Flashbacks - Faux Pas or No?
What are your thoughts on this?? Is it good to use or does it disrupt the writing flow too much? Are there other tactics to use when an author wants to reflect back on a past event?
As long as you're following other "good practices" in writing, flashbacks are an incredibly useful tool. They let you start out "in media res" (in the middle of things), which is a great way to grab the reader's attention, while still allowing you to develop background to your characters and their situations.
It makes it harder for the reader to tell what is going on because the flow of time is no longer proceeding in linear fashion along with the text. This means that you need to spend time and energy making sure the reader understands what is happening in a way that you don't have to when time is smoothly moving forward.
Also, when something is set in the past from the point of view of the main narrative, then it is something that has already happened. The outcome of events can't change the present. At most they can change the reader's understanding of the present and maybe the reader's expectations. So getting the reader to care about the outcome of a past event requires more sophisticated writing than it takes to get the reader to care about events in the present.
Sometimes a flashback can be great, or the course of the narrative means you have to have a flashback. I think it's something that needs to be approached with thought and care if you want to pull it off well, though.
They also take different forms and sizes. Sometimes, they're quick dreams or literal "flashes". Other times, they're entire chapters that take up major portions of the book.
I've also used them in my own writing, and I've gotten different feedback depending on the execution. Readers tend to react badly if the narrative pauses to feed them some "important" information about a character's backstory. I've tried this before, and most readers considered them to be my most boring chapters.
Using dreams to show flashbacks can also feel cliche and overdone. However, readers might be more forgiving if you use the flashback to address a mystery that's been bothering them for a while. Flashbacks are also more interesting if the main character is actively remembering something that will affect him/her in the present. (As opposed to a chapter-long info dump with no context)
Basically, just be aware that many readers will find flashbacks boring, so you'll have to work extra hard to make them care.
The reason it often gets misused is because new writers use something "because I read something somewhere and it was great and I want to do it like that too" or "because it's cool" or some other silly reason. It's not about how it worked with a different story, but how will it work with yours and with your style of writing.
1. The Stone Prince, by Fiona Patton.
This was one where the author seems to have thought it would be really cute to have different chapters within her fantasy novel keep jumping back and forth between two timeframes. The chapters happening "right now," interspersed with the ones happening "about ten years ago." In the "about ten years ago" stuff, we see Demnor, the adolescent son and heir of the female monarch, gradually getting fed up with his mother's arbitrary and tyrannical decisions (as he sees them, anyway) and finally leading a rebellion. Which is soon crushed by the forces still loyal to their rightful sovereign.
The problem is that, within the first couple of chapters that were set in "the present," we had already learned that Demnor had previously rebelled against his mother, that he'd lost hands-down, that he had nonetheless been permitted to retain his status as heir to the throne when he was treated as a prisoner under house arrest for a long time, that part of his punishment had been to temporarily be separated from the teenage boy he loved, but that the two of them were back together now (no longer teenagers, of course), and so on and so forth. Which meant that by the time we "saw" most of those things happening, in a flashback chapter much later in the book in which Demnor loses his battle and is captured to be taken before his mother, it was an anti-climax. We had known all along that his adolescent rebellion was doomed to fail, and that his mother would react in certain ways after it did, but without executing or even disinheriting him . . . so by the time we "see" him lose that battle, and see how she reacts after she has her wayward son at her mercy, it feels like the author is just taking us around and around in circles without telling us anything we hadn't already known for hundreds of pages!
(And the plot resolution in the last bit of the "chapters set in the present" stuff was also lame, albeit for different reasons which had nothing to do with the use or misuse of flashbacks.)
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.
Someone called "Chronicler" encounters a living legend who now runs an inn in an obscure little town. He used to be "Kvothe"; now he goes by "Kote." He wants to leave his exciting past firmly in the past. Chronicler, as you might guess from the name, wants to write down Kvothe's story of what really happened way back when, with all the assassinations and intrigues and high-powered magic and stuff. Get his side of the story recorded for posterity, you know. Meanwhile, some scary "demons" are prowling around in the neighborhood, suggesting that Kvothe's beloved "peace and quiet" may have already reached its expiration date.
Kvothe states it will take three days to tell his story properly. At first, I figured "three days" might mean the next several chapters of a very thick book -- and then we'd get back to the "present" problems -- there's a big war going on somewhere, and the "demons" are still prowling around, and so forth, and that stuff needs to be resolved somehow, right?
We are about 60 pages into the narrative when Kvothe starts talking about his early childhood. And he takes his own sweet time about it. He doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get to the "good stuff" -- i.e. stuff that happened after he was sufficiently aged and well-trained to influence the course of history. I finally skipped ahead a bit and looked at the last few pages of the book. I now realized that the rest of this book, and presumably most of the second and third books, were basically going to be one huge flashback before we finally "caught up" with the characters as they existed in the timeframe of the early chapters.
Apparently Rothfuss wanted the first few chapters to get me interested in finding out what happened in the distant past of the character known as Kvothe. He wanted me so interested that I would then meekly sit still for multiple volumes, and many hundreds of pages, of flashback. Reading along while Kvothe narrated his entire life story, and the various interactions he'd had with lots of people whom I had never heard of in the first 60 pages or so of the book.
That plan misfired in my case. The first few chapters got me very interested in finding out more about Kvothe's present circumstances -- such as what he was going to do about his pressing problems now that he'd been tracked down to the place where he was enjoying lots of well-deserved peace and quiet after a turbulent career. The first few chapters did not get me interested in hearing all about his long-ago childhood in excruciating detail, along with his first encounters, and subsequent social relationships, with a bunch of people whom the first 60 pages had told me nothing about.
See the difference? I still haven't finished reading The Name of the Wind, at least a decade after I bought a copy. Nor have I even glanced at the sequel (the 2nd book of the trilogy). Just now I looked up Patrick Rothfuss on Wikipedia, and confirmed what I suspected: The first book came out in 2007, and the second in 2011, but he still hasn't finished the third book. (Good thing I wasn't holding my breath waiting for it!)
The White Mists of Power, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
This one is a special case: A series of "flashback chapters," mixed in with the "present day chapters," except that we are not told right up front that some of these chapters are flashbacks to several years ago!
In other words: Some of the chapters show us the thoughts of young Prince Adric, heir to the throne, who sneaks out of the royal palace and has some adventures while masquerading as a commoner . . . until he hears the news that Prince Adric has been declared dead. Other chapters show us the adventures of Seymour and Byron, with Seymour as the viewpoint character who thinks there is something very peculiar about his new friend, the bard called Byron. We are not told that Byron, a grown man, is actually the alias that's been taken by Adric after his boyish adventures occurred many years ago. He found it necessary to masquerade as a commoner or else the people who announced his death would make sure he didn't live long enough to prove they were liars.
Note: When I first read the book, I had figured out that "Byron must be Adric" long before the "big reveal," mainly because I saw no other logical explanation for why Byron's presence in the plot would turn out to be so important as Rusch evidently wanted me to think it was, but I still felt it was clunky and dishonest to do it that way, trying to make us think the different chapters, alternating between different sets of protagonists, were not actually jumping back and forth in time at the drop of a hat.
I don't hate flashbacks on principle. As others have already said in this thread, it all depends upon how you use them. But I decided to describe specific examples of where I felt a novelist had used them in ways that ended up frustrating me, rather than entertaining me.
On the other hand, I've also seen people say flashbacks are a big no-no... I personally think if it's the right tool for the sort of story you're telling, then why not use it? There will always be people who have some sort of a disagreement with you, so why not choose what you think works best for you?