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Workshop: Flashbacks


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Jean Lorrah


I've always used flashbacks instinctively. They are something to be used _very sparingly_, though.

Flashbacks are almost always better for backfill than dialogue. Dialogue can, of course, be the right choice in certain circumstances. When the detective finally solves the crime, explaining in detail whodunit and how, that is dialogue information feed with the reader hanging on every word.

But usually information feed via dialogue is done badly, imitating the daily bad examples seen soap operas. Because soaps deal in painful emotions, every backstory is first dragged bit by bit out of the person it happened to, and then rehashed and rehashed by other cast members as the story spreads. The loyal audience delights in watching the reaction of each involved character as s/he learns the details. The unloyal audience is *bored silly*!

Still, flashbacks are never (correctly) used for straight information feed. They have to support theme, create suspense, or develop character, too.

There are two kinds of flashbacks. The kind I used in First Channel is fairly common--a new chapter opens after some time has passed since the end of the last one. Going straight into the next event in the plot would make the reader start wondering if the author has lost control of the story, for the next few scenes are apparently ordinary daily events that seem to have no significance. But if the reader sees that something has changed, and _then_ flashes back to those apparently ordinary events, now the reader is watching for clues to what caused the change in the situation. Of course, those clues had better be there!

The second kind of flashback is the kind I used in _The Night of the Twin Moons_, the kind used in _Kung Fu_, _The Highlander_, and similar situations in which something that happened in a person's past influences how that person will act in the present. Without the flashback, the reader is missing vital information as to why the character reacts as he or she does. This kind of flashback is much easier to understand and to do. The first kind is quieter--readers may not even notice that it has happened, but it makes what would otherwise be slow (but necessary) parts of a story move.

Beware: if you structure your books with flashback loops as I habitually do, and an editor decides to chop a third of your text out, as happened with _First Channel_, what a mess you have trying to put it back together so it makes sense!





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