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
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 skillful 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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...
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
Dreams: dreams can feel contrived, so use them carefully and seldom.
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
Frankenstein and Sophie's Choice are examples of frame stories told in flashback.
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
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
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.