Coping with the Past: Or Flashbacks and Infodumps

Traces of a slower time: The horse railroad between Linz and Budweis. (Author Photo)

It’s the middle of a battle scene. The hero is pinned down, comm relay out of order, in desperate need of backup, a plan, and chewing gum (not necessarily in that order). The smell of burning plastics, choking and thick, fills the air and—

Cut to a flashback from childhood of grandpa and the burn pit, and what it smelled like when Older Brother put something with plastic-coated wires in the garbage, and how grandpa reacted, and grandma laughing about boys will be boys and…

Yeah. Story fail.

“But it’s important!” Cries Jane Q Writer. “That’s the foreshadowing that hints that the Big Bad is the hero’s long lost older brother!”

The reader, who has already set the book down (or tossed it against the wall), picks up a different book and wanders away.

Thus far, the one story I’ve read that works as pure flashback is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I won’t say much more because of spoiler for those who have not read it, but Ambrose Bierce did a fantastic job of blending flashback/memory with story. Alas, most of us are not Ambrose Bierce.

There are times when you, the writer, need to pass information on to the reader that won’t work well as a lecture, general mention in the text, or inscription on the wall of the Ancient Tomb of Doom. You are trying to hint at character motivation, or feed a little background hint, or foreshadow. Or throw a red-herring so the reader will later go “Oh! Now I see, it really was the Provost all along.” If the book is part of a series, you might need to drop references to previous events, so that newer readers are not completely at sea.

Flashback, retrospective moments, conversational asides, things like “You know, Bob, doesn’t this remind you of…” And Bob will either say, “Nope,” or “You’re right, Orville,” and bring his plasma rifle around to the ready position. Or start wondering just what the Chancellor really is doing in the Tower of the Five Winds on cloudless, still nights. And your reader will get some foreshadowing, hints about what is to come, that the Chancellor has either been doing his level best to keep the defensive wards going despite the machinations of the Provost, or that the charming and sweet little old lady Chancellor was the evil mastermind all along.

I’m struggling with this at the moment, because I need to refer to past events to explain why a character knows enough bushcraft to get out of a situation, even as the character is struggling to recall everything needed for survival. I also need moments to ease the tension and slow the pacing, so the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed. The book isn’t a thriller, so I can’t use thriller pacing. Plus that’s kinda hard on the reader, who knows there is a chunk more book yet to come.

The sort of conversation mentioned above is one way to nod back to previous events, at least if the characters are all familiar with what happened. If Jane Newkid stands there gawping, a you need to add a little more exposition, or at least have someone say, ” S’ OK, Jack’ll explain later.”  It is usually a short few sentences at most, and the story moves on.

Flashbacks also work, but they bring the action to a halt if you describe what the character is seeing/smelling/hearing. That can be exactly what you want, if you have a character who freezes, trapped in the memory. Or it might be something to describe from the outside at the time, and then later, when someone pushes the character to find out what went wrong, you describe the flashback in detail. One intriguing way I’ve seen flashbacks used was in a story where the protagonist’s father had inadvertently imprinted his own memories of events into his son, and the son re-lived his father’s experiences. Once this was just puzzling, once it saved his life, and once it took the father’s old comrades to break the memory and help the protagonist move on with his own life.

Retrospective moments are slower, places where the character (and readers) are breathing, resting, musing over events. Think protagonist leaning against the sun-warmed stone of the rampart, looking out over peaceful, green fields and woodlots, and musing about how much better things are now that the nasty emperor has been gone for two generations. Or musing about her last rather disastrous social event and how she’s not looking forward to the Grand Ball at Court. A couple on a quiet evening after the children are in bed, and they are chuckling over stories from their family, or shared past. Those sort of things—useful for backstory, for foreshadowing, or for filling in new readers (or readers who have been away for a while) about earlier events.

There’s no One True Way to use retrospection, flashback, and the like. A slow, meditative story will work very differently from a thriller or police procedural. The main rule is: don’t break the story. Don’t throw the reader out of the story.  Time slows, the character remembers something, OK. Story slows as the character remembers half of In Search of Times Past, not OK.

And in case anyone has missed it:

Distinctly Familiar, the sixth book in the Familiar Tales series, is out.

Because a 2000 lb Shire mare familiar has to earn her keep, and Tay the lemur just will not leave things well enough alone…


  1. To tie this in with the last post, Robert E. Howard was very good at hinting at a character’s background with only a few words. His Conan stories often begin with Conan fleeing some disaster or being plunged into some clash of kingdoms. In his Solomon Kane stories and poems he mentions in passing that Kane was briefly a Turkish galley slave and that he sailed with Sir. Richard Grenville. But there’s no “Solomon Kane origin story” which lays it all out. Not that this will work for every story or every character, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  2. So, here I am, reading a story… and then I’m suddenly reading a *different* story, which is the flashback. And not only is it interrupting the story, it ticks me off because I know it’s not going to go anywhere, but I have to read it anyway since it might contain something I need to know when the author finally gets back to what I was reading to start with.

    “Flashbacks. Very dangerous. You go first!”

    Just because Big Name Authors or Serious Literature Writers got away with it, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. This isn’t the 20th Century, when picking were so sparse readers had to put up with that sort of thing.

  3. In the Kung Fu (TV series), Caine was “always” having flash-backs to things that happened to him before.

    IIRC Mad Magazine had a strip where he got caught in a “permanent” flash-back where the other characters just saw him standing there unaware of “current day”. 😈

      1. That’s okay. The flashbacks in Kung Fu were both relevant and entertaining in their own right; and were so consistently in each episode (formula) that the audience was prepared for, and expected them.

  4. Yep, definitely a conundrum… And NO good answer over here… 🙂 But lots of good points, thanks!

  5. Flashbacks and the resultant pacing problems killed a story I’d been working on for the better part of a year. It was a murder mystery, and I alternated chapters between “present day” and “flashback.” The two stories got out of sync, but I couldn’t cut any of the flashbacks (that story was stretching out too long) because I was dropping clues in each of those chapters.

    Every so often I revisit the story to try and figure out a way to fix it (I really like it and want to make it work!) but thus far I’ve continually come up blank.

    1. It’s hard. Once I finish the WIP, I’ve got to go back and find a way to sort out an action-stopping back-story dump that my alpha readers flagged. Interweaving past and present… I’ve read it done right, but usually in something like Gothic romance/fantasy, where you can get away with a first-person ghost.

  6. I had a lot of “flashbacks” in the last Luna City but one. A woman remembering the past romance that came out of her childhood – and then remembering again how she was wooed and won by another guy – also one which she shared a past with. It got … complicated. The beta-reader pointed out all how complicated this got, and I cleaned it up IAC with his suggestions.
    Beta readers. Gotta love them. When they are fans but unsparing, they are beyond price.

  7. I have one character who’s thinking a lot about the past. Then “what can I say that will not get me thrown into jail for tripping the lie-detection magic OR for the things I did?” does inspire that. Not helped by the way that her past is considered one of the great mysteries of the region. (She does manage to get by a lot by — smiling.)

  8. I did a big flash-back infodump for the first chapter of one of my first books, because I didn’t have a choice. Then, I realized that I could get away with a “diary” setup for the story…

  9. Zelazny’s Lord of Light has a massive flashback, which he pulls off brilliantly. Writers less skilled than Zelazny at the top of his form (which, very much IMHO, is everybody except maybe a possible half dozen or so in the history of the field) probably can’t do so — but it’s a real pleasure watching what he did.

  10. If you do have a flashback, have pity on your readers and talk about it with some feeling, and make it a relevant tone and pacing to your character and his activities.

    A flashback in pretty college English class language, when the character is a teenage jock who is in emotional turmoil, is ridiculous. Wasting pages on it, when your character has to make his move in seconds, is even worse.

Comments are closed.