flashbacks

I was at a reading at a bookstore last week where the host and the guest author talked about many aspects of writing fiction (the host speaking inordinately too much about his own novels while the poor guest was there to plug his own, first novel), when the topic of flashbacks came up. A flashback is, basically, a scene, sometimes quite lengthy, set in a time before the main narrative of the story. It can be useful for giving background to show how a character or event came to be the way it is. And it can be sparked in several ways though most likely by something triggering the memory in a character.

Both the host and the guest author deplored flashbacks. They claimed that they took the reader out of the narrative and slowed down the experience of the story. (I think I have their objections right.) It has, apparently, become the fashion to deplore flashbacks. Even Colm Toibin is lamenting their use (though I’ve read a good bit of Toibin’s fiction, and he doesn’t stint on using flashbacks).

As extensively used and ingrained in Western literature as the flashback is, as hardworking a tool as it is, this seemingly recent objection to its use sounds a great deal to me like those who bemoan the new-fangled internet (or Internet) and word processors.

In fact, flashbacks go back to the Odyssey and have been part of literature ever since. My One-Match Fire stories use flashbacks, and a careful reader could argue that the entire novel is a flashback. Since it is the story of three generations of men in a family, and since in real life we often learn important truths about our families years after they’ve happened, flashbacks seem essential to the verisimilitude of the telling. I’ve even been told on several occasions that I’m pretty good at writing flashbacks. I’d recount those occasions for you but I don’t want to take you out of the narrative of this post or slow down your experience of it.

In any case, I’m not about give up the flashback device. (Or the Oxford common. Or my lament of double spacing after periods.)

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2 Comments on “flashbacks”


  1. My spouse is against flashbacks too. But then he also uses two spaces after a period.


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