How I Broke the Rules and Ended Up with Flashbacks

tie dyeThis post is not about dropping acid, though it may look that way from the title. It’s about another kind of “illegal” behavior–breaking a writing rule.

There are a lot of “don’ts” when it comes to writing– certain newbie-writer mistakes that will automatically flag your work as that of a first-timer. These include starting a scene with your character waking up or, worse yet, in a dream sequence, using too many adverbs and descriptive speech tags, and dense prose with not enough white space on the page.

I also had a writing instructor once tell me not to use flashbacks. And, to be fair, I overused them when I first started writing long-form fiction. But observing a hard and fast “no flashback” rule was nearly impossible for me, especially in writing Vintage, which follows items and the people who owned them from past to present and back again. So I ignored the “no flashback” rule. I did, however, scrutinize my flashbacks. I tried to keep them short. I tried to make sure they transitioned well with the rest of the story so as not to be too jarring.

So rules are good. They provide boundaries and general guidelines. But, like Katherine Hepburn said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

Image credit: Tim’s Quilts

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Susan Gloss is the author of the novel VINTAGE (William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2014). When she's not writing, toddler wrangling, or working as an attorney, she blogs at Glossing Over It and curates an online vintage store, Cleverly Curated.

8 thoughts on “How I Broke the Rules and Ended Up with Flashbacks

  1. I use flashbacks in both of my novels, though sparingly. I think they can add depth to a novel without dropping in too much exposition. You handled yours very well so I’m glad you broke the rule. 🙂

  2. I didn’t even know there _was_ a rule about flashabcks! (Sometimes I think there’s a role against everything. 🙂 )

    My first novel goes backwards through time (now, the day before, three weeks earlier, twenty years earlier), so maybe that’s a different category than “flashbacks.” Then, in the last third of the book (when the detective shows up), it straightens out and moves forward. As with your book, the “flashbacks” are the point, which is different from having a lot of digressions, distracting from a forward-moving narrative (I can see how that would be a negative).

    Sometimes, though, the past is the point. Think of the play Betrayal, or the movie Memento.

  3. I love flashbacks, too, and I’ve never understood the “no flashbacks” rule because doesn’t our past inform our present (and future)? It only makes sense that sometimes to tell a story that’s moving forward, we’d have to look back at where our characters have been.

    • Also, and this just occurred to me, sometimes you want to hook the reader and the first scene in the chronology isn’t always a “grabber.” Sometimes it’s better to start with a scene that really has a hook, and then fill in the earlier stuff as you go along.

  4. I liked your use of flashbacks–I thought they worked. I had a helluva time figuring out how to get my backstory in for KILMOON. The journal entries worked for me.

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