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Flashbacks. Yes or No?

[poll id="229"]

scandal of the year screenshotI read Laura Lee Guhrke’s Scandal of the Year (pub date January 25, 2011)* over the weekend which I ended up liking quite a bit. It is set in late Victorian London and wild child Julia Yardley is just getting a divorce from her husband, Baron Yardley. The Baron sued Julia for divorce when he found her in bed with Aidan Carr, the Duke of Trathen. The story follows Julia, post divorce and Aidan as Aidan struggles to find the right wife despite being tainted by the scandal of being named a correspondent in the divorce and as Julia, debt ridden, tries to make a new life for herself.

Over the course of the story we learn that Julia and Aidan’s ties run deep and harken back to a time almost thirteen years earlier when Aidan and Julia first meet, right before Julia’s marriage to Yardley. Julia has always represented the forbidden fruit to Aidan, not only because she was taken but because she represented everything that he was eschewing. She smoked, cussed, and basically acted without limits. Some of the story is told in flashbacks and for some reason that was about the only part of the story that didn’t work for me.

Yet, I can’t say that flashbacks can’t ever work. I liked Sherry Thomas’ book Delicious (it might be my favorite from her) and it was rife with flashbacks, some confusing even.

It’s hard for me to articulate why I don’t like flashbacks. I think, although it doesn’t feel like a complete answer, that flashbacks take me out of the flow of the story. I wrote a note to myself in Scandal of the Year that the 17 year old Aidan and the young Julia seemed forced to me. Maybe flashbacks seem too unnatural, as if the authorial manipulation is too obvious. I’m not sure.

What do you think about flashbacks? Why do they work for you and why not?

*Olivia Drake also has a book called Scandal of the Year coming out in March of 2011.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

41 Comments

  1. jayhjay
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:03:43

    I voted yes, mostly b/c I don’t dislike them as a rule. But I think that they can be done poorly. I don’t want to feel confused the whole time, waiting for the past to catch up enough to the present so that I know what is going on. Or a story that jumps so much that I can’t ever get into either one time period or another. So done badly, they can be very distracting. But done well I think they are fine.

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  2. Tee
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:04:50

    Not a yes or no (surprise)! It really depends on how the author handles it. Some authors are very clumsy about them and some do quite well. I probably would not prefer them in stories—but, again, it depends.

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  3. Paula
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:07:00

    Done well – that’s the key, as the poster above pointed out.

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  5. Eva_baby
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:28:52

    I voted yes. Done well they really work as a great frame for a story. A couple of books that worked for me: Scandal by Carolyn Jewel, Ill Wind By Rachel Caine, The Lies of Locke Lamorra by Scott Lynch.

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  6. MaryK
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:39:30

    I have strong anti-flashback feelings so am braving itouch keyboard to comment!

    I don’t like them because they interrupt the story. I’ve come across them a lot in older HPs where the story is chugging along and then everything stops for a flashback. It feels almost like a commercial break. We know they didn’t get together back then so let’s get on with the romance.

    I understand why they’re used and some probably have worked for me so they haven’t really registered, but I mostly need a linear story. I’ve avoided the Thomas book because of the flashbacks

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  7. Ell
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:57:51

    I also voted yes because done well they’re fine, while recognizing they’re often done badly.

    One way that helps is to have the flashback be clearly marked and in its own chapter, or otherwise set apart so you know what you’re getting. One of the most common flashback mistakes is not signaling clearly enough that it’s a flashback.

    Not exactly a flashback, but I just reread Nora Roberts’ Tribute, in which Cilla has dreams where she’s hanging with her grandmother at different ages and times of the grandmother’s life. It works–much of the book is about Cilla mining the past to understand it and herself.

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  8. cead
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 10:59:22

    I voted yes, but I wish there’d been a “it depends”, because it all rests on the execution. If the flashback is done well, I’m definitely in favour, but there are a lot of ways it can be screwed up. The worst is when the author isn’t careful about where she places the flashback.

    If a story is about a couple whose acquaintance goes back a number of years, and there isn’t a flashback, I often feel like I’m missing part of their story, because I don’t entirely understand their relationship. This is especially the case if the narrative starts right as their relationship is changing. Obviously there are other ways an author can handle this (especially if the characters have appeared together in previous books), and I’ve certainly read books where the author did a very good job establishing the characters’ backstory without flashbacks, but sometimes I feel like something is missing even in that case.

    One example of a flashback that really didn’t work for me was in Elizabeth Boyle’s How I Met My Countess, where there’s a chapter or so in the main timeline, and then the book skips back several years earlier and stays there for at least half of the book. The result felt really unbalanced, and I think the book would have worked better if she’d done the entire thing linearly: started at the beginning and then skipped forward in the middle. I could see what she was trying to do, but it didn’t work.

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  9. Jeannie
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 11:02:00

    My main objection to flashbacks is that they usually break voice, pace, and tension. My second objection is that they often feel heavy-handed and convenient: authorial manipulation, as you mentioned.

    It feels like it comes down to whether it had to be done in flashback. Could it have been done more effectively “in-line”? Or does having the flashback add texture that couldn’t be achieved with the current narration?

    I adored Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband and felt those flashbacks enhanced the current storyline and couldn’t be woven in because the current characters hadn’t realized the implications of their past actions yet. It would have been false to have them be so self-actualized and reflective about their past in the context of how the story unfolded. Also the flashbacks were so vivid that dialoguing or reflecting on backstory would have been more distant than flashing back. On a mechanical note, the flashbacks in NQAH were italicized and I found that easier to follow than Delicious, where I believe they weren’t. Though I didn’t have a problem with the flashbacks in Delicious either. :)

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  10. TKF
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 11:33:06

    I voted “no”, but like cead, my real answer is “it depends”. Very few authors pull it off deftly. In fact, the only one I can think of is Pam Rosenthal.

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  11. library addict
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 12:05:14

    I voted yes, but would qualify that as “if used sparingly” and “well-incorporated into the story.”

    I have read a lot of books where the use of flashbacks was more of a gimmick. They need to be there for a reason.

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  12. Joy
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 12:34:53

    I don’t mind flashbacks if done well. After all, the typical epic began in medias res.

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  13. Jennifer Estep
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 12:47:56

    @Eva_baby: I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora. I didn’t like Red Seas Under Red Skies quite as much, but I’m looking forward to the third book. I think it’s finally coming out in February.

    I’m with everyone else. I like flashbacks if they fit into the natural flow of the story and give more info about the characters’ feelings and motivations and how past events impact them today. That’s what I try to do whenever I write a flashback scene.

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  14. Anne Ardeur
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 12:57:07

    I’m another one who’s torn, though i answered ‘no’ in the poll. If they’re well-done and don’t interrupt the story too much, then I don’t mind them. But the majority of the time, at least in the books I’ve read, they *do* interrupt the story and come across as awkward or confusing.

    I often end up thinking that books with too many flashback scenes should have started at an earlier point in the characters’ lives and perhaps jumped forward, or the ‘past’ and ‘present’ should have been split into two books. But then that presents its own problems, because I hate coming into the middle of a story and feeling like I *need* to read another book to understand the one I want to read.

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  15. Valerie
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 13:00:33

    I enjoy flashbacks – they allow an author to fill in some backstory without having to be absolutely linear. However, some are clumsily done and upsets story flow.

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  16. Maili
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 13:14:45

    I voted No. Came across too many novels and films that used the flashback device rather poorly. I prefer hints and implications, just enough for me to use my imagination on what might have happened.

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  17. Jane O
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 13:17:03

    Although anything can be done well or badly, generally speaking, I greatly prefer prologues to flashbacks. (Loretta Chase’s THE LAST HELLION, for example)

    Part of my problem with flashbacks is my increasing irritation with stories that begin in the middle of action and then have to somehow explain how the characters got to this point. The obvious ways to explain are flashbacks or “As you know, Bob,” conversations.

    I wish more authors would put the situation first and the explosion second. Then maybe there would be fewer awkward flashbacks.

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  18. Helen
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 13:39:05

    Ick, and double ick! I hate flashbacks. I always think they are a cheat and that the author was not creative enough to find a way to blend whatever was needed into the storyline. Usually I’ll actually skip them. I also hate flashbacks in movies and on tv shows. While I LOVED Lost, I hated those darn flashbacks. I tivo’d all the shows and fast forwarded through the flashbacks.

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  19. Jane
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 13:56:34

    I’m curious as to what people think makes a well constructed flashback. I know that they work for some people, but I’m trying to pin down when it works.

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  20. Joy
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 14:20:02

    I thought the flashbacks in Mary Balogh’s _A Matter of Class_ were done extraordinarily well. It’s hard to explain how well they were done without spoilering the story to hellandgone, but (vaguely) she used them to build up a certain tension in the story that was totally resolved by the reveal at the end.

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  21. Jody W.
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 14:36:44

    Lockwood’s Dixieland Sushi, which I liked, was told partly in flashbacks, but that was part of the book’s schtick. When there are just random flashbacks, esp in a book that doesn’t have that as its schtick, I’m not that much of a fan. I think Black & White by Kittridge and Kessler was half then, half now too (also liked it). I haven’t read the sequel yet and I wonder if it’s the same?

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  22. Janine
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 14:44:17

    @Jane:

    I'm curious as to what people think makes a well constructed flashback. I know that they work for some people, but I'm trying to pin down when it works.

    I think for me, part of what makes a flashback well-constructed is actually outside the flashback itself and in the scenes that lead up to the flashback. How much has the author made me want to know what happened in the characters’ past? If she has successfully engendered a lot of curiosity in me about those long-ago events, then I’ll be eager for the flashback before I reach the flashback scene, and when I do reach it, I’ll dive right in with excitement instead of feeling that the flow of the book has been disrupted.

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  23. Janine
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 14:50:48

    I want to say that like ‘em or not, some stories are impossible to tell without having to choose the lesser evil from either (A) flashbacks or (B) separations.

    If a writer wants to tell the story of an estranged couple, where the events leading up to the estrangement are significant and need to be shown, then if she begins at the beginning, a separation will be necessary, and if she doesn’t, she’ll have to use flashbacks to tell what happened in the characters’ past.

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  24. Angie
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 15:08:24

    I voted yes, but really it should be a maybe. I don’t dislike them in and of themselves, but they’re one of those things that’s very easy to screw up, and many writers don’t do them well. I’m not all, “Yay! I love flashbacks!” or anything, but they’re fine if they’re handled properly.

    Angie

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  25. chey
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 15:42:18

    Sometimes I like them. Other times they confuse me or bore me. I really hate it when the flashback is put in italics. Italics are very hard for me to read.

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  26. hapax
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 15:48:58

    Joy @ 19 I thought the flashbacks in Mary Balogh's _A Matter of Class_ were done extraordinarily well

    YES! That’s the same book that I was thinking of when I read this question!

    As for those who say that “flashbacks are a gimmick” … {shrug} First-person is a gimmick, historical settings are a gimmick, happy endings are a gimmick, and so forth. They are all a way of manipulating the reader and forcing a narrative upon bald reality.

    If they serve the story, I like them. If they detract from the story, I don’t.

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  27. cead
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 16:11:23

    @Jane: I think flashbacks work best when “what happened to get the characters to this point?” has become as intriguing to the reader as “what will happen next”, and when whatever happened is still very much relevant to what is happening in the present. If the flashback has no obvious connection to the action, the reader doesn’t care. The timing is really crucial, too: if the flashback comes too soon, the audience doesn’t care yet; if too late, they’ve probably already filled in the gaps themselves. Sherry Thomas does this brilliantly; she has a gift for knowing exactly how to position them in order to complement the “now” parts of the story.

    The other crucial ingredient for me is what the flashback is intended to convey. Flashbacks that are purely eventive are more likely to bother me than flashbacks that are more stative, or some balance of eventive and stative. That is, I like flashbacks best when they’re showing me something about how the characters relate (or related) to each other, or when the character(s)’ emotions at a particular event are crucial to the plot (and not simply dramatic). I’d much prefer a flashback in lieu of two pages of character P thinking to him/herself about how s/he gets along with character Q; that’s something I want to be shown and not told, especially if I’m being introduced to P and Q right as their relationship is deviating from its established pattern. I love stories about people who have some sort of prior acquaintance, but if their relationship changes in the very first chapter and I never really see how they used to interact, the story never quite works for me.

    On the other hand, flashbacks that just relate some important incident in the past interest me less, and I’d rather the author used a different technique to get that information across.

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  28. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 16:25:09

    On the whole, I don’t like flashbacks. But sometimes they can work.
    I think they work best when the reader asks “what happened?” and not before. Or when in a category, there’s an account of how the couple met, if it’s one of those “five years later” stories.
    But it does tend to stop the forward momentum of the story.

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  29. Mad
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 17:08:26

    There should be a “depends” choice. :) Don’t always like them but for some books, they work.

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  30. lucy
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 17:16:10

    I voted yes because I like flashbacks in second chance romance, and sometimes I even wished some books had them. I don’t really remember really remember reading a flashback that I disliked.

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  31. Keishon
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 17:53:09

    I'm curious as to what people think makes a well constructed flashback. I know that they work for some people, but I'm trying to pin down when it works. //

    Simple: it works for me when it isn’t so obvious. I’ve read a few books that used flasbacks and used them well. There’s a technique to it. Otherwise, I hate italicized flashbacks. Groan when I see them up ahead in my reading and will usually put the book aside. I looked at the books I enjoyed that used flashbacks. It was a simple thing really, they weren’t italicized for one. A good example of flashbacks being used well I think is The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns by Elizabeth Leiknes.

    I think there’s a way to speak of the past without actually taking readers there in the middle of the freaking story. So, I guess my answer would be it depends.

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  32. Anne Ardeur
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 19:02:49

    I'm curious as to what people think makes a well constructed flashback. I know that they work for some people, but I'm trying to pin down when it works.

    So I decided to come back an elaborate a little more with Jane’s question.

    For me, flashbacks tend to detract from the main storyline. In books in which there is little differentiation between the ‘present’ scene and the ‘past’ scene, I can become confused. If the flashback is not something I am interested in being shown/knowing about, then I skip over them completely. Which sometimes means that I miss out on important information, which is also annoying.

    When flashbacks DO work for me is when they are used sparely, or the scene they show is one that I want to know about, OR – and this is my big one – if trying to explain the past events or relationships would be too bulky or out-of-place when done entirely in the ‘present’ scene. Three pages reminiscing on So-and-so’s Very Exciting Meeting with Thingy, or trying to re-hash a conversation from two perspectives through one person’s thoughts, can be just as (or more!) frustrating as jumping out of the ‘present’ for a flashback scene.

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  33. peggy h
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 19:29:33

    I also have to go with a qualified “Yes”, and admit that a lot of that answer comes (at least most recently) from Sherry Thomas’ first three books. I echo Janine’s viewpoint that it’s not so much the construct of the flashback itself but how the author builds up the story and the characters that make me eager to find out what happened in the past. The pace and the timing of how/when/where the past incidents are inserted into the story are also quite crucial in how well the whole thing flows. When an author manages to make transitions smoothly, it makes you feel there’s no other way it could have been done!

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  34. Eva_baby
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 20:58:59

    I like the flashback structure in Rachel Caine’s Ill Wind. The main story taking place in the present starts in medias res. The main character is on the run and has a price on her head. There is an immediate mystery right there. The author doesn’t give us any background.

    As the present timeline story unfolds the main character is trying to track down friends who can help her and laments about the person(s) who got her into this mess.

    The flashbacks unfold the history of the character and begins to bring us up to speed on the why she is her current predicament. The flashbacks aren’t linear in nature because they come to her like remembrances. Something in her present triggers a reminiscence and we get the flashback. Since the book is told in first person, the flashbacks are presented almost as if the main character is a raconteur talking to us and telling us an interesting story.

    As the story progresses, the mystery of the present time begins to make sense as the bits and pieces of the past get filled in. Also the author is very deliberate out how she unfolds the past bits — how they’ll make the most impact in that point in the present storyline.

    Other books I’ve read, mostly SFF, have used this method and I think it is very effective.

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  35. Tae
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 21:00:46

    honestly, I could go either way on this one, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s really boring and breaks up the flow of the narrative

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  36. Jackie Barbosa
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 22:06:47

    @Janine: What you said :).

    I found this discussion really interesting because I have a WIP in which I see no way to tell the story but by weaving the timelines in and out. Starting at the literal beginning of the story would be wrong–the real beginning is only a point of high drama if the reader already knows what happened as a result of that beginning.

    And I have this book in my WIP pile despite the fact that, as a general rule, I don’t like flashbacks, lol.

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  37. DM
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 22:09:22

    A good rule when employing flashbacks is to ask: can the present action of the story continue without it? If so, the flashback is going to slow your story down. Flashbacks are best held in reserve until you’ve built so much tension in your reader that they absolutely MUST know what happened on the day little Johnny fell down the well. Or drowned in the lake. Or fell off his horse.

    Anne Stuart does this in Ruthless. By the time we flashback to the events that shaped Elinor, we really want to know what happened to her, and we need to know in order for the story to move forward.

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  38. sao
    Oct 13, 2010 @ 02:09:50

    When there’s a strong current story line, flashbacks can work, if done well.

    However, I think there’s a tendency to disrupt the timing of a story when the story is fundamentally weak. You drop in an exciting scene that doesn’t really fit in the flow of plot. A typical example is a first meeting scene flashbacked in a story of separated husband and wife.

    In general, I prefer a chronological narrative flow. Arundthati Roy’s God of Small Things had a completely disrupted chronology which worked very well, because the main character was trying to make sense of events she’d witnessed, but not understood, in her childhood.

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  39. Jane
    Oct 13, 2010 @ 08:34:53

    @DM

    can the present action of the story continue without it? If so, the flashback is going to slow your story down.

    I like this. I’m going to re-read some portions of a certain book and ask myself that.

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  40. dri
    Oct 13, 2010 @ 09:25:01

    Ah, I’m so glad so many people, including Jane, mentioned Sherry Thomas cos she was the first example that sprung to mind when I saw this question. And she is entirely why I voted Yes even though, yep, I’ve seen way too many examples of ridiculously unnecessary flashbacks. So amateurish, god.

    Which is why, as a writer, I never allow myself to do flashbacks. I’m always afraid I’ll do them wrong. And I always figure if you write your character’s inner monologue well enough, you shouldn’t need flashbacks. *shrug*

    But having said that, my goodness, I read Liz Carlyle’s Never Deceive A Duke recently … and good god, the way she used the flashbacks was so ruthlessly effective, so flawlessly timed, that she quite literally had me gasping with readerly pain and writely awe. As if I don’t already adore her to the ends of the earth. :p

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  41. Author On Vacation
    Oct 14, 2010 @ 10:47:50

    I voted “Yes,” but a more realistic answer is “I enjoy flashbacks when they contribute interest and tension to the read.”

    I’ve been taking a break from professional writing to persue academics, and it’s given me different perspective on a lot of writing “rules” and advice thrown out for the consumption of aspiring authors.

    Dream sequences are supposed to be a no-no. Flashbacks, too. The reason commonly cited is that these techniques and others like them generate distraction and can possibly confuse the reader, bore the reader, or “throw the reader out of the story.”

    I’ve concluded that dreams and flashbacks do have a place in fiction … That place, like any other writing technique or element, is “when/where it belongs there.”

    If the flashback is relevant, if it contributes to the story in a positive manner, if the story is incomplete without it, it belongs. If the flashback is irrelevant, gratuitous, or distracting, it doesn’t belong.

    A dream sequence incorporating flashback that really “works” for me is Daphne du Maurier’s introduction to her novel “Rebecca.”

    Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

    No one could deny the emotional power and tension the full introduction provided. It generates interest and seduces the reader into wanting to know what Manderley is, why Manderley is gone, and why Manderley is so important to the unnamed narrator.

    I think a flashback’s impact also depends upon the mental agility and memory skills of the reader. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying people put off by flashbacks lack intelligence or good memory. However, readers better able to “keep up and keep in mind” the original story won’t find flashbacks so daunting since, at the flashback’s conclusion, those readers are still “in touch” with the original storyline and are waiting to see what happens next.

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