How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviewers for my debut Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashback scenes can greatly enhance the story. They can be a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How to use flashbacks in your novel

  • Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
  • Your flashbacks should be relevant to the present time. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. I decided not to show their original break up as a flashback. That backstory is instead told in dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset and annoy your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback.

how to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder length pageboy. She started to reminisce about the past and her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

 She took a few more deep breaths, and as she did the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

Chapter Two

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the wall clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she muttered to herself as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas.

This particular painting was one of those projects that simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it got. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is then well prepared, and even expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I only did so because of the long interval of time between two characters interactions. None of my other novels include flashbacks.

GM

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The Best Search Engines for Novel Writers

Contrary to popular belief, writing fiction isn’t about making things up as we go along. Good fiction writers know their craft. They can easily spend as much time researching their subject matter as they do writing about it. And that can be problematic.

Novel writers sometimes have to research the strangest things. My plotlines, for example, often revolve around crime. That’s because when it comes to creating a good conflict, few subjects work better. And crime isn’t limited to mystery stories. It works well in other genres too. I write contemporary romance, so having a character accused of a crime he or she didn’t commit works well for me.

Now let’s say I’m using that idea for my story. I want it to be believable, so this is where research comes in. However, a Google search on, for example, how many years would you get for armed robbery, could possibly raise some red flags. Google records your IP address and your searches. Google also tracks you around the web. And while police officers would probably enjoy a good read as much as anyone, we don’t anyone getting the wrong idea. After all, that unexpected knock at the door could really ruin your day. This is why we need to do our searches anonymously.

StartPage and GoDuckGo

There are two search engines that you can use for anonymous web searches. Startpage, and GoDuckGo. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

I’ve been using Startpage for years. Startpage works with Google. It doesn’t record your IP address. It also gives you the option of visiting a website anonymously. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t as some websites do not allow anonymous viewing. However, it’s a nice option to have. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t like being tracked after I visit a website.

As much as I like Startpage, it’s far from perfect. As said, Startpage only works with Google, and lately Google has become creepy. They’ve been very outspoken in their commitment to weed out websites whose points of view they happen to disagree with. And that troubles me in many ways. However, I’m going to limit my comments to this. As writers, we can, and should, be able to see ALL points of view on a given subject; not those with whom Google happens to agree with. We’re writers. We can think for ourselves.

Thankfully, there is another anonymous search engine out there. GoDuckGo. I’ve not used it as much as Startpage. However it has one advantage over Startpage. It’s not married to Google. But there is also a disadvantage. GoDuckGo doesn’t allow you the option of visiting a website anonymously.

And there you have it. Neither search engine stores your information, nor do the track you. Both have similar looking homepages. I would recommend using either, or both. Which one you choose, however, is entirely up to you, as there is no wrong answer.

GM

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So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part Two

© Can Stock Photo / swellphotography

In my previous article, So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part One, I talked about how your editor is a fresh pair of eyes to go over your manuscript and give it the polish it needs to become a successful book.

I understand that money is an issue for many of you. But unless you’re one of the very few lucky writers who lands a deal with a traditional publisher, you’ll probably have to invest your own money into producing your book. Typically, a good editor will charge one to two cents per word. So, for an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript, you could be spending $800 to $2000.

I know that’s a lot of money. So you may be tempted to take some shortcuts. My advice? Don’t do it! Asking your friends, your cousin, your spouse or your mom to do your editing may seem like a good alternative. However, if they don’t have experience in journalism, teaching English, or any other professional writing experience, they’re not qualified for the job. You would never your best friend to work on your car if he or she had no experience in auto repair. So why would you ask someone who isn’t qualified to edit your manuscript?

Nowadays anyone with a smartphone can write a manuscript and upload it to Amazon Kindle. The market has been flooded with poorly written books. So do you want four and five star reviews? If so, then you need a  professional book editor. Because nothing will end your writing career faster than a poorly-written book with bad reviews.

GM

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So You Think You Don’t Need an Editor–Part One

© Can Stock Photo/novelo

One comment I often hear from first time authors is, “I don’t need an editor because I do my own editing.”

Really?

Okay, I admit that I resemble that remark. When I wrote my very first book, Anna’s Kitchen, I too thought I didn’t need an editor. In fact, I was such a smart aleck at the time that I thought I knew everything. Never mind the fact that I had never written a book before in my life. As far as I was concerned, the spell checker in my word processing software was all I needed. So how did I do?  Well, you may want to refer to my post titled, Just Add Two Tablespoons of Fate. Sure, I can laugh about it now, but it’s a splendid example of why all authors, especially new authors, must have an editor.

Why every author needs an editor.

An editor is a fresh pair of eyes to go over your manuscript. They give it the added polish it needs to turn it into a great book. They’re not as much concerned about the content of your work as they are the structure. They look for things such as misspelled words, typos, and comma spliced sentences. They also look for dangling participles, incorrect homonyms, redundancy, and the dreaded passive voice. In other words, they fix all the gaffes that you, as a writer, may have overlooked. The reason why you’re not seeing them is because you’re too involved with your own work to see it objectively. This is normal. As human beings, we can’t be objective about ourselves. This is why it’s difficult for us to see our mistakes. It’s the same reason why doctors don’t treat themselves or members of their own families.

Some of you reading this may still be skeptical. Or you may even think your writing skills are so superior that you simply don’t need an editor. If that’s the case, then all I can tell you is writing can be a very humbling experience. There is nothing quite like having your readers point out all your errors for you, and then posting them on an Amazon review for the entire world to see. Once that happens, your credibility as an author is pretty much done, and you can kiss your writing career goodbye.

What do Danielle Steel, James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Dean Koontz all have in common? They all have editors. And if these famous authors all have editors, then what makes you think that you don’t need one?

GM

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Just Add Two Tablespoons of Fate

Anna’s Kitchen was my very first book. I completely produced and published it on my own. I think every author should be required do this at least once. It’s an incredible learning experience. It makes us extremely aware of just how much hard work goes into publishing a book, and why teamwork is so necessary.


Because I was doing it all myself, I had no one to edit or proofread for me. So, I used my spell checker. Big mistake, I know. It’s how I learned, the hard way, that every author must have an editor.


Once the book was printed I found all kinds of errors. One of my friends came across one in a gravy recipe he thought was particularly amusing. It said, “Add two tablespoons of fate.” He laughed and laughed. Then he asked me if it meant that we were supposed to pray over the gravy as it was being prepared. Now mind you, that’s not a bad idea. I pray over the little everyday things in life much more than the big things. In this case, however, it was a typo that the spell checker had missed. The word, “fate” was spelled correctly. But what it should have read was, “add two tablespoons of fat.”


Yes, you need a couple tablespoons of fat if you’re making gravy. However, when it comes to life in general, you might need to add two tablespoons of fate. Just saying.

GM

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