5 MistaKes Amaeture Writer's Make

Monday, March 9, 2009
Note: these are not in order. *

1. Flashbacks*: General rule: don't use them.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. I would strongly warn against using any kind of flashback in the first 50 pages of your novel. Writers use flashbacks as a crutch when their story is limping along. Some examples:

A. The author finds himself needing to sketch their character's childhood. If you need us to know her father was an alcoholic, let her cringe at the smell of alcohol on a man's breath, her fear as she worries that he will hurt her--just like her father did (anytime you jerk your character to another time and place, you risk loosing the reader's interest).

B. Your character relives some important moment in there past. If it's so incredibly important, why doesn't the story start there? Seriously. If you can't live without it, change the timeline of your story so that it happens at the beginning. For instance, Luke Skywalker's childhood is shown to us near the beginning of the movie instead of having a flashback later.

So, when do flashbacks work? Again, this is tricky. When they work, they just work. Understand, using flashbacks is tricky and risky. Be warned.

2. Writing what I call the Description Pattern: describe scene, describe character (including flashbacks), describe conflict, and finally, begin story. The writer feels he needs to set up his readers in time, place, and situation before starting the story.

In essence, this is telling instead of showing . Start the story when your character becomes involved with the conflict. Show us your time, place, and situation by the characters interaction with it (She squinted as the sun blazed over the choppy, black waters.) Show us what she looks like (She absently tucked her frizzy blonde hair behind her ears). Weave these elements in the conflict instead of delivering them in chunks.

3. Poor Writing. Unbalanced writing (using too much description, using too many adverbs, show versus tell . . . ). I’ve written about this earlier, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. (http://amberargyle.blogspot.com/search?q=how+do+I+know+if+it%27s+publishable
And http://amberargyle.blogspot.com/search?q=how+do+I+know+if+it%27s+publishable

4. Overkill and Wordiness. New writers have a tendency to describe a situation 5 different ways because they’re not sure they’ve made their point. Have you ever read a book and thought, “Okay! I get it! Can we stop now!” That’s when you know you’ve had overkill. A good example is showing us what our character is like, then telling us, and in case we haven’t figured it out yet, give us a flashback. If that’s not enough, we’ll tell you all over again with different language. Another is the following sentence: Janet petulantly stuck her tongue out of her mouth. (In case your wondering, “petulantly” and “out of her mouth” should be cut).

5. Bad story. There are a million different things that can go wrong with a story. Starting it in the wrong place, sagging middle, abrupt ending, weak conflict, unidentifiable characters . . . There are entire books on the subject. I suggest you read at least 5.

*This post is about writing, as opposed to querying. That’s a whole different ballgame.
*Flashbacks are different from prologues. Prologues have their own benefits and risks. I'll try going over them later.


  1. Marty said...:

    Amber, I was wondering if you meant to us the word "Amateur" in you post heading but I may be mistaken. The heading (as it is) drew me into reading this insightful post. Thanks!

  1. Glad you liked it. I actually did mean to spell it wrong. I hoped it might add some humor--in addition to the fact that I can't spell. :)

  1. Amber --

    I am currently chatting with Marty about all of this flashback business. Another friend of mine spoke with a famous published author friend of hers, and he said that one of the worst mistakes newbie writers make is to use flashbacks at the beginning of their story.

    I agree. And I don't agree.

    I think every instance is unique. My first novel must use flashbacks, but I don't think they should be there at the beginning as I have them at the moment.

    My second novel also contains a flashback in the beginning. I removed it a few days ago, and the chapter works much better now. Although the action of the story begins in the flashback, I don't start the novel there for many reasons. It is a parallel story that I reveal through the novel. It seems to work best this way, but now I'm second guessing myself.

    This is a great, informative post. I'm going to be doing a post on flashbacks in a few days. It's something I've been thinking about for awhile. Such a complex subject.

  1. Josi said...:

    I agree that flashbacks at the start is almost always BAD, BAD, BAD. And I generally don't like flashbacks, but there are times when it does work--but it's only about 10% of time, most of the time the flashback is something the author enjoys at the readers expense

  1. Yep--you've got 8 entries! Good luck!

    (Great list of writing mistakes.)

  1. lotusgirl said...:

    So many good points. The flashback thing is something Glam and I have been talking about lately. You make some excellent points there. Nice to meet you.

  1. Tana said...:

    I agree on all points. If there is a flashback scene in a book I tend to gloss over it.

  1. I am going to be starting rewrites soon, so reading this post was really well-timed for me. I will definitely keep all five of your points in mind!

  1. great post; i'm not much into flashbacks, personally, but i've definitely read some authors who have the skill down pat so that it doesn't pull me out of the scene. in fact, it can deepen understanding of character motivation, etc. I do agree it's distracting when done by those clumsy and fumbling... :)

  1. Dave said...:

    I found this post by following a link that Alex from Adventures in Fictiion put up.

    I've read a novel by a friend of mine who likes to use flashbacks frequently.

    I noticed two things.

    1. The flashbacks did not work well when they interupted the forward movement of the story.

    2. The flashbacks did work when they deepened the meaning of the present action. He had one flashback that was especially great. It was short, but powerful!

    I've just been looking at how dreams can work in fiction. And I noticed that Batman uses a dream as a flashback that sets up the heroes big fear at the very start of the movie. I think it works great and just posted on it. I'd love to hear what you think over on Adventures in Fiction.

  1. I'll head on over, Dave. Thanks for reading.

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