The Great Flashback Debate?

Prologues.  Now there’s something that’s been hotly debated in the writing world for YEARS. First they’re in.  Now they’re out.  I remember when I was pursuing the traditional publication route that there was a huge backlash against prologues and I was having to consider whether to include one in the book I was writing at the time so that New York would look at me.

I look back at that now and think…how stupid is that?

Here’s the thing.  I like prologues if they’re done well. That would be a key…the IF THEY’RE DONE WELL part.  None of this taking some climactic moment from the end and plunking it at the beginning, then flashing to “Previously”. I’m sure all these prologue-haters who actually SKIP the prologue (WTF?  It’s there for a reason people.) have gotten ahold of one too many of that kind.

One criticism often lobbied at prologues is that the information contained therein can be presented in the text in other ways.

I really don’t agree with this blanket statement.  Yes, sometimes this is the case.  But often those “other ways” are equally or even MORE lame than a prologue.

Cover of "What About Bob?"
Cover of What About Bob?

Exhibit A: The classic As You Know Bob (AYKB, a phrase originating from the fantastic comedy classic What About Bob wherein Bill Murray is constantly giving information that is already known and common knowledge to the folks in the story). Now this can be gotten away with on screen–especially in cases like Supernatural. You give us a couple of hot guys and they can do the “Well as you know, Sam/Dean” all the live long day, and we don’t mind that much.  Mmm, Dean.  But on paper it comes across as amateurish and clunky.  It’s why there’s some information I choose to put in a glossary at the beginning of my Mirus books.  Because nobody in that world would ever DEFINE this stuff without looking like an utter moron because they all KNOW it all ready.

And now, I give you, exhibit B–the flashback.

Now I carry as much vitriol for the flashback as others do for prologues.  Because flashbacks generally take you out of the now when you’re already in the MIDDLE of the story.  Or even worse, they’ll be done in a DREAM–oh how original (which is not to say that this can’t be done exquisitely well–Zadist’s flashbacks to his time as a blood slave were exceedingly well done).  The flashback often seems to be the vehicle of writers who are too afraid to write a good prologue and introduce the information we need on the front end.  They’re often offered up as a second class explanation for why some character is behaving in such a manner.  I have a MUCH BIGGER problem with this than I do with prologues and I can absolutely recall a WHOLE LOT MORE flashbacks that were crappily done than I can prologues.

So why isn’t there a great debate against FLASHBACKS, I’d like to know.

The reason I prefer prologues to flashbacks is that by the time you get to a flashback, you have already been exposed to a fair amount of information about these characters.  Their actions have informed your opinion of them, so a flashback feels intrusive and clunky. I choose to use prologues in many of my books because I want to present that character in a certain way to show where they STARTED–BEFORE you know everything you know later in the story.  That affects how the reader interprets that character.

In my last romantic suspense, Til Death–the one I was working on when I was still considering New York–, I start with a prologue that shows the hero as a boy when he finds a skeleton on the back 40 of his grandparents’ farm.  I tried it in a dream/flashback later and it was a disaster.  Because I wanted the reader to see him as that vulnerable boy at that moment that winds up defining who he becomes as a man.  And I wanted them to see that BEFORE they saw the man.

Now that’s not to say I never use flashbacks.  I think you simply can’t make blanket statements about any story device, but simply have to give consideration, as an author, to how you want the reader to see your characters.  Which device you choose absolutely affects that.

9 thoughts on “The Great Flashback Debate?

  1. Thank you for this.
    Using a glossary sounds like a good idea indeed. It’s hard to fit in a story “well, you know why we call ourselves like that, it’s because…”.
    Unless maybe the story is written in first POV? To me, in that case, it is as if the character tells the story to the reader. (Am I wrong?)
    Now I have to find books with a prologue to study that…

  2. I LOVE What About Bob!

    I am glad you posted this today. There have been some things that I have been struggling to get into my story, but it fells too much like an information dump. I didn’t even consider doing a prologue. I think it might work perfect for this though! Thanks!

  3. Your end conclusion is dead on. There isn’t really a one right way. Prologues aren’t automatically bad in my book. I always give them a read through because the author obviously put them there for a reason. I can’t think of a real prologue that’s really disappointed me, but I have a terrible memory.

    I am a fan of flashbacks. But it is a dangerous device. You really can’t just plop a flashback in the middle of a story.

    Stephen King’s It is sort of my example of what not to do. The movie uses the flashbacks really well to tell the story, but I hated it in the book form. We start out knowing all the kids as adults, so when it does a flash back to when they were kids, it sort of killed any suspense. I couldn’t finish the book.

  4. I am definitely both pro-prologue and pro-epilogue. Like you, I think the problem is the abuse and misapplication of these writing tools. But it’s like adverbs… use sparingly… not stop using altogether. I swear, if we listened to every writing “do not” out there, we wouldn’t have any words or tools left to use.

    1. Save the Adverbs!! lol

      I agree–so tired of being told what to do, what not to do, what genre to write, what not to write. If I listened to all that “guidance” out there, I’d never write another words.

  5. I think it all depends on how you handle the flashback, just like with prologues. When the flashback isn’t written as a “PREVIOUSLY…” or AYKB, it can work rather well. In fact, I’ve employed a certain technique quite a few times. I call it THE THOUGHTS THAT CAN SPAN A ONE-SECOND PAUSE IN CONVERSATION, or THE THOUGHTS THAT OCCUPY A FELLA WHEN HE’S OTHERWISE PHYSICALLY OCCUPIED. It works like this:

    Joe didn’t know how to answer her question. He’d walked into this trap once several years ago when she’d asked the formidable and leading question, “Does this dress make my butt look fat?”

    In retrospect, the obvious answer was Absolutely not, darling. What he’d said was, “Honestly? Yeah. Maybe if the design of the dress were different, it wouldn’t be so bad. I’d burn that thing if I were you.”

    What followed was referred to by the neighborhood as The Shriek That Echoed Around the World, and the cold front that ensued shortly after was enough to make a man long for an extended vacation in Siberia at the height of winter. Now he teetered on the same precipice, faced with the same kind of leading, formidable question, and all he could say–honest or not–was “Of course not, darling.”

    A flashback disguised as retrospection or the idle thoughts of a person can work rather well at layering dimension onto your characters and guiding the reader to the opinion of the characters’ personalities the author wishes the readers to have–now we know the mysterious “she” does not take criticism well or value honest opinions, because she is insecure about her appearance; and the hapless Joe, while valuing bluntness and directness, has found a modicum of tact and diplomacy because he obviously values the relationship. It also helps build the characters’ past without resorting to an information dump.

    It’s funny you mention It. It’s one of my favorite King books, because of the flashbacks. I loved the way it was written. It’s interesting that what makes one person unable to put down a book is what makes another unable to finish it (kinda like me and Anne Rice’s scads of readers; I can’t make it through a full chapter of her work).

  6. Oh, I meant that part about King’s book It toward NM Martinez. Sorry for any confusion…I am still working on my first cuppa joe. It’s my only defense.

  7. Short and sweet. I think it all boils down to this, good writing. In my humble opinion, prolog, preface, flashbacks all work when the writing is good. But nothing irritates me more than when author continually repeats themselves, as if I didn’t get it the first time.

  8. What klparry said. Totally agree.

    I hate flashbacks, too, but when I was writing “Silver Thaw,” I found myself using them to help develop characters in kind of a weird way that I won’t spoil for people who haven’t read it… 🙂 These men had flashbacks that explained why they acted the way they did in their parts of the story. So far, no one has complained about the flashbacks, so I guess I handled them well. It was interesting to force myself to work with a device I hate.

    Oddly, after I wrote “Silver Thaw,” I ended up adding a couple of short flashbacks to “Ravenmarked” that I think helped build the characters a bit. I felt a lot more confident with them after doing “Silver Thaw.”

    And I love to use Sharon’s method, too. Flashback disguised as retrospection–that’s a brilliant way to say it. 🙂


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