re: Should Flashbacks Be Feared?

in Plot/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

In my critique group my fellow authors warned me about the dangers of flashbacks in fiction. They suggested a prologue, but I have heard that prologues can also be deadly to a manuscript. Can you give me some advice on this matter?

Many thanks,
J

Dear J…

I have this niggling feeling you’re looking for ways to set up your story before it happens. As in, Psst! Hey, Reader, let me tell you something about the character before you start. Don’t do that. You have plenty of time to slip them background info once they care about your protagonist and the problems ahead of her. If they don’t care about her, they won’t give a fig about the things that happened in her past to make her who she is today. Instead, open with your character doing something that reveals her personality and hints at her problems. Then sprinkle in the background essentials, teasing them out with little references and then doing a Grand Reveal in a clever, unexpected way. Flashbacks are often big backstory dumps, so use them sparingly and with caution. Prologues are okay as long as you’re not just looking for a dumping method that doesn’t being with the letter “f”. The prologue must be entertaining in its own right. It’s not a free Psst! Hey Reader! moment. That’s when prologues become “deadly.” Readers want action in the first words, not explanation.

Happy writing!

The Editor

4 Comments

    • Kay, does my response to Kate’s comment answer this question for you? If it’s just backstory setup for a character—the protagonist OR the villian—then brainstorm other ways to give that character context. You may ultimately decide that a prologue is the only way to accomplish this, but make sure you’re convinced of that “only,” as the prologue puts an element between your reader and the first chapter of the book.

  1. Unfortunately dozens of books with a sneak scene as prologue are gracing our shelves. And many many are recently published.
    This probably constitutes the “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome.

    • Prologues certainly aren’t illegal, by any means. Prologues can be useful tools. Sometimes they set a mood or ambiance, sometimes they give necessary context for a fictional world. Just examine WHY you want to use a prologue. If you’re trying to serve up backstory, you can usually accomplish that goal without having to start your book twice, which is one effect of a prologue. If an author is trying to move info out of a flashback from the body of the story and seeing a prologue as a means of doing that, THEN I get worried that a backstory dump is behind the maneuvering.

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