It has become apparent that I have (amongst other terrible habits) an over-dependence on the use of flashbacks. It’s so pronounced in fact that a chapter I have just rewritten was about 75% flashback. Ouch.
I went searching for confirmation that I was not alone, that other, better writers had terrible habits too, and it hadn’t ruined their lives. I found this fabulous paragraph on Medium, in an article by Clare Barry called ‘Everyone’s a copyrighter, right?’
“Virginia Woolf had a beautiful habit of swapping the narrative perspective mid paragraph. Jane Austen used double negatives. Charles Dickens was the king of run-on sentences — and E.E. Cummings didn’t give a flying cockatoo what you thought about capitalisation. That man capitalised whatever word he damned-well pleased. Or didn’t. Don’t get me started on Hemingway, whose grammar was a mix of playful creativity and 46% malt whisky.”
I’m not so much a whisky girl, as someone who boils the kettle in the ensuite so I don’t have to venture into the kitchen and risk running into family members who might want to engage with me. It means my book is relying on instant coffee but it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted writing time first thing in the morning.
My dependence on flashback is because I am writing a highly structured book that follows six characters throughout a month. As you move through the book, each character has a day, but as in real life, sometimes interesting things happened yesterday, or three days ago.
My beloved mentor, Brooke Dunnell, recently pointed out that a chapter I had written started with a single sentence in the present day (a Sunday) then promptly jumped back to Wednesday, then Thursday then Friday before returning briefly to Sunday a few lines before the chapter ended.
When I colour-coded the chapter to see how bad the damage was, it looked like a United Colours of Benetton advert from the 1990s.
There are some generally accepted rules when writing flashbacks, the first being ‘don’t use too many’, but I’ve already established I’m a rule breaker (sometimes I even have UHT milk in my early morning bathroom instant coffee!).
But another important rule is that you need a trigger to start the flashback, as well as to bring your reader back to the present time. In real life when you suddenly stop to think about something that has happened in the past, it has usually been triggered by one of the senses – you see something or smell something that takes you back. The same should happen to your characters. Simply starting the sentence:
‘On Wednesday, when Winnie shared the waitress’ suspicions, Katharine had laughed…’
is lazy. This admittedly is one of my current sentences, but it’s still early days of my flashback recovery, so I need to take things slowly.
Another rule is the flashback needs to advance the story – you can’t just drift backwards to discuss the weather or show off your beautiful literary turn of phrase; if you’re going to use a flashback, it needs to progress the plot. A good comparison is when someone starts describing their dream to you – they’re often wildly disconnected and boring as hell to the listener – you do NOT want your flashback to read like this. It must have a point that you couldn’t have made in the present time.
That being said, I realised that if I could re-write my flashback sections into the present time, I probably should. I couldn’t change the timing on all my flashbacks, but there were certain things – like a phone conversation – that could be moved.
The other good advice I received from Brooke, was to delay the first flashback for as long as possible. This means the reader can be established in the present day, before whisking them back to the past.
This is the colour-coding of the chapter after some work. I still have flashbacks, but they start much later in the chapter and there is significantly less of them.
Working through this one chapter has made me much more cognisant of my addiction to this literary technique, and I suspect I have a fair bit of work ahead of me to reduce my overall reliance on them. But I have no doubt that one day my book will be much more than a mix of flashbacks and instant coffee.