In your writing career you may have been told to avoid flashbacks like the Black Death. It’s a piece of advice handed down by Stephen King in On Writing. Not long after reading his memoir on the craft I happened to pick up The Dark Tower: Volume One and there, not long into the story, was a flashback. Hmmm? But it was a good flashback. In fact, it’s one of the scenes I remember most from that book.
So why the hostility toward flashbacks? If done well, they work. But done badly, they break the reader’s experience and hold up the progression of plot and characters.
“If we are enthralled, we don’t want to be interrupted.”
The trick, it seems, is to use the flashback as unobtrusively as possible. Here are a few techniques to help you do that.
Making the past present
A flashback is a scene that occurred before the present story began, usually featuring some kind of conflict. It ought to shed more light on the present story in an important and relevant way. Otherwise, it’s a waste of words.
Before you embark upon a flashback, Sol Stein in his own book called On Writing provides a helpful set of questions to ask yourself:
- If the flashback is necessary, can the reader see the action as if it were happening in the present?
- Is the opening of the flashback as interesting or compelling as the beginning of a novel or story?
- Does the flashback enhance the reader’s experience of the story as a whole?
One potential pitfall of the flashback is delivering it in a passive, telling way, a regurgitation of information the writer thinks the reader needs to know.
How do we deliver that information in the right way?
The answer: bring the past into the present. Make it immediate. Allow the reader to witness that past scene. Here are a few ways you can do that:
A useful tool to make scenes more immediate is dialogue. All forms of dialogue create an immediate scene. Action is taking place before our eyes. Using dialogue early on in a flashback can help create that sense of immediacy. You almost forget it’s a flashback at all. It can also be used in short sequences of flashback, such as when a character is reflecting on a past conversation with another character. Let’s look at an example:
Leo could still picture her face. The softness of her voice. The scent of her perfume.
“Do you like my dress?” she asked.
“Beautiful. Yellow suits you.”
That day seemed like yesterday.
In this example, we’re unobtrusively given a flashback about a character dear to Leo.
The flashback thought
We’re forever interrupted by our thoughts. When we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste it brings back memories.
The same is true of your characters. They have a history before your story began and in using flashback thoughts you can help to reveal it. It’s a wonderful way of developing your characters.
Let’s look at an example from Sol Stein’s novel, Living Room. Notice how thoughts are interspersed with thoughts from the past.
“Through the gaps in the clouds drifting across the charcoal sky, she made out the moon. As a child, she could always decipher its face; now it seemed to have only a scarred surface, crags and mottled ground where instruments had been implanted, sending messages, even now.”
See how the past is drawn into the present by merely looking at the moon. Here’s another from the next paragraph:
“Suddenly she thought of the unwashed dish with the remains of the cottage cheese and fruit. She should have rinsed it off, stuck it in the dishwasher, left things neat.”
These flashback thoughts allow the reader to get to know a character more. It creates empathy, sharing thoughts the reader may relate to. We begin to care about the character, which is important. To quote Stein: “You have to know about the people in the car before you see the crash.”
Flashback thoughts are quick and require no breaking away from the present story. They sit nicely within the immediate scene, causing no disruption to the reader.
Flashbacks and language
Be wary of certain words. ‘Had’ is your enemy. It ruins flashbacks by suggesting to the reader it’s not immediate scene. The same goes for ‘then’. The trick is to transition back into the same tense used prior to the flashback. One ‘had’ in an opening sentence or paragraph can work. But then ditch them. Readers know they’re in flashback mode. Repeated use of these words will only labour that point.
Flashbacks and suspense
By their nature, scenes that break away from the present decrease suspense. But they can be fashioned into a source of suspense too. With suspense, the goal is to postpone the outcome of a confrontation. Flashbacks can be used to achieve this postponement.
Ask yourself some hard questions
The experts say the flashback ought to be avoided and we should take this on-board. Whenever you consider using one, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the flashback reinforce the story in an important way?
- Is it absolutely essential? If not, think of another way to introduce the information.
- Can the reader witness what’s happening in the flashback? If not, can you make it into an immediate, active scene?
- Is the opening of the flashback compelling and interesting?
- Is the reader’s experience enhanced by the flashback or does it intrude?
- Has the flashback helped to characterise? Does it help the reader empathise with the character?
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