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.