Saturday, January 30, 2010

Editing flashbacks

No, I'm not having a flashback about editing, although I've been editing a lot recently to resubmit a manuscript for a publisher. Instead, I'm passing on something I've recently learnt. Namely, how to make a flashback less boring!

Here's a flashback from my book 'Bound to Love' before editing (note the number of had's.  I've made them red to illustrate my point.)

Since his father’s death, he had been strong for his mother, who was in danger of falling apart for so many years after his father’s death. Even though she had done her best by bringing him home to her parents, she’d been a fragile, broken shell of the person she once was. His father’s love had given her everything, and his death took everything away from her, leaving her a shadow. His life had changed forever from the moment that his father took the bullet intended for another, and he’d watched, powerless, as his mother cried night after night.

Okay, 6 flashback had's. Its definitely in the past, but is wordy and passive. This is how I edited it...

Since his father’s death, he had been strong for his mother, who was in danger of falling apart for so many years after his father’s death. Even though she did her best by bringing him home to her parents, she was a fragile, broken shell of the person she once was. His father’s love gave her everything, and his death took everything away, leaving her a shadow. His life changed forever from the moment that his father took the bullet intended for another, and he watched, powerless, as his mother cried night after night.

On the advice of an excellent editor (Don McNair, see his upcoming classes. The first in July is at and the second in September at )I stripped out 5 of them, and made the paragraph more immediate. Don suggests that if you have a large paragraph of flashback, you can do this and improve the paragraph, what do you guys think? Better?


  1. Thank goodness for that Caroline and Suzanne, the revised version is what I sent!

  2. Okay, I'm going to be annoyingly picky here (don't you just hate people like that) and say this isn't a flashback, it's a piece of internal thought. He's thinking about his mother. A flashback can be done in the present because the person is remembering it as it happened, if you know what I mean. But it usually requires a fairly long bit of narrative, so you can establish the memory... I definitely think your second version is better as a piece of internal thought. But if you wanted to go the whole hog, and turn this into a flashback you could have him flashing back to being a child (assuming he wsa a child at the time his father died) remembering a specific event that illustrates his mother's disintergration. In this respect the strongest part of your narrative I thought was the bit at the end, when he remembers his mother crying every night, something which would have been extremely traumatic for a child and would have left him with a visceral memory that would probably remain vivid throughout his life. So you could trigger the flashback when he sees another woman crying.

    If you make the flashback specific it's more immediate for the reader and shows them his emotions at the point at which he lost his father rather than telling us them. You could include the confusion, the loneliness he felt, how much he missed his father and wanted him to be there to comfort his mother. If only his dad was there he could make her better, that sort of thing. Of course, this may not be at all relevant to your story and not what you want to achieve at this juncture, but I liked that last bit the best, it helped me to picture him as a child trying to cope with his mother's unhappiness...

  3. Thank you, brilliant stuff, Sally and Heidi. One of the things I love most about blogging is how generous everyone is with advice.


  4. Very interesting conversation here, and highly informative!

    Sally I see an immediate difference after taking out those simple words.

    Heidi, thanks for the annoyingly picky detail about flashbacks -

    This is what I adore about your blog, Sally - I leave with more than I came with, Kristi

  5. Wow, Heidi, that was a cool comment! Yes, the second bit was better. :-)

  6. Hi Sally,
    Came across your blog from Vanessa's website. Looks really interesting:)
    I would agree that the second part was better, good luck with the submission!

  7. Heidi - thanks so much for your really useful and informative comment, the thing I love about writing is how much there is to learn (for me, anyway!) and I really appreciate all the imput.
    Suzanne - I agree with you, its great to have advice and comments, and I love my blogging friends, I learn so much from them!
    Kristi - Thanks for the vote of confidence, are you going to the McKee seminar?
    Jackie - Second you on 'what a cool comment from Heidi!
    Olive - Greetings! and welcome to my blog! I'm delighted that the second part was better, too late to change it now!

  8. Interesting example, Sally. It might depend on how you go on from here.

    If the text develops from these thoughts without a break, then the active second version works well.r

    But if the flashback is brief and intended to give background before resuming in another time, then I wonder if the first draft might just provide a clear sense of distance.

    Editing is hard exactly because we so often pitch it perfectly the first time. And because so often we don't...

  9. Hi Sally

    You're so welcome. Of course the only reason I can sound all knowledgeable about internal thought vs flashbacks is cos I had to give it a lot of thought in nightmare revisions for my last book.

    My couple in the original draft met up again after a ten year gap and while I referred to their original break-up a lot in their internal thought - she's still really hurt about the way he treated her and has decided to hate him to hide that hurt, he thinks she was naive and immature and that she tricked him into taking her virginity during their one night together, and they both still fancy each other like crazy which annoys the hell out of them both - I didn't do a flashback to the actual event cos I thought it would be too much backstory...

    Then in the revision stage my ed and I realised in one of those lightbulb moments (I'll come clean and say it was more her lightbulb than mine!) that I needed to actually show them together during that one night, detail all the misunderstandings and recriminations (and the great sexual chemistry!) so that we could understand not only what had happened, but how they had matured and changed since and how it was going to impact on their relationship in the present. Doh!

    That said, flashbacks don't always work. By there nature they have to be told from one character's POV (whoever's having the memory). And they can also slow the pace interminably by pulling your characters back into the past and taking the focus away from the present story. But in this case I think it worked... You guys will have to let me know if you read the book!

  10. Are you interested in going? I'd really like to go if I can get childcare organized. He may not be doing these seminars for very much longer.

    I've got loads of flashbacks in my 1st novel, and the 2nd, a sequel, must have some as well. So I'm getting stuck in the too much back story trap. This is an interesting and helpful post for me.

  11. Hi Kristi

    I'd say the number of flashbacks you use really depends on the length and type of novel you're writing... If you're writing category romance (like moi) I'd say it's best to limit their use to one or at the most two because with a short word count too many can confuse the reader as to the timeline of your novel.

    If you've got a lot of them, maybe you should rethink the timeline altogether, maybe start the story in a different place. Although Susan Elizabeth Phillips frowns on them, you can always use a prologue if necessary. Another option is to combine a few of your flashbacks (if you're flashing back to the same events) into one long flashback, or then again you could always include some of the information in your characters internal thoughts or dialogue.

    Obviously you don't want your characters reciting loads of their backstory to each other but sometimes if they have a history that's part of their conflict it would be perfectly natural for them to talk about it (or argue about it). Another thing I find, is when I'm writing a first draft I include loads of backstory (which is my way of understanding my characters) that the reader doesn't necessarily need to know or which will be referred to later in a more concise or effective way and can therefore be deleted.

    Maintaining pace is one of the hardest skills to master when you've got so much story to tell! And I find it's during the revision process - when I've already got the bare bones of my story, my characters and their conflict in place - that I tackle this task.

    Good luck.

  12. Thanks, Heidi, That is very helpful -

    My big problem, I think, is that I've started my story like a movie would start - slowly, sun shining character getting ready for the day...pondering events which I had not realized fell under the category of WAY too much back story, not enough activity.

    It just dawned on me that books don't have pretty pictures to excite the audience like movies do. I added a Prologue, but have read that so many agents hit the auto-delete-key when they see prologues. I don't think readers do, but it's a pet peeve when getting past agents, apparently.

    Now I'm cutting the prologue, and feel the need to start my protagonist in an active moment, which will be difficult since her BIG problem is that her life has stalled, she has no momentum...we see why later, (Machiavellian Scientist from another planet)

    FYI- I write Interplanetary Rom-Coms which I can't bear to call Sci-Fi since I'm not into big, high tech explosions, but really lovely Utopias where I would want to live... Heaven and Earth already have a set of rules... :0)

    Thanks for your comments and suggestions, gives me much to think over.

  13. I'm loving all the conversation going on here, it's only when you look at something specific that you get to unravel the details, I'm learning a lot from these comments!

  14. Interplanetary Rom-Coms? Wow that sounds intriguing.

    You're right about prologues, they're definitely pet peeves for some people. I went to a Susan Elizabeth Phillips talk at the RWA conference and she did a total hatchet job on them. Explaining that they were a cop-out when writers couldn't be bothered to weave the back story details into their narrative the hard way. Fair enough. I love her books so I bow to her greater knowledge. And to be honest, I've never used one myself, because I like to leap straight into the story. But I've read books with great prologues. Some of Queen Nora's spring to mind,

    Personally, I'd say definitely start your heroine in an active moment, but think of one that will also show how much her life has stalled. Maybe she's done something really reckless and out of character because she was bored to tears and felt she had to dynamite herself out of her rut, but now she's regretting it big time - because it's backfired spectacularly. Bravery after all is usually brought about by desperation. Whatever planet you live on...

    And Sally, thanks for getting the discussion started. I'm enjoying it too!


  15. Oh, Kristi, had to just add. In my first published book, I had originally started the ms a bit like yours. My hero, a Harley riding bad boy. was riding his bike over a hill contemplating all the things that had gone wrong in his life, when he spies an empty mansion with a pool and thinks what the hell. And climbs in for a quick skinny dip. Then the heroine comes back with her sister and catches him in the pool.

    Was right at the point of sending it off, when I realised it would be much better to start the story when the two sisters see him getting out of the pool naked. And only letting the reader know what my heroine knew. Who is this guy? What the hell does he think he's doing? And wow, hasn't he got a gorgeous arse! etc, etc.

    I knew it was the right decision, but I agonised for days over whether to do it, cos it meant rewriting the whole chapter and finding a way to get all that wonderful backstory explaining his character into the scene.. I'm really glad I made the effort now.

    So rest assured, all the agonising you're doing now is going to be worth it in the end.

  16. Wow, Heidi, And here I'm thinking that his jumping into someone's pool is active. I see the difference. It's not just action. It's action that makes the reader squirm in their chair wondering how this happened and what's going to happen next.

    The opening has been a HUGE blind spot for me, I can tell you. I've been patching it up with band-aides, so far. No more, I'm resetting the bone - ha!

  17. I definitely think for that first chapter less is more. Intrigue the reader, tantalise them, give them a hint of the conflict, but leave them guessing. I always go off the deep end in the rough draft and overexplain everything. But that's what revisions are for.

    Best of luck Kristi... And remember as long as you know there's a problem, you'll eventually be able to fix it.

    Right, back to my own WIP! Can you tell I'm currently avoiding it like the plague?

  18. Thanks, Heidi and Sally for a great discussion. It's nice to have something tangible to work towards.

    And I'd never considered putting 'less' in the 1st chapter. In fact I'd always been told that the reader needs to know exactly what the protagonist's problem is by the end of the 1st paragraph.

    Hey -Maybe that's my blind spot! I'm technically trying to shove the Protagonist's PROBLEM down the reader's throat, rather than write an interesting 1st chapter. When we get away from our instincts all sorts of things can go wrong, can't they?

    Thanks so much ladies, your work is done here! I'm getting up off the couch to have fun with my Protagonists problems,