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Using Flashback in Fiction
Most of the time, I advise beginning writers to avoid using flashback in their fiction because they tend to rely on backstory too heavily early on. It is better to choose a point of entry into a story and write forward from there. Handled improperly, backstory stalls the forward-moving narrative altogether, and yet skilful use of this tool adds historical and emotional context and controls pacing.
What is a Flashback?
Each story has a time framethe amount of time the author has decided to cover in a particular narrativeand anything that happens before this time frame begins is called backstory. Writers use flashback to tell the backstory and show character motivation. If the main character won't enter a hospital, for example, a quick trip back in time to when he sat at the bedside of his dying mother will increase reader understanding and empathy.
Backstory must be shown, however, not told. The terms backstory and flashback come from film terminology, and knowing this should be a reminder that their purpose is to dramatize the past, not summarize it. The sentence he thought back to that horrible summer when he sat beside his mother's bed as she withered away from cancer is not yet a proper flashback.
Any time you interrupt the forward moving story, you risk losing reader interest, so dramatizing the interruption decreases that risk. For example, you might write something like:
He had spent the entire month of July in hospital, at his mother's bedside. Her long fingers had felt like bones bundled in thin silk, and they offered no resistance when he squeezed them. When at last he felt some slight pressure, almost indiscernible, he watched her face. She opened her eyes and met his gaze for just a moment before the muscles of her face contracted, as if in pain. Her eyes clamped shut in a last grimace, and each inhalation came several seconds after the last. Joe watched a vein below her ear pulse like the heart of a frightened bird. Even when her breathing stopped, the pulse beat on for a second or two more. He watched until it went still and all the lines on her face smoothed away, and then he laid her hand, still loose in his, atop the crisp, white sheet.
A passage like this aims to put readers at the bedside along with the character, and it contains emotional facts, rather than irrelevant material information. The colour of the walls or the number of people in the room is not important in this scene. The historical recollection allows readers to understand, at an emotional level, why Joe has an aversion to hospitals. A longer scene would include dialogue, but it is best to keep the recollections as short as possible.
In fiction, a flashback that does not add context to the forward movement has little place in the narrative, and while it is very useful to write out and know each character's history, it is seldom a good idea to include more than a little of that information in the story.
The exception to this is when the backstory is extensive enough to warrant its own narrative arc, in which case it can be included as a subplot and the main story can be structured to include the backstory as passages between present day scenes.
Purpose is key. The temptation is to use exposition to quickly bring readers up to speed on important events from the past, with the idea that summarizing past events is enough. However, information "told" to the reader has little emotional impact. It is boring and hinders pacing.
With this in mind, ask yourself: Why is this historical moment crucial to the story? What is most important about this passage? How can I get the same message across in fewer words?
Whichever strategy you use, the following basic guidelines will help to make your backstory unobtrusive:
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