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Using Flashbacks

Using Flashbacks

A Session with Tanya Anne Crosby

“Show, don’t tell!”

Any writer whose been at the craft for any length of time has heard this edict time and again. It sounds easy enough; it’s harder than it seems. But I didn’t learn to recognize this literary sin until I abandoned fiction for a few years and took a job as the editorial director for a stable of parenting magazines in Dallas, Texas. Writing for magazines taught me to write short and to weigh the preciousness of each and every word. In magazines even your white space is orchestrated and the passive voice becomes a deadly sin. Once I became conscious of writing in the active voice vs. the passive voice, this is when I began to naturally “show, not tell.” The instinct to relay information as a flashback was a bit more instinctive.

So let’s flash back! Very early in my career, like most authors, I discovered the dreaded “info dump”—you’ve met these and no doubt given birth to them. They are long stretches of information supplied all at once and usually in narrative form. These are often easy to locate in your story, especially for new writers. An editor once told me, “You can easily lop off your first three chapters and never miss it.” Alas, this was true. When we first sit down to write, long before we open our literary vein, we’re looking for ways to set the stage for the magical tale we’re about to tell. Because we are in love with our story (and I believe we have to be) we need readers to understand why it’s worthy of their attention and why our characters should matter to them. It seems that the only way to do this is to convey all the truly interesting tidbits we’ve pored over in our heads—the hardships of their childhoods, the quandaries they are facing, the sacrifices they have made, etc. Unfortunately, and almost inevitably, this telling happens almost right away in the form of the “info dump.” But, beware, info dumps are not always in the beginning of your story. They can be anywhere, but we also often seen them at the end, where suddenly you need to tie up loose ends. We’ve all seen those B movies (and read the books), where villains suddenly need to unburden themselves to the person they are about to destroy. Of course, they have to confess themselves, because if they don’t, the reader won’t have a clue why they did what they did. It goes something like this: “Let me tell you why I’m going to kill you. It all started way back when, and now you must understand why you have to pay!” So, yes, info dumps can disguise themselves in dialogue as well.

Exercise 1

There are many ways to determine whether or not something belongs in your story and in particular in your first three chapters. Ideally, you want to start a story in the middle of an action, or crossroad. (e.g. They are going somewhere; their lives are changing, they are facing the greatest challenge of their lives.) Something big is happening to this character, or else there wouldn’t be any story at all, right? But if you started your story exactly where you should have and still you suspect the presence of an info dump, this is an easy exercise to exorcise it. Start with your first chapter, read it to yourself (out loud, because this forces you to acknowledge what you’ve written in a far less worshipful mode). As you go along, underline all background information you encounter and write down what question about the story or character it is intended to answer. Once you’ve finished, go through each of the questions. How many times have you repeated the same thing? Remove these. Keep your favorite. Readers get it, usually after the first time, especially in the beginning, so don’t belabor points. Also ask yourself: Is this information necessary for readers to know? If the answer is yes, do they need to know it right now? Or is it something better doled out later in your story? Think of this rich background information as story bait, to be dispensed gently over time, reeling your reader along, with the finesse of an expert fisherman hooking a