Monday, October 19, 2009

Editing Fiction, Part Two by Jeanne Marie Leach

This Manuscript Monday, please welcome back Jeanne Marie Leach to finish her two-part series on editing fiction. This week: flashbacks.

Part Two
by Jeanne Marie Leach

Part two of two – The first chapter - FLASHBACKS

It is not a good idea to start a book with back-story; otherwise the reader becomes confused when the author suddenly jumps into the present. If the story must begin with a flashback, perhaps it would best as a prologue, or the story may benefit from actually beginning back at the point in time where the author feels it necessary to tell us about.

Flashbacks are a good way to tell the reader more about the character’s motivation, but they should be used only when the scene is slowing down – never in the middle of tension. They stop the action. If it works, that’s good; otherwise, get rid of it.

There are a couple lines of thinking when it comes to back story these days. Some think it is best to NEVER use back story in the main section of the book. They maintain that anything from the past that must be made known can be interspersed in small snippets throughout the story.

Others think back story is just fine, but all agree that there should never be more than a page of back story at a time.

When using back story, use past perfect tense at the first sentence or two, and then go to regular past tense. For example:

Jane leaned against the window, flashes of John running through her mind. She remembered the day he brought her there.

John had just bought that flashy, blue sports car, and had apparently wanted the whole neighborhood to know it. He had driven up to Jane’s parent’s house and honked the horn loud and long to get everyone’s attention.

“All right! We know you’re here!” she called from her upstairs bedroom window.

“Come on down and I’ll give you a ride.”

She did his bidding and soon they were driving through the streets of the city.

“Where are we going?” Jane asked when he turned off the highway onto a rocky lane on the outskirts of town.

“You’ll see.”

Jane watched trees, wildflowers and tall grasses that had never seen a lawnmower as they sped by the landscape. They drove up to a small, two-story white house with an equally white picket fence. She held her breath. This was it! Their dream home!

Now, twenty years later, she couldn’t imagine herself living anywhere else. The rooms held so many memories of a life they’d built together. This old house spoke of John everywhere she looked, and it comforted her.

In the above scene, the first and last paragraphs are written to show what is actually happening now in the story. They are written in third person past tense. The rest is considered back-story or a flashback. Note in the second paragraph the tense is past perfect and uses ‘had’ to denote that this section is going back even further in time.

Then from the third paragraph until the last, I reverted back to the same tense as the first paragraph, even though we are still in the flashback. You don’t need to use ‘had’ through the entire flashback, as it would bog down the scene with unnecessary words.

Jeanne Marie Leach lives in the mountains of Colorado with her husband of 35 years and their two, large Alaskan Malamutes. She is a published author of Christian historical romance novels, newsletters, and articles, and is a full-time freelance editor. She has successfully helped unpublished Christian writers since 2002. Five have won Christian writing awards, and most are now published authors. Her editing specialties are Christian fiction novels and short stories, and she has been a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) since 2000. She teaches a workshop for beginning writers and editors on Editing Fiction. For more information, visit Jeanne Marie Leach at her Web site.

* Much of the material used in this lesson is taken from Writing Basics for Beginners, by Jeanne Marie Leach, copyright 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.


  1. Thank you for visiting, Jeanne!


  2. Hi, Jeanne!

    When to use flashbacks and just how much backstory to include can be so confusing for people. Thanks for visiting and providing helpful tips. :-)



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