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Using Flashback in Fiction

Purpose

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 frame—the amount of time the author has decided to cover in a particular narrative—and 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.

Flashback Examples

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.

It was time, he thought now, to get past all that.

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?

Techniques

  1. Recollection: The most common technique (and most effective, in my view), for using backstory in fiction is to weave bits and pieces of recollection throughout the narrative as they become relevant to the character's motivation. This adds texture to the story, provided you keep these pieces as short as possible; often only a sentence or two is enough. Aim for consistency throughout the narrative—not a big information dump all at once.

  2. Full scenes: these are extended recollections that utilize both action and dialogue. When you have a significant amount of material that takes place in the past, you might write long scenes and alternate chapters in the past or present, or create a separate section for the past.

  3. Italicized Inserts: You might also structure the story to include short italicized passages that dramatize the past—occasionally this is done as a direct address to a "you" of the past. For example, a son contemplating his father's death might address his father in short passages that separate scenes: You met mother on a scree ridge high on Mt. Temple in Banff National Park...

  4. Letters or Journals: A character might either write or read a letter or journal to impart historical information to the reader. Sometimes these are also placed in italics.

  5. Dreams: dreams can feel contrived, so use them carefully and seldom.

  6. Frames: this is the "story within a story," and it often makes use of a prologue and an epilogue, with the entire story told in flashback between the two "bookends." Beginning writers often use this approach in scenes, and it usually serves only to irritate readers, who want to get back to the forward narrative. Frankenstein and Sophie's Choice are examples of frame stories told in flashback.

General Guidelines

Whichever strategy you use, the following basic guidelines will help to make your backstory unobtrusive:

  • Integrate small bits of backstory early enough that readers will recognize it as part of your strategy, but not before they have had time to become interested in the forward-moving story.

  • Trigger memories with the senses and emotions—an object seen, a scent, a touch, a taste, a place, a song, or a person can all trigger memories. E.g. She smelled of lemons, just as Jodie used to. Lemons had been Jodie's answer to everything. On their first date they drank an entire pitcher of lemonade, the pitcher sweating between them on the white wicker table on her parents' long, wide veranda. Later, they ate fish with a lemon sauce, and drank chilled Chardonnay until the sun set. But Carol was not Jodie, and he would not paste the past onto her. "You smell good," he said. "Like fresh laundry."

  • Transition to the flashback with a signal phrase, but be subtle. Do not write Joe thought about the last time he had been in a hospital... If you used a trigger, as in the examples above, it should be clear from the context that the character has slipped into a memory.

  • Change tense, from past tense to the past perfect tense for a sentence or two before reverting to the past tense again. In the previous example, I used the word "had" before switching back to the past tense.

  • Finally, transition out of the flashback with a second signal phrase that brings readers back to the forward-moving story. In the example above, the sentence beginning But Carol was not Jodie alerts readers to the switch back to the present. You might also use actions as devices that help the character reemerge into the present--a ringing telephone or someone speaking to the character, for example. Anything will work, but again, subtlety counts.


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