    For example, one of my most popular stories is set just after the protagonist’s wife dies. For the entire story, he blames himself but does not reveal why. I included two flashbacks to before she died instead of starting with her alive so I could have foreshadowing and an example of what he was like happy without having to either show her death or have an obvious gap where it jumped over.

    So, flashbacks can work if, for example, they raise questions instead of answering them.

    1. I do the Soup Nazi thing because it’s humor. Flashbacks are like anything. They can work, but often aren’t used correctly. You are correct. If they add to tension and don’t EXPLAIN, yes. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a flashback. What I see most is we are in the middle of a scene, the protagonist has a goal then SUDDENLY we are at some other point in time with other people getting an explanation for this-and-that or such-and-such. ER????

      1. Redefining some scenes set prior to the present of the narrative as not flashbacks?

        Not so much Soup Nazi as No True Scotsman then. 😉

        1. I would have to see HOW you did it. For instance, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” “The Green Mile” all used what might seem to be flashbacks, but are actually a parallel timeline. And not all flashbacks are equally distracting. Some can do fine, but would it be better if we let the reader wonder?

  12. This is a provocative take. I’m not as hardlined about flashbacks. After all, it’s nice to have a range of tools and tricks, as well as styles. I don’t think that readers or writers want fiction to be too cookie cutter or formulaic. But I agree that flashbacks can be tricky, and will pay a close eye to them in my own work.

    1. I’ve never seen them work. Now, threading in an earlier timeline is different (Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan). When I talk about flashbacks, I am mainly referring to switching time within the span of a scene OR having a scene that’s SOLE purpose is to EXPLAIN another scene. The first? Jars the reader. The second? No reason it can’t be relayed in narrative or dialogue.

    • Nan Sampson on April 28, 2014 at 11:49 am
    • Reply

    Holy cow! This was the best explanation of why NOT to use flashbacks I’ve ever encountered. Of course, now I’m going to have to go rip the flashback out of my W.I.P. I knew it didn’t work, but now I get WHY. Thank you thank you thank you.

  13. Never say never. I used the flashback for the entire book in The Nations. But the reader doesn’t know it’s a flashback until the end. Works for me. Other than that, I don’t use it.

    1. But if the reader doesn’t know then it is just a different timeline, not a flashback. Flashbacks are REALLY obvious.

  14. Yes, I’m way too nice to my characters. Another thing to focus on during my third revision (which is looking more like a rewrite every time I look at it).
    I agree about flashbacks, though, and do my best not to let them in the manuscript. I have actually written these scenes to give myself a cLear picture of what happens and then left them in the “cut scenes” folder of my WIP. This way, I get the scene out of my head and most of the time I figure out a way to draw the important information into dialogue – internal or otherwise.
    Thanks for another excellent post and especially for running the first five pages class again later. I will take it. (Not the weekend of May 22-24 since that is a ladies’ retreat I’m attending.) It appears writers are a pushy bunch?

    • ladyserenity92 on April 28, 2014 at 11:57 am
    • Reply

    Reblogged this on Ladyserenity's Weblog and commented:
    A web within a web!

  15. I still struggle with this. I thought about cutting a bunch from my book, then chickened out. We’re in the proofreading phase now, kind of late to change it…

  16. Blunt. Continue to be blunt. It’s great and just what I need.

    Agree entirely about flashbacks too. Horrible, typically. Almost impossible to pull off

  17. While I agree that flashbacks can cut the tension and are often used poorly, I think certain stories can use a flashback. I’m writing a YA rural fantasy novel where the protagonist has PTSD. As certain things trigger him, he is taken back to what caused it. The reader follows the same character but comes to a great understanding of him. My writer’s group seems to think it’s working, and they’re tough! However, I don’t do it a lot, and it has to connect to what he’s seeing in the present, and the flashback has to explain why that’s bothering him. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. 🙂 Thanks for the post! Great things to consider!

    1. Like anything it can work, but is it best? For instance, these sample pages I used as my example? The flashback was fine, not terribly jarring. Her voice was great and I followed fine. But taking the flashback OUT made it BETTER. Make sense? Never underestimate the power of NOT KNOWING WHY. If we explain things too easily, it can diffuse the tension. And, as I said, anything can work. We have to ask, if “working” is enough?

      • Stephanie Scott on April 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm
      • Reply

      I have a Writer’s Digest book about The First 50 Pages or something like that, and it recommends not to do any flashbacks or “telling” infodumping in the first 50 pages. That’s sort of a good guideline since by then you are invested in the story and a flashback may provide context later.

      1. While I agree it can be jarring, it doesn’t have to be, especially if the tension and the questions are the same in the past and present. Also, since this is my main character who is experiencing the flashbacks, it is a continuation of his thoughts.

        In your example with Mexico, the flashback is jarring because you were wrapped up with the current drama and got yanked out of it. The flashbacks I’m using is part of the current tension. I understand how the rules may say “EVIL FLASHBACKS,” but I think some rules can be broken…carefully…VERY carefully.

        Oh, as to knowing why, I don’t explain too much in a flashback. Here’s an example. You know he’s gone through a horrible tragedy. The combination of red and white trigger flashbacks, but in each flashback, you only get a glimpse of what is red and white and how that ties into the tragedy. I’m definitely not going to tell you everything at the beginning. That’s no fun at all! 🙂

        1. But I’d have to see it. Might not be what I would consider a flashback. What you are describing to me sounds like narrative exposition. But, if said flashback is short and ADDS to tension? Fine.

          1. Maybe we all need a post on what is a flashback! 🙂 It seems like your issue with flashbacks is when they are used only to explain. Are you okay with flashbacks if it heightens tension and doesn’t explain?

          2. I will blog again on this to clarify. Seems the notion of what a flashback is is as muddy as the term “antagonist”, LOL. My main issue is we have a scene:

            Protagonist wants X but then (antagonist wants Y). Will protagonist be better or worse off at the end of the scene? Reach goal or fail?

            So we are in a scene with a goal—then BLAMMO!—we leap back in time and suddenly are in another scene with a new problem and a new cast with new dialogue—then BLAMMO!—we are back to the original problem. Make sense?

            Even if it isn’t IN the scene, if the SOLE purpose of jumping back in time is to EXPLAIN and ALLEVIATE tension in another scene, likely it needs to GO.

          3. Got it, and I see your point. I think one of the main problems comes with the point you just raised. “We are in a scene with a goal – then BLAMMO!-we leap back in time and suddenly are in another scene with a new problem…” That is irritating. However, it could be all the same problem. 🙂

  18. My debut book, which landed me my agent and first book deal, is told half in flashback chapters. But I used the dual timeline format. So basically, the hero and heroine meeting each other in college, and then ten years later when they meet again. The chapters alternate–then and now chapters– and each timeline has its own questions, conflict, and suspense. So it’s basically two stories about the same people interwoven until the mystery comes together at the end and the two timelines make sense. And last year, when I was brainstorming book 5, my editor asked–hey, can you do another story with those flashback chapters? So she loved that structure.

    But like you’ve mentioned in some comments above, it’s about how you use the look to the past. A scene from the past has to add to the suspense, raise its own questions, and have its own arc. For instance, in my book 5 (Need You Tonight), you see the hero and heroine in high school and how their friendship and romance develops back then in a few interspersed flashback chapters, and you have this big question of — what happened to pull them apart? — looming because you know from the present day timeline that they didn’t end up together back then and things went very wrong–but what things? Of course, I’m not going to tell the reader until the very end.

    So there’s a way to work in the past, even with full flashback chapters, but it has to be done in a way that keeps tension and conflict and questions going. And as a bonus, you get a deeper sense of the characters and their relationship because you feel like you’ve seen into their past in real time instead of telling — hey, this hero was an outcast nerd back in high school who went through some rough crap. Instead, I showed his angst in the “past” chapters and it added a layer to the person he was now.

    So as with all writing rules, know why flashbacks can be a problem and if you choose to break the rule, know why you’re doing it and how to do it effectively. (Of course, in my debut book, I had no idea what I was doing. I just lucked out that it worked, lol.)

    1. But I don’t consider your work flashbacks (I read it :D). That’s using parallel timelines, which is different. You cleanly separated PAST versus PRESENT and both have structure and arc. When I think flashback, usually it’s a screech on the brakes to go back and explain something.

    • Stephanie Scott on April 28, 2014 at 12:16 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you. I know this and yet I have several scenes in my WIP where my critique group pointed out I am infodumping. I tried not to and yet there is stuff that explains without being an active scene, and explains some more so I could give context. Even as they were pointing it out I was folding myself under the table in shame. haha. It seemed so obvious I could cut all of it and either leave it out totally or show it through the characters.

  19. I am working on a humorous mystery and struggle with the fine line of making my lead character both lovable and broken. Her humor is the hook to the story and no one wants to watch a clown cry. On the flip side, I am building the antagonist to be more of an anti-hero, so the lines are blurred.

  20. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    I’m especially loving these latest posts, it’s as if Kristen is speaking directly to my present struggles. Excellent advice, as always.

  21. Reblogged this on Cachette de Kat.

  22. Evil Genius! truly, a great way to explain the concept of “show don’t tell.” I struggle with both NOT flash backing constantly to give gravitas or verisimilitude (or so I say to myself in my inner arguments with The Editor Who Shall Not Be Named) AND slowing things down by over-explaining. I read something by someone once in my journey that said “let the READER decide how the protagonist feels. Don’t beat them over the head with it. Subtlety is a fine art but makes for a better reading experience.” Thanks again for yet more evidence of this in your own funny way!

  23. I’ve used flashbacks before, and am even guilty of having used them EARLY in a story… in a college English class, at that. (For the record, that story got an A. Go figure.)

    Flashbacks can serve a purpose if done well–the spy relating what he’s uncovered while we were off following the main characters, for instance–but either they are difficult to do well, or far too easy to do poorly. And yes, there is a difference.
    That being said, even when “done well,” not all flashbacks are necessary, as your own example shows, and I will certainly attempt to look out for such flashbacks in my own writing.

  24. Although, having read through the comments, I think my “spy relating what he’s uncovered” example would either be a separate scene (threading in different timelines?) or would be related via dialogue, anyway, rather than just doing a trip down memory lane mid-scene.

  25. Excellent point about Flashbacks, Kristen. Most flashbacks lessen tension … except perhaps when we expect that something horrible must have happened way back when. In that case, we want to keep reading for the same reason that people slow down to watch the results of a car wreck: we want to know how it happened.

    Holding a wedding in Mexico rather than back home isn’t even a fender bender. Meh.

  26. Sometimes i like the flashback stories just as much as the current ones… i’ve never really minded them as a reader.

  27. I love the back and forth. The twists and turns and the revelations. I try to write this way. It is extremely difficult. The wedding planner twists were great. I always thought the use of the cake would be a great weapon. Half of the cake on the brides side eat that side of the cake but the grooms side gets the other side and that has been poisoned. Of course the insurance policy was in force and the wife was a black widow of not only the groom but of all the in-laws.

  28. I have several flashbacks in my MS. The first one comes in chapter three so that when something happens in chapter four, I don’t have to decrease that tension to explain why it’s so important. The flashback adds emotional tension to a scene that needed it, and keeps the momentum going when the MC’s life changes forever. I think there are definitely times when it works and is needed. But not to explain everything away–preferably to add more tension.

  29. Oh crap. Got a flashback in my story and now I’m wrecking my brain trying to find out how to get rid of it. Good points as usual. Thanks!

    • Paul W on April 28, 2014 at 1:52 pm
    • Reply

    That was a very informative post. Great advice. Thanks!

  30. I remember learning to up the tension and never go easy the hard way – I had read a book series where basically nothing ever worked for the protagonists, nothing went right, and being so annoyed they never seemed to win until the very end. So I tried to write a story where the heroes succeeded sometimes…but that story, that was where I realized WHY the heroes never succeeded in the one I’d read. When things are too easy, it IS boring. And I’d written something terrible, and had actually shared it with a few beta readers before I realized it.

    I haven’t come across good reason to flashback, so I generally don’t use them. But now I have some additional things to consider if I ever do decide to employ one. Thanks for the insight 🙂

  31. I don’t mind you being mean as long as you supply a perfectly good reason for it, and BAM!, that was it. Thank you for realizing yourself and sharing with us just why they don’t work. I’ve always heard this rule – in fact it’s been beaten into us in writing classes and at school – but no one ever seemed to be able to give me a good enough reason or explain it so it made sense for the story. Or maybe they did and I promptly forgot. Entirely possible.

    But this makes sense now. Thank you for being the meany and keeping my story on track. 🙂

  32. I was going to integrate a flashback, but decided against it. Instead, it actually became the starting point in my story, where the girl becomes the woman of the rest of the story. Now, of course, I’m second-guessing and wondering if it shouldn’t be part of the mystery of why she is the way she is, scars and everything. But your reminder is great. No flashbacks, just propel the story forward, no matter what I choose.

  33. Yet again a simple blog post from you and I’m changing my approach to the start of my novel WIP. It’s a headache, but at least I’m learning how to fix the pain. Thank you!

  34. Great post – lots of food for thought. Thank you!

  35. That’s an interesting post. I started my story with a dream sequence that gave a flashback to a point in my protagonist’s life that is pivotal to a plot point farther in the story. It’s in the form of a dream, which I know is usually a no-no as well. But it makes me wonder if there’s another way to do this. She explains what the dream is later in the story when she’s questioned about its prophetic properties. Now I’m going to have to think on this even more.

    • Laurie A Will on April 28, 2014 at 3:45 pm
    • Reply

    I found making life miserable for my protagonist was the same as killing my darlings, once I started doing it became easier the more I did, even liberating!

    • Roger H Panton on April 28, 2014 at 4:44 pm
    • Reply

    Just one of those things I wish I had read earlier. Still, I’ll park it for next time.

  36. What I struggle with is the difference between having a sequel to the scene and alleviating tension. Advice?

    1. The sequel is a place where you might toss the reader a bone to ease tension (instead of the flashback). This keeps it real-time, moving forward and gives the reader a breather.

      For instance, in the FABULOUS movie, “Demon Knight” the protagonist, Braker has a key with red stuff in it. The red liquid keeps the demons sealed out of the house and he and his allies safe (when they listen, which they DON’T). Who is Braker? What is the key? What is the red liquid? We don’t find out until a break right before Act III. In a pause between attacks, Braker finally explains who he is and what the key and the red stuff is. BUT, had we known this earlier, it would have ruined the tension. We keep watching because we want answers. In a sequel (not fighting any demons), he finally tells the information the allies have been wanting, but he has withheld.

      IF we’d been told this earlier, then the movie would have devolved into simple gore. But, by WITHHOLDING this information, the story is deepened because there is mystery. Make sense?

      1. Yep – it’s making sure I don’t let off too much tension in each sequel that I struggle with. One turn loosening the screw, but no more?
        Fortunately I’ve not been much tempted to back-flash 🙂

  37. Some wonderful turns of phrase, purposeful and honest. I hugely enjoyed reading this post. Thanks

  38. I was falling into the flashback trap in my current manuscript of a novel until you rescued me with this post. Thank you for the post. Much appreciated.

  39. I had a writing group leader say that you should not go into a flashback unless the action/tension in the flashback is greater than in the present story. Sounds like in this case the author was doing a flashback for the purpose of inserting back story exposition.

    I’m actually a fan of flashback done well, which for me as a reader,mostly takes form as fragmented story or time shifts.

  40. Great writing and the best images!

  41. Hehee, flashbacks. I had loads of them in my first ‘novel’ and then realised they were poo.
    Now I’ve got full circle and put them in again. But I don’t know if ‘flashback’ is the right word to describe what I’ve done. More like… a subplot happening in a distant timeframe. But for the character they FEEL like flashbacks.

    Ugh. How to explain it without feeling like a tit?

    I can’t. Oh well.

    Anyway, point being, you’re right (!) and in future novels I will beware this little bug bear and run if I see it coming. 🙂

  42. Aaah, wait, I’ve been reading more of the comments. What I’m doing you’ve previously described as parallel timeline. Ah good. ^_^

    Yes my ‘flashbacks’ have their own narrative arc that runs parallel to the main one and while they give additional weight to some of the detail in the main arc, they don’t explain it. They (hopefully) add more questions which are revealed as both stories continue.


    As ever, love your posts Kristen. Super, duper handy.
    And, more than that, the comments and conversations that spring up around them are just as helpful. Thanks everyone!

    1. I am blogging on that tomorrow to explain better 😀 .

      1. Excellent! 🙂 looking forward to that.

    • Lisanne Cooper on April 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm
    • Reply

    I was recently taken to task by my writing mentor for flashbacks and phone calls. I’m glad I’m not the only one! As always, informative, interesting and super duper fun (bet you thought I was going for alliteration, there, dintcha?). Thanks for all you do to help us newbies!

  43. Once again Kristen, you’ve hit me square between the eyes with just what I needed. Now if I can just figure out how to get my flashback info across AFTER I take out the flashback.
    I print your blogs more often than you will ever know and share them with members of our local writers group. Thank you for what you do. Ever want to take a trip to beautiful Marco Island, FL” Our group would die for one of your classes in person.

    1. Well, I will take care of the flight if y’all feed me and put me in a comfy sofa. Would be happy to.

  44. Reblogged this on Writing Under Fire and commented:
    Best answer to Flashbacks I have heard in a long time. And I don’t think I’m having a flashback. LOL

  45. Your first paragraph is amazing. Made me grin from ear to ear. I do fall in love with my characters, but I always try to make sure I’m not so in love with them that I can’t sacrifice them for plot. In my novel, a LOT of people die. I’m sure some of the deaths are going to make readers upset (here’s hoping I get readers), but it is for the sake of plot and conflict. As long as you make the audience care about the death, that is.

    I was thinking about my novel the more I kept reading, checking to see if I used flashbacks anywhere. Off the top of my head, I don’t think I do, but I’m sure that’s wrong. Thanks for the tips. I’ll keep my eyes open for things like this as I’m editing.

  46. The best flashbacks will RAISE tension.
    In “Vampire Syndrome,” my protagonist Jack had this one-sentence flashback to another character’s statement:
    “Not all the Vampires live there.”
    Jack is at a crossroads, and this recollection presents him with a new possible course of action.

    1. Not a true flashback, that’s just weaving past into present narrative. I define the flashbacks that make editors cringe in tomorrow’s post 😉 .

      1. I did it that way so it wouldn’t derail readers’ trains of thought, which is the big issue with flashbacks…

  47. Looking forward to tomorrow’s lesson. For today I will say that I do use them but they must move the story forward and most of the time I am trying to develop the other characters, not the main character. Hope that is okay, guess you will tell me if I am chosen but since there is not a flashback in the first twenty pages probably not.

    It is all good anyway, but I love your site and the information you always give.

  48. Thanks, I’m leaning so much from your blog. I am just about to start a second book and the first scene is a wedding. Originally I was going to start the drama/chaos after the vows, now I’m thinking i’ll start it half way through so that they don’t get to the kiss. Awesome, thanks again.

  49. Thank you so much for this post, it came at JUST the right time for me. I’m currently going back over/editing/rewriting parts of my WIP, and one of the major things I’m looking at is flashbacks. Currently, I have a dream/flashback scene towards the end to explain the motivations of my major character (after a LONG time drawing the reader in and not explaining), but it’s always felt clunky. I think I’m going to use your advice and see if I can expose this key plot point in another way!

  50. I try and avoid flashbacks. I don’t enjoy reading them (and now I know why) but I’m trying to find a way to make one work in my writing without it seeming disjointed for a character that has PTSD (so she’s actually having a flashback).

  51. Great piece and it’s definitely true. Too much explanation spoils a story. I always think that explanation should be tied into the thoughts and speech of the characters themselves who thus go revealing to the reader, bit by bit, the necessary info about their past. Whether I manage to do this successfully myself is another matter, but that’s the theory …
    ‘The Path Through the Eye of Another’

  52. Thanks for sharing this, some great tips I will have to remember when going over my writing 🙂

  53. I think this an opinion rather than an established rule, and the successful use of this technique is bound up in the abilities of the writer as much as anything. As with much else, we should never deviate too far from the chosen route or narrative lest we lose sight of our destination or the reader, but how far we can play with time does depend greatly on our level of technique: fiction is not the home of absolutes

  54. I was going to comment, and then I remembered when I was 7 and sitting at a desk in Mrs. Carr’s room–

  55. You scared the hell out of me, Kristen! I have a story which is a memoir written in a diary which itself becomes part of the story in Part 2 (in a second diary!). It has lots of what I first thought were flashbacks, but once you described parallel timelines I see that that’s what they really are. Hopefully! It starts in the present, obviously, then goes back to an event a few months prior, where the protag and friend describe to a third character how they first met several years before that. This in turn delves back to protag’s childhood. Hopefully I haven’t completely stuffed this up!

  56. Wow! so true Kirsten! I always want to back off for my characters in those high moments of tension instead of realizing this is supposed to be happening like this! 🙂

  57. I find not using flashbacks in my current novel difficult. Occurrences in the characters’ childhoods explain current actions, but if I were to go back and write their entire childhoods, the book would be over fifteen hundred pages. Besides which, the enciting action starts with the mother’s death when the MC is fourteen. I try to keep flashbacks as short as possible. Some secrets can only be explained by past events. How can one do this without flashbacks?

    1. Narrative and dialogue. In the form of a confession.

    • Jason Gallagher on April 29, 2014 at 10:49 am
    • Reply

    It’s been awhile since I read it, but doesn’t Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye use flashbacks?

  58. Reblogged this on Author Unpublished and commented:
    A great article on the hidden evil of flashbacks–certainly an entertaining and informative read!

  59. Make it worse until it gets weird. I like it. I always look forward to your blog posts. Thanks!

    1. I loved that line too, LOL 😀

  60. Reblogged this on Joanna Lloyd and commented:
    This post has me ripping apart my current wip. Flashbacks – my nemeses!

  61. I love your posts and I hate your posts, Kristen! 🙂 … You’ve made me recognise a classic no-no flashback in the middle of my wip. Out it comes! Just when I thought I was almost done. Thanks so much for your insightful writing advice. I have reblogged on

  62. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  63. Best.Post.Ever. I’m actually giddy knowing that I can be as evil as I want to be and it’s a GOOD thing. Now that I know why I back off from tension, I can fight the urge. THANK YOU! 🙂

    • Jen on April 30, 2014 at 5:04 pm
    • Reply

    This is great! What do you think of flashbacks in memoirs? Many I’ve read start with a crisis and then go backwards to explain it. My own starts with a phone interview by a domestic violence shelter as the MC is racing away from her homicidal husband and then goes back and explains how she got there (in real time, present tense).

    1. Read the next in this series. You aren’t describing a flashback, just non-linear plotting. That post should help.

  64. Hahahahaha! Omg, in a book I wrote, like, 7 years ago? I had AN ENTIRE CHAPTER be a series of flashbacks.
    Omg. So dumb.

    1. We all have to start somewhere and most of us begin as baby writers. And the rare few prodigies? Everyone hates them anyway 😀 .

      1. Haha, exactly 😀

  65. Btw, I think Battlestar Galactica uses flashbacks excellently.

    1. But again, they aren’t using flashbacks, rather unorthodox, nonlinear plotting ;).

      1. That’s true.

  66. I have to admit I did instinctively build my story kind of like you described it. – And since the first Trilogy is done, from the first to the second book I left a lose end – and another one at the end of the second book…
    Sometimes I wonder what a psychiatrist would say when reading my books. LOL

  67. Rebloggged

  1. […] « The Hidden EVIL of Flashbacks […]

  2. […] your head against your desk long enough something positive may come out of it).  So when I read Kristen Lamb’s blog on Flashbacks the other day, I was, in the following order:  convinced she was wrong (before I read the post), […]

  3. […] Are you ready to write? Thomas Mogford wants to know if you plot first or wing it, Josh Pahigian gives us 5 reasons to set your novel in a famous place, and Kristen Lamb shows us the hidden evil of flashbacks. […]

  4. […] The Hidden EVIL of Flashbacks. […]

  5. […] Lamb’s series on Flashbacks: Part 1, Part 2, and Part […]

  6. […] needed a quick break from work, so I went on Pinterest and found a link to a blog article called The Hidden Evil of Flashbacks. As I writer, I love me some flashbacks. In fact, I’ve used them often as a plot device in […]

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