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Pens and Flashbacks

November 7, 2010

I just did something I haven’t done in a long time.  No, not that.  I did that just…well, since I did this other thing, for sure.  And it’s none of your business when I…  Oh right, what I actually did do.

I wrote a scene by hand.  Just a scene, but it was a complete scene.  I was editing my Codex story and decided a scene was needed and grabbed a pen and wrote it out.  It felt really good.  Better than any scene I have typed in a long time.  Why was it so good?  Was it the pen-in-hand?  Or just because the story so desperately needed the scene?  I’m not sure, but I’ll likely do more.  It’s something different.  Writing by hand uses different parts of your brain, so it may well stimulate different ideas.

The scene, as it turns out, was a flashback.  (No!  Not a flashback!  Never a flashback!)  Flashbacks get a bum rap sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong, bad flashbacks are very bad.  Flashback overdose is the reason I stopped watching The Event.  But there are times when a flashback is appropriate, nay, necessary.  I tried the story without it.  It begged for the scene.  I wrote it and now I am happy.  It must mean something.

Here are my rules for flashbacks, be they for the flashback squeamish or the flashback junkie.

  1. Try the story without it. Flashbacks are like that jerk wide receiver on a football team; only keep him around if the team can’t win without him.  If it takes three guys together to take his place, do it and get rid of the bad influence.
  2. Make the flashback work harder. Parts of a story propel plot, character, backstory, milieu, ideas…the flashback should do it all.  It should be the tightest part of the story, doing more work than any other comparably long section of the story.
  3. Be proud of your flashback. If you’re ashamed of any line in it, toss that line or fix it.  There are people out there who believe that every flashback is bad.  They are wrong, but giving them ammo to deflate your flashback is going to cause doubt.  Be confident in your whole story, but especially the flashback.
  4. Don’t make the story about the flashbacks. Memento was a clever film.  Once.  Flashbacks should serve the story.  You never want the attention in a story to be drawn to the writing; you want it drawn to the story.  If your flashbacks are about style, you’re asking for trouble.
  5. All rules are made to be broken…if you have a great reason. Punctuation, spelling, syntax, continuity, all have rules that are worth breaking for effect and cause.  Know the rules and break only when it’s beneficial to the story.  If you don’t know why you chose to break the rule, don’t break it.  The same goes for these.

Besides, these are my rules that I made for my stories, not yours.  So go make your own rules.  And do it in pen, just to change things up.  You’ll love it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Clint permalink
    November 7, 2010 4:54 pm


    Just saw your picture in Locus magazine with a writeup of Writers of the Future 26 winners. Not sure if you knew but its a large article and a high quality pic. One you would surely want a few copies of, eh?

    Also, I too write my hand. I think it’s because it slows you down. Also because you feel a little more free since you’re writing on lined paper or whatever and its not the white screen with blinking cursor. IT WORKS! I do it when I have a free moment at work and I do it in my plot germ notebook. With the babies and the wife I don’t always get the writing time I need. So this way I’m taking it and its that extra motivation. Plus longhand looks and feels so pretty its just fun all around. Beware, it will slow you down! So maybe reserve it for the starts of stories or the parts where you know you have trouble.

    Also strange, I’ve been writing this story. it will not leave me alone. I felt I needed flashbacks but its a nono never do it ESPECIALLY in a short, right? Well, the story is going to leave short story space anyways, and without the flashback it pretty much sucks all the feeling from the backstory dry. I rewrote a scene that later became a flashback about five times and never liked it and it kept killing the story. Finally when I went back and wrote it with the flashback the story came back to life. also don’t like the story unless I start it where it is.

    Best regards and stay in touch.


    • Scott W. Baker permalink*
      November 7, 2010 5:28 pm

      I just bought my subscription to Locus a couple days ago, so I won’t likely get that issue. (October?) I haven’t seen the article, though I’ve surely seen that picture before. If an issue found its way to my mailbox, I wouldn’t turn it away. 🙂

      As for flashbacks, my flashback is in a short story. It couldn’t be helped. The plot virtually demands it. It’s a “you can’t go home again” theme in a space opera setting and crossed with a “you can’t hide from fate” theme. A past event had to be revealed and there was a convenient unconscious moment right where the reveal belonged. Flashback. No other choice, really. We’ll soon see if editors agree.

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