The Flashback Quagmire

Today’s entry in the first page critique roundtable brings up the issue of flashbacks. Let’s have a look, and then we’ll talk.
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Bobby was at a dead sprint when the first bullet hit him in the kidney. He went down hard face first on the concrete and fought to catch his breath. He’d never been in so much pain, but the adrenaline coursing through him forced him to his knees and back to his feet. He was bleeding badly, and his breath came in ragged gasps. He knew he was about to die but couldn’t bring himself to stop running.
The rotted corpse of Holy Cross High School, vacant for decades, loomed in front of him. If he could reach the school he might be able to hide from the men hunting him and die in relative peace. God only knew what they had in mind for him if they caught him.
Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. He knew he’d be easy to track with the amount of blood he was losing. He was growing light headed and his vision was clouding. He was struck by a sudden sadness at the thought of never seeing his family again, and wished he’d listened to his father when he told him to stay the hell out of New Orleans.
Hours earlier, Bobby was laughing and drinking beer in Johnny White’s bar on Bourbon Street. A natural extrovert, he did his best to keep a low profile but he couldn’t help chatting up some of the more attractive clientele. He never even noticed the young guy with a buzz cut watching him from across the bar.
The buzz cut didn’t miss a trick. He watched Bobby drink several beers, make time with a couple of vacationing coeds, and then settle his tab with a Kennedy half dollar. He made a note of the bartender’s name, and debated whether to include it in his After Action Report. It was handy to know who did business with freebooters in New Orleans, after all.
As Bobby was leaving the bar, the buzz cut bumped into him and apologized. It never occurred to Bobby that the stranger who bumped him planted an infrared tracking device on him. From then it was just a matter of time.
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Let me say a couple of things about the first three paragraphs.
Our POV character in this scene is Bobby. And he’s been shot. He’s on the run. We have a chance, then, to become bonded to Bobby and his plight right away.
That’s why I need to feel a bit more of the pain and fear in Bobby. Right now I’m a little “outside” the action. Part of that is do to this passive construction: Another shot was fired, but didn’t hit him. We need to be in Bobby’s head. He heard another crack. Asphalt splattered in front of him. Etc.
It’s not enough to have an action opening. It’s what the action feels like to the character that’s essential. 
You’ve got a potentially arresting hook here, but for it work to the max we need that POV “heat.” See John G.’s post on Friday. Play the scene in your mind several times as if you were Bobby, then re-write it.
Okay, so now you’ve got this guy being shot at, chased and then . . . flashback!
Ahhhh!
Don’t do this. I know it feels like a little “teaser” but to the reader it’s more like a “cheater.” It’s too obvious you’re manipulating them by inserting a flashback to create an artificial cliffhanger.
So here’s a rule (even for people who say there are no rules in writing): No flashbacks in the first fifty pages! When you put in a flashback too soon it stops the action cold and jars the reader. It pulls them right out of the fictive dream you’ve been weaving. (Note, I am not talking here about a “frame story,” where we begin in the present then have the bulk of the book take place in the past. That’s another matter entirely.)
Also, you’re using an omniscient POV in the flashback. If Bobby never even noticed the young guy with the buzz cut, the only one who can see him is the author. This removes us further from Bobby. Keep the POV “hot” even in flashback scenes.
Now, what about flashbacks later in your fiction? Remember, by definition they stop the action, so you’d better have a very good reason for using one (e.g., essential character background info that is so crucial you need to dramatize it).
And if you do use a flashback it needs to stand alone as a scene, with all the sensory description and intensity of a scene from the main plot line.
Flashbacks. Handle with care. But in the opening chapters, don’t handle them at all.
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Speaking of getting more emotional heat into your characters, that will part of My “Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” coming up June 4 & 5 in Los Angeles. 
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Flashback to the future

By Joe Moore

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a  current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a past event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.

One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.

As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .

In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.

Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.

In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.

One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first few chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether.

What do you think about flashbacks? Do you use them in your writing? As a reader, do they work for you? Are flashbacks a necessary evil or a solid writing tool?

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