Flashback: The do’s and don’ts

Used judiciously, a flashback will add richness and believability to your story.
By Bharti Kirchner | Published: November 19, 2015


flashbackYou enter the critique session clutching copies of a chapter from your novel, your heart pounding. In the pages the group is about to review, your shy protagonist takes on the responsibilities of organizing a charity ball.

Your turn comes to have your piece read. One critic scans the chapter, then puts it down on the table.

“This is out of character,” he says. “Susan’s too reticent to take on a charity ball.”

“But,” you mumble, “her deceased father was the president of the United Way. She went to a lot of his charity functions.”

“Have you shown that earlier in the book?” asks another critic. “I don’t recall.”

Well, no, you haven’t. That scene exists only in your mind and belongs to the character’s childhood, long before the story started. You scratch your head. It’s time for you to brush up on flashbacks.

What’s a flashback? Although most stories progress chronologically, there are times when you need to interject an incident from your protagonist’s past. This is known as flashback or backstory. Its purpose is to influence later events, deepen the story or reveal character. A flashback can be presented as a reflection, a snatch of memory, a dream or dialogue. It breaks the normal chronology of the narrative, and thus the reader encounters it out of sequence. Because it generally involves a shift in both time and place, you need appropriate transitions to make the reading experience smooth.

For example, in Chapter 1 of The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett introduces Tom Builder, who’s constructing a house. As he works on a doorway, Tom is reminded of a similar experience. The story has been narrated in the past tense. Now Follett slips into past perfect to alert us that the story is going back in time:

He had worked on a cathedral once – Exeter. … His wife, Agnes, had never understood that decision. … That had been ten years ago. … He glanced up from his bench and saw Agnes standing at the edge of the building site.

In the last sentence, Follett returns us to the present time by switching back to the simple past tense. (For more on flashback mechanics, refer to “Make your transition a smooth one,” in the November 2011 issue of The Writer.) Note the use of the sense of sight, with Tom seeing Agnes in the present, to bring us back to the story’s time. You could employ other cues such as a color, scent or sound to signal to the reader that there is a shift back to the present.

Other uses. As your protagonist acts through the plot, ask yourself: Why did she do that? It might lead you to an episode in her past, which can be told through a flashback that will reveal her present motivation. Freewrite several such past incidents and select those that serve the purpose of your story. Even if you don’t cram all the episodes into the book, this exercise will help you better understand her.

When not to use flashback. Don’t use flashback immediately after the opening, when the story hasn’t yet gotten off the ground. If a particular incident is essential to the opening, you might want to begin the narrative at that point in your character’s life rather than presenting it as backstory.

Avoid flashback in a major action scene. For example, a mountain hiker is suddenly alerted by the approach of a bear from behind a bush. Do not slow down the confrontation by letting him ponder his fascination with that animal when he was teenager.

An alternative. Flashbacks impede a story’s forward movement by looking back; too many flashbacks will slow the pace. You can present crucial information from the past in a scene by embedding it in a character’s thoughts. An example:

Listening to Donna tell the story of her dog almost being run over by a car, Ed couldn’t help but wonder: How could she be so calm? A year ago, she had broken down when her daughter ran away from home.

Used judiciously, a flashback will add richness and believability to your story. And it might even make your critique group colleagues smile.

Bharti Kirchner is the author of multiple novels and nonfiction books, as well as hundreds of short pieces.

FLASHBACK RESOURCES & EXERCISES

  1. For an example of how to use flashbacks, with movies as models, click here.
  2. Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyon contains a brief discussion on flashbacks on pages 144-146 and 172-173.
  3. Freewrite using the following prompt: Remember when you first met your (best friend, editor, writing partner, spouse)?

*This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Writer.

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