Normally Fridays bring you book reviews on Writing to be Read, but as often happens, life got in the way last week and I don’t have a review ready today. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of reviews for today’s authors. You see a lot of hubbub on social media these days asking for reviews, and it’s one of the top goals for authors, in part because acquiring reviews has become one of the biggest difficulties today’s author faces. First, let’s look at how reviews can help authors, and then we’ll look at why they are so darn hard to get.
So, what’s all the fuss about? Why do author’s even need reviews? What good are they?
In the world of digital publishing, it’s not sales numbers that puts your book at the top of the best seller lists, but the buzz which surrounds it. Reviews drive books to the top, or not. But, even poor reviews are helpful to authors. I know that doesn’t sound right, but it’s true. Author and freelance writer DeAnna Knippling explains it well:
“Amazon’s algorithms are not human, do not have feelings, and don’t actually understand that you’ve just been torn in two by a critical review. What those algorithms see, as far as anyone can tell… is that someone read your book.
“In my opinion, indie writers should treat all stars as good stars. Total stars = success #1.
“Second, indie writers should worry about their average star rating. Higher average = success #2.
“Third, indie writers should worry about their average rating being too universally positive, an indication that reviews were either begged, borrowed or stolen. Variety of star ratings, (obviously heavier on the 4\5 ratings) = success #3.
“Forth, although maybe this should be higher, indie writers should be worried about reviewers going on to buy similar books to yours. If your book is bought and possibly liked by people who normally buy that kind of book, it will be shown more often to people who buy that kind of book. Also bought = success #4. ”
So, reviews not only boost your book up on the best seller lists, but they also direct the audience who views it, which theoretically, can boost your sales. That’s why I post my reviews, or at least a portion of them, on both Amazon and Goodreads. Amazon doesn’t always allow my reviews to stand because I’m not a verified sale. (I do my reviews in exchange for ARC copies.) However, Goodreads even allows me to include a link back to the original review here on Writing to be Read. If an author requests it, I will also post their review on Smashwords, B&N, or any other site that carries their book, if I’m able. After all, the reason I do what I do is to help out my fellow authors. The rules placed by the different sites on who can post a review and what can be posted can be daunting, but they can be worked around.
Something else I have run into is getting people to download my book, even when it’s free. I offer a free ebook of my paranormal mystery, Hidden Secrets, when you sign up for my monthly newsletter. I’m getting people to sign up, but for reasons I don’t understand, not many are claiming their freebie. I’m not sure why this is, but I know other authors who have experienced the same thing. If you can’t get people to read your book for free, how do you expect to get them to pay for it? And then, if you do get them to read the book, how do you get them to take the time to go back and leave a review?
To find out what problems other authors have in acquiring reviews for their books and learning what works, I did an informal poll of authors that I know, and here is what I found out:
Jordan Elizabeth: Getting reviews is hard. I don’t think I’ve only had 1 or 2 people ever leave a review after purchasing. I’ve tried blog tours, but haven’t had good luck. The best way for me is to seek out blogs and send a personal email.
Tom Johnson: It’s hard to get reviews. I sell a lot of books, but few receive reviews. Readers just don’t want to write them. The easiest way is to sign up for a Blog Tour (there are many tours available, but they charge). However, you will get reviews on the Tour. I review books, and would be interested in reading the first Oracle novel.
Amy Cecil: I have my own personal ARC TEAM, that starts the reviews when a book releases, then I have bloggers and the rest trickle in.
1) ask friends and people you have been in contact with lately and kindly ask them if they would read and review your novel.
2) engage with possible audience in social media and ask them for reviews in exchange for free giveaways.
3) contact students and people who are new in the area and ask if they would be willing to do it.
4) I have been advised and therefore passing it on “never buy reviews” – readers do know it’s fake news lol.
5) last but not least, patiently wait for surprises and if they do not come, keep no worries Shakespeare had no reviews as all the other masters (lol).
There doesn’t seem to be any clear cut answers. I can remember when the only people who wrote reviews were columnist, who wrote for the newspapers and magazines, and that’s the only place that you found them. But the industry is changing and now days customers want to hear from customers who bought before them before they buy, so that’s who writes, or doesn’t write reviews, and they appear on every book distribution site where they are available.
Although it sounds as if Amy Cecil might have something going with her ARC TEAM, many authors struggle as much to get reviews as they do to make sales. I don’t see anything wrong with simply requesting folks to read your book and write a review, but it appears this methods lends only minimal results. There are reviewers such as myself out there, but finding them isn’t always easy,
Something I’ve seen in recent ebooks I’ve read is an appeal to the reader at the end of the book, asking them to write a quick review before putting the book down for another. It seems to me that this reminder is strategically placed to catch the reader’s eye just as they finish the story, requesting the review while the tale is still fresh in their minds. It might just work.
As authors, we should be reading as a part of our pre-writing preparations, saturating our brains with whatever genre we plan to write in, as well as factual research for nonfiction or historical works. As authors, we also know that reviews truly are important, so take the time to write a review for every book you read. It may take me a while to get my reviews posted on sites in addition to my blog, but I do eventually get them there. Reviews don’t have to take long to write. A couple of sentences and a star rating will do. But write the review.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Every year at this time I look back and so a review of what was published on Writing to be Read and my writing life. 2017 has been pretty eventful for both me and Writing to be Read, so this year I’m particularly excited about this look back. But, I’m also excited to get out my crystal ball and warm up my psychic abilities as we take a look forward that comes as we start the new year, because I think there may be some exciting things in store.
There were so many things that happened for me in 2017. In April, my western novel, Delilah was published by Dusty Saddle Publishing, which of course, is exciting. Delilah hasn’t done too bad on sales, but it didn’t make the best seller list. It has received some really excellent reviews, and is rated with four stars on Amazon. Although it may not be a huge success, for me it was a hard earned accomplishment, but the reward came the day I received my first royalty check. Yep, I’ve got royalties. Isn’t that the final proof that I’m a writer, at last?
I do have folks inquiring about a second novel, and for those who are wondering, Book 2 is in the working. My crystal ball tells me that it will be published sometime in the coming year, only this book, I may publish myself and skip the publisher as middle man. I’m having a time getting the sales data, and what I do have makes it appears as if what sales I do have, have been the results of my own marketing efforts, so I’m not seeing the benefit of sharing my royalties with a publisher, when I can do about everything they have done for me. In addition, mid-year the rather generic cover the publisher provided for the book was replaced by a cover that fits the story better, done for me by Sonoran Dawn Studios, which I am much happier with.
In addition I had two short stories published in 2017 by Zombie Pirates Publishing. The first, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” came out on August 1, in their science fiction anthology The Collapsar Directive. The story is a futuristic dystopian tale with just a touch of humor, in a world where productivity is high, but you’re only allowed to be happy on the weekend.
The second story, “The Devil Made Her Do It”, just came out the 15th of this month in their Crime Romance anthology, Relationship Add Vice. It’s a tale about the crazy things we do for love and a girl, Betty Lou Dutton, who leaves hereself open to be taken advantage of and ends up taking the rap. My fortune telling abilities see Zombie Pirates in my future for the coming year, as well. I submitted a little flash fiction story for consideration in their Full Metal Horror anthology. Wish me luck.
The really big thing that happened for me in 2017, or at least I think it’s big, is a landed an adjunct position teaching ENG102:Academic Writing at Western State Colorado University, my Alma Mater. Let me tell you, it has been a crazy ride. I got the position due to a last minute opening, when a scheduled lecturer was unable to teach for health reasons, which was unfortunate for the scheduled lecturer, but very fortunate for me. We got it all figured out and I was hired five days before classes started, so that’s how long I had to restructure both classes to be hybrid classes and figure out how to teach a method of writing I knew nothing about. It was a rocky start, and to be honest, I think I confused many of my students at first, because I was unsure myself, but as the semester moved forward, I gained more solid footing in the classroom, and the students began to figure it out, too. I have now successfully made it through a whole semester, teaching two hybrid courses and it feels great. I know I can do it and I have some experience teaching in a University setting, so I know there will be more teaching jobs in the coming year. My crystal ball is a little blurry in this area, but I know last minute stuff happens all the time, so who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back at Western.
As for Writing to be Read, I’ve had an exciting year there, too. At the beginning of the year, I my friend Robin Conley helped me do a total overhaul of the site, and in August my friend DL Mullan of Sonoran Dawn Studios helped to redesign it. The results are what you see here now, but they were a long time in coming. I’ve added my website right here on the blog and you can reach the different sections by clicking on the tabs across the top to learn about my published poetry and fiction, my westerns, my Playground for the Gods series, or Write it Right Editing. Writing to be Read also gained some great talent in 2017, Robin Conley with her Weekly and Monthly Writing Memos, and Jeff Bowles with his Pep Talks and his God Complex posts, and I am thankful for benefit of their content for the short time they were with me. Unfortunately, life carries folks in different directions and both of these fine writers are no longer able to share their expertise and wisdom with us and I don’t foresee them rejoining us in 2017.
What my crystal ball does show me, is that Writing to be Read has grown in readership over the past year, and I feel it is due to the great and consistant content posted not only by myself, but by Robin and Jeff, as well. Most recently, the content has been almost non-existant, because I’ve had to focus on the classroom and I’ve discovered grading essays takes a lot of time. I don’t think the drop in content from losing my team members or from my not having the time to devote that I should have hurt my numbers yet, but I do foresee such a possibility if the lack of content continues.
In this realm, my crystal ball shows me something very interesting. I see new members of the Writing to be Read team and really great content in the coming year. In fact, a call for action is going out with this post, right now. If you are a writer who feels you might have something to contribute and you’d like to be on the Writing to be Read team, I want to hear from you. Shoot me an email at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com telling me what type of contribution you would like to make and how often you’d like to make it. I’m pretty flexible, so let’s talk.
In years past, I have given a rundown of all the posts throughout the year and which were viewed the most or which got the highest numbers of comments or likes, however that makes for a very lengthy, boring post, so this year I’m only giving you the most interesting facts. For instance, over the past year Writing to be Read has had viewers from the across the globe. The highest number of views coming from U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, India and Mexico. It’s top referrer is Facebook, which doesn’t really make me happy, since I’m kind of peeved at Facebook at the moment, but I’ll take my viewers wherever I can get them.
The month to receive the most views was July, with my interview with writer, poet and cover designer Dawn Leslie Mullan being the hightest viewed post. Next up was a “Pep Talk” from Jeff Bowles, “I Think We Need a Break”, and third highest was my post, “An Adventure in Social Media Marketing“. The post that received the most viewed over the whole year was my post titled, “How Do You Measure Success?” which I wrote after signing the contract for Delilah. The second highest views overall were received by “Ah! Sweet Rejection“, which I wrote, oddly enough, after recieving a rejection for Delilah. The third highest was Robin Conley’s “Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is Everything“.
Looking ahead to 2018, my crystal ball says it’s going to be a good year. I hope it’s right. I guess only time will tell. So until then…
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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)
A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.
Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:
This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.
Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:
This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.
Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:
Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.
Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.
This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.
Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)
When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.
Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:
When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.
Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2
When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.
Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:
This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.
The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.
Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)
This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Distinguishing Between the Two:
Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening? To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.
If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.
Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.
One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.
Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:
There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.
A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.
Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.
Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.
Every month in this space, author Jeff Bowles offers advice for young and struggling writers. No one ever said becoming a first-rate storyteller is easy. This is the Pep Talk.
So let’s assume you’re a dedicated writer. Or at least you want to be, which is why you’ve decided to come back to your craft after months or even years of not writing a single word. Perhaps life got in the way. Maybe you got married, had kids, made the choice to focus on your family and career first. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? We all have the ability to pursue our dreams whole-heartedly or to lay them aside when more important things come along.
The truth is you’re not alone. Almost by definition, writing is a solitary and thankless job. Becoming motivated and staying that way can be tough, and if you’ve got other responsibilities and obligations in your life—and all of us have—setting aside time for yourself and your work can be a huge chore.
Several years ago, I was feeling the crunch in just this way. I’d gotten married, had bought a new home, and I was working a job that was financially stable but not personally gratifying in any way, shape or form. Many days I’d pick at one of my short stories over my cafeteria lunch, praying for the day I could dedicate myself to my writing and leave the confines of corporate America for good.
It’s often been noted that many great authors throughout history have had to suffer dead-end jobs on their way to literary nirvana. Writing is a for-passion proposition for the vast majority of us. We do it because we are compelled.
But what happens when you aren’t feeling compelled? What happens when all your desire dries up and the thought of putting words on the page fills you with dread? Further, what happens after you’ve already taken a long break? Is it possible to pick up where you left off?
Of course it is. Momentum is momentum, and when people pursue their dreams with everything they’ve got, the universe conspires to bring their stars into alignment. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re tired. Most writers I know have come to that place at least once or twice in their careers. When I was just starting to learn the craft, it seemed to happen to me at least once a week.
“I’m never writing another word! These people don’t appreciate my talent, and anyway, I’d much rather pursue things that aren’t so damn frustrating!”
So maybe you grumble and walk away from your computer and promise yourself you’ll never tell another story as long as you live. Your intentions here don’t actually matter that much, because like smoking or eating premium New York-style pizza, writing has a way of getting under your skin.
In truth, when we come to the point of extreme frustration, of no forward momentum, often the best thing we can do for ourselves is offer a little humility and compassion and allow the work to falter. This might not be a popular perspective, but from a holistic standpoint, it’s the correct one. Frustration in a creative field signals burnout, which is most often caused by internal factors like unrealistic expectations and uncontrolled anxiety. When you add publishing contracts and money into the mix—as all of us one day desire to do—it can make matters worse.
The good news is that the human animal is ever changing. No really, that’s the good news. We are not static beings. You never know who you’re going to be from one day to the next, let alone one month, year, or decade to the next. Imagine your surprise when after a long hiatus you discover you still like writing. What’s more, you’re not the same person now, and your work seems to reflect this new maturity. Hell, sometimes we just run out of ideas and need some distance in order recharge the batteries, right?
Some will tell you stopping is the worst thing you can do. A rolling stone gathers no moss. I might have done so myself a few years ago when I was stuck at that crappy job. I’d have been wrong, though. The intellect and creative mind are not eternal well-springs. They do not flow on command at all times, and they can run dry when pushed too hard.
Here’s a little test for you. Tell me the last piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry you wrote to completion. Was it difficult to finish? I mean, more so than usual (let’s be honest, writing is seldom easy—if it were, everyone would do it). Did you find thoughts and ideas hard to come by? Did the notion of hauling yourself to the computer one more damn time make a compelling case for alcoholism?
See, we come to these brick walls precisely because the act of creating meaning and order from abstract symbols (or writing, in the common tongue) is not a natural fit for our freeform, emotional minds. Given the choice, we’d spend our lives daydreaming—many of us do anyway. We come to this craft with the highest of hopes, our expectations completely untempered, like a piece of nascent steel. Time separates the tourists from the devout. Disappointment is the rule rather than the exception. Is it any wonder we need to hit the brakes sometimes?
Here’s what I’d like you to do the rest of the day. Don’t write, even if you were expecting to. Rather, choose an activity that’s bound to depress you. Count up all your rejection letters, read something you wrote five years ago, look up your publishing stats, and yes my friends, read them and weep. Stop telling yourself you’ve almost made it, just one more story, just one lucky break. This is a trust experiment, gut-check time. Have you chosen this craft because it will make you famous? Are you more interested in seeing your name in print than in revising a single piece of fiction until your fingers bleed?
You are more interested in that? Well you’re the strange one, aren’t you? Everybody knows writing is never thankless, is always a laugh riot, and makes you feel good every single day of your otherwise bleak life.
Writing sucks sometimes, people! It just does. We all know it, and if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need to make peace with it sooner or later. You need to realize this is a long game. I mean a looooooong game. You will get burned out, probably more than once. You will feel the need to quit, and you might even hate yourself because you gave up better opportunities along the way.
Be kind to yourself, please. You aren’t alone. You’re a writer because you can’t quit. It isn’t in your DNA. You should be more trusting; have some damn faith. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, admitting you’re helpless in the face of your need to tell stories. Taking a break is not giving up, it’s just taking a break. You may notice when at last you return that your skills have atrophied somewhat, that you’re a bit rustier than you’d like. That’s okay. You had to start somewhere way back when, and really, nobody forgets how to write.
Jump start that mind, warm up with some finger exercises, write a piece of flash fiction to get the ball rolling, but know that your choice to rest up was made in service to yourself. Let’s just call it an act of love. After all, you know yourself best. You’re not a machine, as much as you’d like to be.
It’s a mind game sometimes. It’s a battle of will. But one does not cease to be a writer just because one ceases writing. We are who we are, enjoy what we enjoy, are passionate about that which nourishes our souls and allows us to feel free.
Far from feeling free, do you feel like your writing has become a prison? Then take some time off, dudes and dudettes! That’s an order! Sheesh!
Until next time, folks.
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ
Flashbacks are something that go in and out of style as time passes. For a time you’ll see them used left and right in books and films, and it’ll feel like they’re everywhere. Then someone, somewhere, decides they’re forbidden and amateurish and you’ll hear whispers about how you should never use a flashback and they’re “lazy writing.”
In reality, what happens is the same thing that happens with any other writing technique. Someone uses it incredibly well and then a crop of other writers pop up and use the same technique with a hit or miss result. Eventually it becomes overused, and often poorly used, and people begin dreading seeing the writing technique because they’ve seen it done so poorly so often. Then someone uses it amazingly well again and the cycle starts over.
So when it comes to flashbacks, when can you use them, and more importantly, how can you use them well?
If your story has a lot of groundwork to lay such as character development or world development, it can often be useful to open with a flashback scenario. If your story really starts with a key event sometime in the past, but then nothing happens for 20 years, then again, starting with a flashback might be useful. A recent example of this is “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. It starts with a flashback on Earth. It’s not a particularly eventful scene, but it lays the foundation for a huge plot reveal later on and sets the tone for what this movie will be about – Quill’s dad. If you’re going to start with a flashback, or start in the present and then use a flashback for the crux of the story, then there are a few key reasons to do so.
- You have a slow opening and need to create tension to buy yourself time with the audience and create suspense. A lot of horror movies do this option to build suspense. Start with a big murder and then everything is calm for 20 minutes until the murderer returns. It creates suspense and puts the audience on edge, waiting for the next attack that could come at any moment.
- A major event happens far in the past and you need to establish it in order to set the tone or plot for the story to come. A lot of fantasy and science fiction stories do something like this for world building to show how we got to the world we have today. Sometimes it comes in flashback with a voice over summary (like “Lord of the Rings” talking about the Ring’s history in the beginning).
- A character defining moment happened in the past and it directly ties to what your story is about. A lot of these kinds of flashbacks are used in dramas where something major happens when the protagonist is a kid – maybe a key phrase is said to them – and then as an adult they are learning the truth of that phrase.
Another common use of flashbacks is to reveal memories of the protagonist. These can be recent or distant memories, but they usually have some relation to the plot or character development the protagonist is dealing with. Some examples include:
- The character meets someone they knew in the past and had a major event or experience with. An example of this is when a grown up individual meets their childhood bully and we see a scene of how the two interacted. Another could be if you have a protagonist gathering a group together. You might see flashbacks that establish the relationship with each of the group or their skills (like in many military or action movies when a group is brought together). The purpose of this type of memory flashback is to establish the new person’s character quickly, as well as often to establish that character’s relationship with the protagonist.
- A major event from the present connects with a major event from the past for the protagonist. An example of this is, let’s say, if a character discovers a family secret they might see flashbacks of all the things they saw as a child that didn’t make sense suddenly be given new meaning with this secret revealed. If you’ve seen those short YouTube videos going around Facebook where the son discovers the father he thought was lazy and poor was doing something special all those years that the son didn’t know about, it’s a great example of this. Once the son discovers the father’s secret, we see flashbacks that put everything the son saw in context.
- Another example of the memory from the past connecting to the present can be if something from the past is the foundation for a character – such as life advice they were told or something. Many times you’ll find in films and movies the character hears a phrase when they’re young that they didn’t completely understand and then during the film while they’re older something happens that makes them understand this. Often you’ll see a flashback in the film or story showing you the character receiving this advice.
One of the most common uses for flashbacks is in mystery or suspense type movie and stories. In these stories it is imperative to create suspense and leave questions unanswered for a time. There are numerous ways flashbacks are used in mystery stories, but a few include:
- Evidence reveals where the protagonist or another character finds the evidence that is involved in the crime and the audience gets a flashback of how the evidence is related to the crime.
- The bad guy reveal. Often times once the bad guy is discovered there is a reveal that shows him committing the crime and how he got away with it, as well as numerous dishonest or secretive things the bad guy has done since then.
- The detective reveal. This is a common trick used in stories like the TV show “Leverage” or many Sherlock Holmes stories where there is a reveal to show how the con artist or Detective pieced everything together. In “Leverage” it is used to show how the team managed to make the bad guy think he was winning when the crew had the upper hand the whole time. In Detective stories it’s used to show the moment the detective found each key piece of evidence that led them to their brilliant conclusion at the end, which solved the crime.
The key with any flashback used is that it’s 100% necessary for the story. If you could remove the flashback and the tone, character, and plot doesn’t change in the story, then it’s probably unnecessary. If you can show the events that span between the flashback and present in the story, and they add to the story, then it probably shouldn’t be a flashback and should just be part of the story.
Whenever you’re considering using a flashback, just ask yourself what it adds to the plot, character, and tone of the story and make your decision from there. Does it add tension? Does it put your audience in suspense so you can slow things down before a big event? Does it develop your character in a way that can’t be done otherwise? Does it lay foundation for the plot to come? Or does the flashback add unnecessary length and detail to the story? As long as you’ve analyzed your use of the flashback properly, and you’re positive it serves a purpose, then you should be okay to use one. But as with anything else, use them sparingly and deliberately.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice in her Monthly Memo on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.