writing technique

They had met a long time before

Mr Bennet

Mr. Bennet: complex and layered

“We are living in the most terrible age. I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.”

So says Colm Tóibín, for whom, as a novelist, this is of course a legitimate concern. He continues “You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, the writer taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.” And with great approval, he cites Jane Austen, who “wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.”

I don’t know about that sweeping chapter 2 claim, but I fully agree about flashbacks (though I do worry more about Brexit). But I understand the temptation: you’ve created a host of characters, and to make them believable, you need to know where they grew up, what school they went to, what their parents did, the relationships they had. I’ve just spent considerable time working on the background to Sophie, the main character in my current WIP, so naturally, I don’t want to see it go to waste.

But it won’t be wasted, even if I don’t put it in the book. Because I know my character much better now, and the way she behaves makes sense because it’s grounded in a past of which I’m aware.

Are there exceptions? Of course. This article cites several novels which make effective use of flashbacks – Underworld, The God of Small Things, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… But an author needs to know when and how to use them, and that requires experience.

Prompted by Tóibín’s complaint, I anxiously scoured my WIP. I’m happy to report that the dreaded flashback is absent. Phew! Yes, I found brief instances (two or three sentences) relating to a very recent past, when something reminds Sophie about a conversation she had previously. But Tóibín is talking more about backstory, filling in a character’s past. Of that, I found just one, which takes up 58 words.

But surely to be as categorical as Kristen Lamb (Why flashbacks ruin fiction) is excessive. One day, perhaps, I’ll make a conscious decision to construct a book with flashbacks. But I’m of the school that believes that rules need to be mastered before you can break them, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. For the time being then, I’ll stick to chronological, thank you.

And you? Have you experimented with them? Or avoided them like the plague?