Wednesday, June 21, 2017

If you've decided you need flashbacks, use them later, not sooner

Make your protagonist memorable to your readers by giving them a past. At least in your mind, a fully realized protagonist should have a past full of memories. When these memories contribute to the story, they can be used in your novel.

The easiest but least effective way to use them is the flashback. The problem with a flashback is it stops the story so we can go back in time. Every time we do that, readers are encouraged to lose interest and maybe even stop reading your book.

A flashback should be a time machine, illuminating background events and thus making the fictional present clearer and more interesting to your readers.
However, you risk much by using this time machine too soon or too often. If you begin the novel with a flashback, you have started the manuscript in the wrong place. Don't attempt a flashback until your novel is truly launched into the present.

The whole idea of a flashback is to provide information from the past, which helps to explain the motivations of someone in the present. 

Until readers know the protagonist and understand what conflict that faces them, they don’t care what happened in the character’s past. 

This is the problem with flashbacks. 
If readers do not know what’s going on now, they cannot understand nor appreciate what happened before. That’s why you should not put a flashback in the first chapter. 
The beginning of a novel should hook readers with drama and excitement; to let readers care for the people as they unfold their lives in present time.
Only when the forward motion of the present is strong, should you risk leaving it for a little while, to return to the past. Even a well-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage. 

It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback is not happening in story time.

----- (From NOVEL SECRETS available in paperback and Kindle form.)

Lary Crews