Many creative writing instructors warn writers against using too many flashbacks in their stories. “A flashback doesn’t move a story forward; it makes a story static; the reader loses interest; the progression of a story is stifled,” and so on and so forth.
I agree with this opinion, but only in some cases. For instance, when a flashback interrupting a dialogue is so lengthy that you forget what the characters were saying before and have to go back, to remind yourself, it stifles the story, yes. However, when a flashback is fleeting (as in a dialogue) or when it’s included in the description of a setting or an event, or better yet, when it’s a separate chapter, I like it. Flashbacks can certainly play an integral part in a story.
In Jodi Picoult’s Lone Wolf, flashbacks occupy probably half of the narration. Without them, we wouldn’t understand what happened to Luke Warren prior to his auto accident that left him in a coma. The same concerns his wife and children, the other narrators in the novel.
I just finished reading Tana French’s In the Woods, the first in her series, which left me with aching regret and heartbreaking loss over the breakup between two detectives, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. Since Rob is the narrator, I know how he feels about the end of their friendship, and from his description of her appearance and behavior, I can tell that Cassie is taking it hard. Still, I want to hear about it from her lips.
In The Likeness, a sequel that I’ve just started, the narrator is Cassie. Oh, finally! I thought. The novel has some new characters and a pretty gripping plot, but I crave for flashbacks, where Cassie would mention her feelings about Rob and their breakup. Each time she says “my ex-partner” my pulse is quickening with anticipation: Yes, now, please, tell me how you felt during those past months…
In short, I love flashbacks, no matter what they teach in creative writing classes, and I use them in my own novels.
In Disengaged, Hope Day is agonizing over the loss of her fiancé. So how can she not recollect their happy, and not so happy, times together, while trying to understand what went wrong? Enter flashbacks.
In Without Thinking Twice, the Russian brides, Lara and Yulia, compare their lives “here and there,” constantly remembering anecdotes from their lives “back home.” Without flashbacks it would be almost impossible to understand their characters, motivations, and behavior.
In A Measure of Guilt, Kate Flanagan is searching for her sister, Angie, and her best friend, Sandra, who vanished without a trace two years ago. She blames herself for playing a part in the tragedy. Naturally, her memory plays a broken record of that terrible day. Flashbacks are absolutely necessary in this novel.
So, are flashbacks really that bad? I don’t think so!