Sunday, 27 February 2011

Flashbacks

What is a flashback?

Flashback is one of those useful tools that a writer can use to enhance a story. It enriches and, in a sense, nourishes a story with information that the reader would otherwise not have known.

Flashbacks bring information from the past into the present to help the reader better understand a character or part of the story. In particular, it can enlighten the reader of your character’s life story by showing the character in an earlier time – anything from early childhood to an hour ago – in order to move the story forward. It’s a way of conveying information that isn’t relayed through ordinary narrative means, usually because it involves a back story. And because flashbacks deal with the past, they also provide an insight into a character’s motives, the very essence of who they are and how he or she acts and interacts with the world around them.

An appropriately placed flashback can do several things:

• Provide past information
• Move the story forward
• Prevent a story from drifting off course
• Keep your reader interested

How to use flashbacks

Using flashbacks sounds easy, but they can be troublesome if not done properly. Knowing how to do them is one thing, knowing where to place them is another.

It’s important to remember that flashbacks slow the action down, so it is essential to know when to place a flashback without it interrupting the flow on the entire story. Avoid inserting a flashback during or just prior to action scenes because this will not only disrupt the story, it will confuse and frustrate your reader considerably. Try not to use long flashbacks near the end of the novel either, as this is where action and excitement usually mounts as you head towards the climax of the story, and flashbacks will either slow the narrative or kill it entirely. They are more effective towards the beginning and in the middle of your story.

The best way to distinguish flashback from the main story is with verb tenses, but also that you have indicated some future action or excitement, for example, Jane is waiting at the train station to meet her long lost sister, and she begins to recall her early memories of their childhood together:

The tannoy announced the next train about to arrive, but Jane wasn’t listening. Her mind drifted off, thinking of an earlier time in her life, somewhere in the past as she remembered her elder sister.

(Flashback begins in pluperfect tense)

They had played so many times in the apple orchard at the bottom of their parent’s garden, dashing in and out of the trees and shaking them to make the apples fall, and they had giggled beneath the large cherry blossom tree, protected by its pretty canopy, but the laughter soon ended when their parents split and they had become separated from each other.

(Now the narrative eases back into past perfect tense to signal the end of the flashback)

The screech of the brakes brought her from her thoughts and Jane looked up, saw the train had stopped at the platform. A sea of people alighted, and finally, through the mass of people, she caught a glimpse of a face she hadn’t seen for seventeen years…

The seamless way in which this example is done is how most flashbacks occur, as though they form part of the story. (They do, but the reader won’t notice this verb transition). Other flashbacks might occur as new chapters or separate scenes, or long pieces inserted into the narrative, as long as they are indicated prior to them happening, as in the example above. They might also consist of a few sentences strategically placed throughout the story, again as shown in the above example.

One thing to remember when you enter a flashback from an early period in your character’s life is that the character will be a very different from the character they are now, in your story. Characters, just like real people, will have different ideals, different aspirations and goals, different needs and different outlook in the past compared to the present.

If they are not done properly they have a tendency to confuse the reader because they won’t clearly know the difference between past and present in your story.

Things to try to avoid when writing flashbacks:

• Ty not to make the flashback more exciting than the main story.
• Indicate clear transitions to the reader, otherwise you may end up confusing them – they won’t be able to tell the difference between the actual story and the flashback.
• Try not to introduce the flashback as the first scene in the novel because this doesn’t always work. That’s not to say this isn’t possible or permissible, but you need to feel comfortable that it works and doesn’t hold up the story.
• Try not to make them overly long.
• Use flashbacks sparingly. Too many will confuse and irritate the reader and will make the story hard to understand. Your reader might also lose interest and become bored.
• Try to use the right tenses. If your story is told in past tense (he tried to talk, she pulled the handle etc) then you use pluperfect tense to signal flashback (he had talked, she had pulled the handle) etc.

If the story is told in present tense, (I try to talk, she pulls the handle), then the flashback is signalled using past tense (I tried to talk, she pulled the handle).

One caveat to the above list is that some new writers accidentally mix their verb transitions. Don’t make the mistake of writing a flashback in present tense. You cannot describe something in flash back if it has not yet happened! You are writing about something that has already happened, hence it must be past tense.  If you do the writing will be clunky, amateurish and impossible to read.

When you’ve completed your first draft, read it through to establish whether or not the flashbacks you’ve used work within the story, or whether your story needs a flashback at all, because not all stories do. You might even decide that the story could benefit from adding a few more flashbacks. The general rule of thumb for writing is simple: If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, take it out.

Done properly, flashbacks bring depth to your characters and story without infringing the ‘readability’ of the story. The reader won’t even notice well crafted flashbacks, but they will notice that the story is all the more enjoyable for them.

Next time: Using the three R’s – Reduce, re-use and re-cycle.

32 comments:

  1. A very good, succint post, AJ; it has to be shared on Twitter :)

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  2. I like a nice flashback me. I think it's important to get the story properly started before using one though or, as you say, it can get confusing.

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  3. I used to struggle with flashbacks and then realised the problem was I was relying on them too much. Sometimes they can drag down the pace of a story to a crawl, so I try and use them frugally.

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    1. ^I understand you, it's okay your not the only one here that needed help!

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  4. thank you i now how to write a story with a flashback

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  5. This helped me a lot in the essay I'm doing, thanks!(:

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  6. Very good, however I still have a problem as I have an entire chapter that cries out to be a flashback. Otherwise I must make it the beginning an leap forward several centuries.
    Perhaps that is the answer?

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    1. Since I don't know about the work, what genre it is, or what it's about etc, I can't really comment other than to suggest you deconstruct what you've written - look at each chapter with a critical eye and determine WHERE you need the flashback.

      If you put a flashback at the beginning and leap forward, it may lose some gravitas. Try to place it in context to the story arc - there is nothing wrong in devoting an entire chapter to flashback, these are quite common. The only way to find out is to write it and see. You can always edit/cut/add to it at a later stage.

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  7. thanks for the advice was wondering about how to talk in flashback. Now I know, thanks.

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  8. I'lll be completely honest here. This blog has helped me ALOT more than the lesson on Flashbacks and Flash-forwards I'm currently on in my creative writing course. My teacher just makes it seem I dunno to complex I guess. Then again I'm a HS student taking a college course so that may be the problem. Thanks for the help though. Maybe do a Blog on Flash-forwards next if you havent already?

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  9. Hi Kaitlyn, thanks for your post.

    Glad this post helped you understand flashbacks a little better. As for flashforwards, I'm happy to do a post on that. I've touched on this subject previously, but I know a lot of writers struggle with the concept, so I'm happy to do one in the coming weeks.

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    1. That's a shame, Anon of Tunbridge Wells, but we can't be helpful to all people all of the time, I guess. Perhaps you could be more specific?

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  11. Hi, I am working on a book right now, and I'm trying to put in three flashbacks in a row, walking the reader through a tough point in the character's life, more or less. I'm looking at the document right now, and it's hard to physically see where the scene changes within the flashback. How can I separate it out better? (The flashbacks are in italics already, which may be what makes it hard to see where the scene changes.)

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  12. Hi Kathryn,

    From what you've described I've assumed you have the three flashbacks in a row. This is a lot for the reader to take in, which is why ideally, flashbacks should be interspersed through the novel. readers find it hard going with great chunks of flashbacks.

    The best way to deal with them is seamlessly transition from the present action to your first flashback. Then flow back to the present. This allows the reader to breathe and digest the information. Then continue in the present for a while before slipping back to the next flashback. The same would apply for the third flashback. These "breathers" help the reader take on board what is happening, rather than being confronted with a huge info-dump.

    Also, you don't need to use italics for flashback scenes (particularly so if you aim to seek an agent or publisher), as normal font is preferred.

    Hope that helps clarify things and helps you see things better.

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    1. Apologies for spelling your name incorrectly, Katheryn, fingers were going faster than my brain :)

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    2. Hi,
      I'm writing a book about a young woman having an affair with a married, older man.
      To explain her actions, I'm writing a diary that she came across (she thought it was lost) of when she was fourteen.
      The flashback helps the reader understand why she acts the way she does.
      However, the diary is over two years, and quite long.
      At the moment, I placed it after she breaks up the relationship, before she moves to another country.
      If I bring it forward, so the reader understands her better, would it slow the story of the present down?

      Thanks you,
      Esther

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    3. Hi Esther.

      Although there are no hard and fast rules, it would wise to keep any flashback short, especially if you have them occur fairly early in the story. By keeping them short you have less chance of making the pace slow top a halt.

      So the answer to your question is yes, place the flashback, but keep it short - that will keep the pacing somewhat, but it will also tease the reader. By not revealing too much in the flashback, you are luring them to read on. In the next flashback you can offer more snippets, and so on, each time reeling the reader in.

      Of course, once you've done the flashback, read it all back and see how the pacing stands up, and make adjustments where necessary to compensate.

      Hope that helps.

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  13. Hi,
    thanks for the post. My question is: should I separate the flashbacks with line breaks?

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    1. Hi Antara,

      You can separate flashbacks with line breaks - in other words the line breaks denote a new scene, but make sure you allow the transition to take place smoothly from the end of the preceding scene/paragraph to the beginning of the flashback, just so the reader is aware it's a flashback and forms part of the narrative.

      Once the flashback is finished, insert line breaks again to begin your new scene, continuing in the present. Other writers start a flashback as a brand new chapter, or they blend it within the present narrative. Whichever way is quite acceptable.

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  14. Great entry, thanks so much! Your blog is helping me so much with some sound, PRACTICAL (very very important) advice! I hate when blogs try to get too philosophical about writing and ignore the actual craft. Blogs like this are just awesome. Keep it up please!!!! (:

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  15. Thanks for the great feedback, Kerry. I'm pleased the blog is proving so useful. Hope it continues to do so!

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  16. I came across the blog accidently while searching the net about writing flashbacks. This is very illuminating. Thank you.

    I have a problem though. My MC has the gift of perfect recall - so when the flashback happens it is as if she's living in it. Therefore I've written those scenes in the present.

    What do you think? Will it work? Any advice?

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    1. That’s a good question, Jackie, and it can be done, but it needs focus.

      If the flashback is present tense, then I’m going to logically assume the rest of the story is also written in present tense. On that assumption, you have to help the reader understand that you’ve left the present story narrative and slipped into a flashback, otherwise it will become incredibly confusing to distinguish the present action from the past action.

      This isn’t unheard of, and writers use all manner of indicators. So if your MC is entering a flashback, but obviously recalling the moment as though it’s very real, and it needs to feel that she’s living that memory, you have to come up with a way to show the reader.

      For example, you could have your MC twitch as the flashback occurs – like a tick – which could signal to the reader than there is a transition between the two moments (present to past), just as long as you explain somewhere in the story that the MC has this twitch/tick thing happen every time she has recall. Or maybe the MC drifts into a dream state/trance when it happens – again you can show the reader this to signify the transition. You get the idea.
      Think of something that works and something that is believable. Make sure you explain it to the reader early on in the story, and then signal when the character goes into flashback. That way the reader will understand this and won’t become confused.

      Writing is always challenging, but whatever we create, in whatever way we do it, writers must remember to always make it clear for the reader and to always involve them.

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  17. Hi,
    Thanks so very much. The rest of the story though is in the past tense. But the lived-in flashbacks are indicated with closed eyes and a trance like state. So the room for confusion is rathr limited. I'm just worried about it being too unorthodox. And before one gets to readers, one must please an agent and a publisher. So I don't want to fly against norms either.
    Thus is my dilemma.

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  18. Hi Jackie,

    There is unorthodox (which many people charm to) or there is off the scale weird, which doesn't endear anyone. It depends how unorthodox you want to describe your work.

    Glad to see the character enters a trance like state - which can be shown to the reader - to signify the flashback.

    Ordinarily, we advise against mixing tenses (past to present and vice versa), however, plenty of writers do this to great effect. You just have to be in total control of the writing. Is this unorthodox? No. It's fairly common, especially with established authors. That doesn't mean new writers can't also do it, especially if it creates the right effect. I remember reading a book decades ago when I first started writing, which was called Tender Prey by Patricia Roberts. She mixed the present tense of her malevolent antagonist with the past tense story of the protagonist. It was brilliantly done. So there is no reason why your story cannot be a past tense story but with the present tense of the lived-in flashbacks.

    The only thing to be mindful of is to ensure that there is no question to the reader that although it is shown in present tense, your MC is indeed reliving a PAST moment. You could get around this by sprinkling the present tense flashback with some interior monologue to indicate a "sense" of past pluperfect, or maybe use symbols or metaphors.(Apologies - I'm only going on your description rather than the actual context of the flashbacks.

    Norms are one thing, but sometimes it's good to bend the rules a little, given that it might actually be in our favour to be different and daring.

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    1. Thanks so very much. I've tried to create a clear line of demarcation between the present and the re-lived past, but with your suggestions I can do more. I've already put in an internal dialogue before the flashback begins, but will strengthen it.

      Will it be totally nuts in the end, like the mental universe of someone whose sense of past and present is scrambled beyond recognition - I hope not.

      Thanks so much for helping out. It means a lot to have an experienced writer respond so promptly and helpfully.

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    2. I think the more time you spend on it - and strengthening it - the better the result (too many writers rush the process). That's true of any work. And it won't be as nuts as you think!

      And thanks for the appreciation, I'm always glad to help.

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