“When he was young, Barnaby Conrad, founder of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, worked for Sinclair Lewis. Once he asked the master how best to handle flashbacks. Lewis’ reply was succinct. He said, ‘Don’t.’” Sol Stein begins chapter 14 of Stein on Writing with this story as a starting point to discuss the danger of using flashbacks in fiction because they frequently remove the reader from the experience.
Words of wisdom for any writer who wants to make a splash with their work since they desire to draw the reader into their story. Fiction writers want their readers to experience the world they have created and to lose themselves in the story. Keeping the reader engaged is a tough job. When done right, though, it is magical.
Flashback can either add to the magic or detract from it. The way it is handled is key to its contribution to the story and whether it will succeed or fail. We all have a past; the history of us that entwines around our life and shapes who we are. Sometimes in fiction it is important to know this back story to add depth to the plot. Often it is needed to clarify what is happening in the current. But if it doesn’t add anything to the story it is just wasted words and a distraction.
In the real world our past can be a distraction also. We carry our life experience with us, but what we do with it determines our future. Spending too much time in our memories of what we have been through will waylay us. It can cause us to stall and not do what needs to be done, or it can cause us to focus so much on our failures that we are afraid to move. It removes us from the now experience.
But, if we learn from our history and move forward it can help us. Knowing when to visit our past memories and reach out for those times that we learned or grew will enhance our life. It adds to our current story and helps us along. It adds to the here and now rather than detracts from it.
Everyone has a history whether we are fiction characters or real life people. What we do with our history determines the course of our future story. Don’t be afraid to flashback, but as Stein Sol cautions, use it wisely.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead ~Philippians 3:13