Dealing With Flash Backs: No Cold Potatoes

One of a novelist’s challenges in the beginning of a story is how to introduce critical back story without slowing down the story. I try to prevent overloading the first chapters with back story by observing the Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule.
Writing Tip for Today: Yes, a reader needs to understand the situation, but in a novel, it isn’t necessary to paint the whole picture at once. The Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule states, “If your character is dining and and a flash back or back story is triggered as she lifts a spoonful of mashed potatoes to her lips, the reader goes into the “prior time,” leaving the spoonful suspended in midair. The longer the writer remains in the backstory, flashback or any prior time, the colder the potatoes become.” The lesson here? Limit (especially in opening chapters) backstory/flashbacks to the Rule of 3. Use three or fewer sentences of backstory before at least touching back on the real time scene. If you allow your reader to become immersed in the backstory, she will forget about the real time scene in short order. We all want our readers to understand, but by limiting backstory and focusing upon action (scene) you’ll be more likely to keep your reader interested.

Try This! Write a scene that weaves in and out of a memory or backstory. Compare this technique with adding large expositional or narrative chunks. R.U.E. (Resist the Urge to Explain!)

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “Dealing With Flash Backs: No Cold Potatoes

  1. Love your Cold Mashed Potatoes rule. We have to chuckle as we listen to the audios of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. He breaks every guideline known to modern day writers & readers, including this one big time, yet achieved Bestseller status. Even we keep listening while we complain about the numerous excesses. Go figure!


  2. This is a great post. I had not heard of the mashed potatoes rule, but it makes sense. One of the things I did in my initial manuscript was have several “flashbacks” that were CHAPTERS long. Thankfully, I had good critique partners who showed me the proper route. I have little or no flashback at all now.

  3. Even after many years of practicing the writing craft, flashbacks sneak into my work, too. The operative word is “weave” for when you lay down a sentence here or there of back story, the reader can take it in without breaking the dream–or letting the potatoes grow cold. Thanks for reading. ~Linda

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