I start my Revolutionary War novel on August 21, 1780, when "boy meets girl." Specifically, the hero is rescued from British captivity by a bunch of guerrillas. One of these guerrillas takes him home to meet his sister.

Shortly after the meeting, I show a flashback to the battle where the hero was wounded and captured, on August 16, 1780, five days before the story "officially" begins. This battle generates the conflict; the hero has had enough of war, while the heroine wants him to join her brother in his successful fight.

A critic felt that this "backstory" was unnecessary. I believe that it is necessary.

How does one determine who's right? And if I'm right, is "flashback" or some other method a good way to present the battle? In a movie, I would present the battle first, because of its "action," but in a novel, I reversed the order and presented the "meeting" first.

5 Answers 5


The determining criteria will be how much information the reader needs. Generally you want to use flashback for a few reasons.

1) Need to know protag and/or context for emotional impact. A battle scene may not make much sense to the reader/viewer if you open with it: Everybody in it is a stranger, the reader doesn't know or symapathize with your character, doesn't even know if she is the hero or villain, doesn't know the cause or stakes of the battle. It is JUST action, and action without stakes or investment can be boring or confusing instead of exciting.

Who are these people and what are they fighting for? To tell them that you would need all kinds of interrupting explanatory BS in the midst of battle, and in movie or book, that is just bad writing. The flashback solves this by letting us get to know the protag for a bit, sympathize with her, and then we have some context in this battle.

2) Need to hide information from reader. This can be similar to reason (1), but we may want to intentionally NOT reveal information that will come out in the battle. In the battle we may reveal the hero we have come to know for a chapter is not exactly who we thought she was. She is lying about her actions in battle, she is not the innocent bystander we thought but a merciless killer, not the soldier following orders but a commander on the field. Or vice versa; she has lied to other characters in the book about her role in the battle or who she is or what she has done.

3) Importance ranking of reveals. This is more of a writing strategy. Whatever first conflict your story opens with is generally more important to the whole story than subsequent conflicts. Both battles and love stories are conflicts; which one is more important to the whole plot should be found first. So if the bloody battle is necessary, describing it physically after the love life begins makes the bloody battle a secondary conflict, perhaps a complication, perhaps just an explanation of our hero's psychology, even though it is temporally out of order.

Putting the bloody battle before the love conflict does the opposite, it seems to the reader like something that should be resolved, and if resolved too quickly then it is disappointing to the reader; a head fake. You gave the battle too much prominence by putting it first; getting your character known to the reader is more important, getting the romance underway is more important, then whatever it is the battle explains about the character and complications of the romance can be told without the reader mistakenly thinking this story is about battles.

On a related note, most (highly rated) movies and books begin with "establishing shots/scenes" where very little conflict is going on. Neither battle or romance. This is for the audience to get a feel for their hero, what is being "established" is the every day world of the hero before that world changes forever. The audience/reader must identify with the personality of the hero first or nothing the hero does is care-worthy.

This is not to say you should not begin with conflict: It just needs to be clearly inconsequential conflict. In "When Harry Met Sally", the two romantic protags are introduced and immediately in philosophical disagreement, but this is just a verbal, funny, sometimes frustrating conflict. (they are "in a box", i.e. sharing the expenses of their long car trip prevents either from walking away from their temporary partnership out of philosophical irritation).

How characters respond to conflict reveals them to the audience. It is valid advice to begin with conflict (and have conflict everywhere), but character revealing conflict, not high stakes life-and-death conflict like a battle. Many beginning writers get confused by this and use the easiest conflict to write: A physical fight. But the high-stakes fight falls flat when we don't know the stakes, or the characters or have any reason to care.

In general, save your battle for physically later in the story, when the reader wants your hero to live, and hopefully wants the villain to lose (even if that is not how the battle works out).

Also there are alternatives to flashback. The hero can reveal what happened verbally, in conversation or interrogation.

Is the battle necessary? The battle is only necessary if something in it has specific ramifications to the plot line. Just "I've killed many men" is enough to cover the emotional impact on the hero of the battle; i.e. just a few lines of dialogue can do the job, you don't need a scene.

If there is some specific action we need to see (e.g. in battle rage she intentionally kills somebody with valuable intelligence she knew she should not have killed, or she made a mistake and unintentionally killed a child and this haunts her, or she impulsively disobeyed orders and got her comrades killed, or took an impulsive risk that got them killed, our hero was a coward and NOT a hero in this battle like everyone thinks, etc).

Some things need to be shown, not told, and vice versa. It depends on the pacing of the story, and whether you can afford to interrupt it for a whole battle scene, and it depends on how important the ramifications or consequences of the battle are: if they are big and plot-changing, show it. If they are more general information (our hero has experience in battle) use a short version to refer to this un-shown battle in dialogue, not flashback.

  • Actually, it was a foreshadowing issue. I felt I needed to show how the hero's commanding officer conducts himself in battle, because later, there is half a chapter of the hero's behaving in much the same way.But maybe the reader was saying, why are we learning about the hero's boss? (Answer: because we are really learning about the hero.)
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 13:47
  • 1
    @TomAu IMO no "foreshadowing" is worthy of a flashback. A flashback is a huge interruption in the flow of the story, so much so it MUST be justified by the flow of the story, and clearly is not: The flashback serves no purpose except as foreshadowing, thus the foreshadow is not properly in the flow. This would be better done in dialogue, find reason for the hero to harshly criticize his commander's actions in battle, then later repeat them for expediency. Readers could remember that hypocrisy. He could remember his own hypocrisy. "Foreshadowing" does not fit the reasons for flashback.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 14:34
  • 1
    I took the time to demstrate the quality of being "mindlessly brave." The commanding officer was killed in the first battle, the hero survives the second and wins a medal, but is warned by his new C.O. (the first one's second in command) not to be so "brave" the next time. More to the point, that's who the hero is, (or is supposed to be). So the punch line is, "I learned that from YOUR boss."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 15:39
  • @TomAu And the retort to that punch line is, "My boss is dead and has cost us a skilled fighter for little gain. Do not presume your medal gives you the right to be insubordinate, soldier." :-) Or let me guess, the new CO is conveniently incompetent as a commander and makes no attempt at discipline at all...
    – Amadeus
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 15:50
  • You're right. That would be the rational result if he said that, thereby continuing his "mindless bravery." That answer helps me develop the story. Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 15:53


I always get more than one opinion. If two, or better three, of my beta readers agree on the same shortcoming, then I know I must amend it. If only one person finds fault with something, then it is likely that it is a matter of personal taste.

Also, make sure your beta readers are part of your target audience, that is, they read the genre you write.


"Unnecessary" is not the same as bad. How annoyed was the reader at having to read that section? Did they merely think it wasn't necessary to the plot? Or were they bored and skipped the part?


It is difficult to say without reading your text whether you should keep that flashback scene or delete it. From your brief summary, I cannot find fault with what you do.

Generally I have found that there is nothing you cannot do well in writing, it all depends on your skill. If the flashback is highly interesting in and of itself; if you weave it well into the present day storyline; if readers feel the flashback explains something that went on in the previous scene; then it can work well.

If on the other hand the parts appear unconnected and unrelated, chances are that readers will feel a switching cost and not be motivated to make the effort to get into what seems like a different tale.


Try to reverse the order of the scenes, that is, put the flashback before the boy-meets-girl (as in the movie version you mentioned). Make a copy of your file, switch the pieces, and work on smothing things out for an afternoon or two, then take a day off and reflect on what you did. How does it feel? Not: Is it perfect? (it probably won't be after two days), but: How do you feel working on that change? Like something clears up for you? Or does your confusion increase and you feel like you are deviating from your original vision?

  • 2
    Several useful suggestions.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 29, 2018 at 15:47

In the end, you determine if you are right. However, if you repeatedly hear the same advice from different sources, you might make the change and see if it feels right after a few days.

Example: I believed I needed a prologue when I wrote my story. After a while, hearing from enough people that I should cut the prologue, I deleted it and 'wove' the necessary information into the story in other ways. I've decided they were right in this case, and now I hold that view too.

Alternate example: The same people want my 3rd limited narrator to refer to the protagonist's mom and dad as 'Mom' and 'Dad' in narration because 'this is how the character thinks of them.' The argument is sound but I never liked it. I tried taking the advice several times, reformatting portions as suggested. It never sat right, ever. I finally decided to create a rule in my world that says the culture is such that children think of their parents by name, and that 'mom' and 'dad' are more intimate forms of address used on occasion.

Answer: You find the consensus and address it in your work, either by doing what the critics say, doing something else that meets the criticism, or doing nothing because in the end YOU are right. Readers/critics are a valuable resource for you - because they are telling you how the public may see your work.

(Also, if you hope to publish traditionally, the agent or publisher may have some say in who is right.)


You've prompted me to look at some blogs about flashbacks. Here's an example of a seamless flashback, from the link. The link describes do's and don't's for flashbacks - these might solve your dilemma without needing to cut the flashback.

There are a lot of writer blogs out there that have various topical advice and some of it is good.

I bolded the start of the flashback.:

All his old habits came back automatically. At a glance he assessed [everyone’s] posture and hands. Was there a man whose fingers curled in a little tremor when their eyes met, a woman whose hand moved to rest inside her handbag? He knew all the practical moves and involuntary gestures, and he scanned everyone, granting no exceptions.He and Eddie had done a job like this one when he was no more than twelve. Eddie had dressed him for baseball, and had even bought him a new glove to carry folded under his arm. When they had come upon the man in the crowd, he hadn’t even seen them; his eyes were too occupied in studying the crowd for danger to waste a moment on a little kid and his father walking home from a sandlot game. As they passed the man …


You should be able to answer a few questions here.

Why is the flashback necessary for the story? What does it add or change, that makes this a better story than without it?

Why is the flashback interesting now, to the reader? You may know the flashback is setting up important stuff, but the reader has to take that on trust. You don't want them to feel the new bit is a distraction from the "real" story; nor that the first piece was just a throwaway prologue, and could have been skipped. This means that at the moment you cut to flashback, the reader starts seeking a reason for both the new and old scenes to be interesting in conjunction; it's up to you to provide them with one.

What would this look like if I did this without a flashback? I'm by no means against flashbacks, but this is worth asking. Could you possibly encapsulate your conflict in one, sharp scene, rather than contrasting two opposite ones? I'm not encouraging you to prefer one over the other, but to tell whether something is necessary, it's helpful to consider the alternatives.

The three of these form a very solid justification for a flashback -- or help you see where its issues may lie.


Are you writing for yourself, your family, or a large audience? If a larger audience, what are its demographics? If you're writing an anti-war romance, I agree with your existing approach.

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