Objects in the Mirror Are
Closer Than They Appear:
Flashback Techniques in Fiction
© 2010 Lori L. Lake
"A flashback is a scene or series of scenes that dramatically shows the reader an event or series of events that happened prior to the time frame of the present story." ~James N. Frey, author and writing teacher
Most writers have heard the old saw, "Avoid flashbacks at all costs!" Flashbacks do have the effect of slowing - or stopping - the forward motion of your story. This can make the tale you're telling lack immediacy and narrative drive. The action in the past is already over so why would the reader be interested?
But at times, flashbacks are necessary. They may be the only tool you have available to incorporate information that you need your reader to know. Used wisely, it's also possible to use flashbacks to vary pacing, give (or withhold) information, or show character motivation. If you have no other way to move the story forward without revealing action from the past, then knowing how to effectively use flashback techniques is critical.
Some fiction writers tell a story in chronological sequence; others take the reader back and forth in time and accomplish this by the use of flashbacks.
Every author has to choose which techniques to avoid and which to use, and at times the decisions are very difficult. If you take one path, you may be locked into certain novelistic conventions; if you take another path, you find you've painted yourself into a corner.
In my own writing I've found that sometimes a tactic I chose worked great - and other times it was disastrous and I had to rewrite whole sections. I think all we can do is experiment to see what works, and for the more complex novel, it can be a lot of hard work.
Starting a novel where there is some obvious conflict or change is a very good idea. Your opening needs to be compelling and interesting so you can well and truly "hook" the reader. Most of the time nobody wants to read about the mundane stuff that leads up to the inciting events that send the protagonist on his or her journey UNLESS that information is intriguing. Often we are better served by waiting to dish up the past data until later, especially since rolling out your novel's events in chronological order can be a real drag. So how do you impart the events of the past that lead up to the book's opening and that are relevant to future events? How do you include critical pieces of information from the past without boring or sidetracking the reader? One way to do this is through the judicious use of flashbacks.
Flashback Tactics You May Elect to Use
As the opening quotation from James N. Frey indicates, a flashback requires dramatization. In other words, a full-fledged flashback actually goes back in time and shows a scene in its entirety with all the action and dialogue that occurred. A flashback, by definition, shows; if you are merely telling information, then that is more properly referred to as exposition. (If it's too long and too drawn out, that kind of telling is also sometimes called an "Info Dump.")
Three Common Flashback Techniques
1. One of the most effective techniques you can use in both first person and third person narratives is to have your viewpoint character think about or remember past events. Something that the character experiences - aromas, sights, sounds, tastes, textures, music, places, people, or a specific event - can trigger the inclusion of a flashback. This can be especially effective if you use the viewpoint character's interior thought to compare and contrast whatever is happening in present day in light of what happened in the past.
2. Have your characters talk about past events, then segue the narrative into the past, show the dramatized scene, and return to real time to pick up where the characters left off. This can feel a little bit like you are playing Freeze Tag with your story people, but if you don't go on too long, it usually works.
3. You may decide to write a complete and total flashback - using all the tricks of scene-making - and dramatize ALL of the past stuff at once. In some cases, such a scene may turn out to be quite lengthy, and if that's the case, you may want to make that scene its own chapter or section.
There is no halfway with flashbacks. I suggest strongly that you go all out and dramatize fully. If the flashback contains a compelling scene that's well-written, intriguing, and filled with punchy drama, it will go a long way toward keeping the reader from nodding off.
Ways You Can Avoid Flashbacks
1. Use your viewpoint character's internal thoughts and musings to drop in tiny bits of information or jagged pieces of memory but accomplish this in a mysterious way so that the reader has to gradually assemble the details to make sense of what happened. Over time a complete picture of past events begins to emerge without ever having to whip up a long, involved flashback.
The image of the burning tree kept running through Deryn's head. She tried to push the thought aside, but the other, older memories that replaced it were worse. Briefly, she let her face sink into her hand, covering her eyes, but she was not a young child anymore and she had a job to do. Deryn raised her head.
That's not a flashback, but it does hark back to previous events and cause the reader to wonder, which also imparts a message that the reader should be on the lookout for more clues about this topic. Little by little, your reader is going to find out details about what is troubling Deryn, but you don't need to do it with a full-fledged flashback. One other advantage is if you do eventually write a flashback about the topic, you'll have foreshadowed it so the subsequent mentions need not be long and involved.
~From Wolfsbane Winter by Jane Fletcher
2. You, the author/narrator, or the first person narrator can include bits and pieces of the information "drop by drop" in the narrative with no scene-making by "telling" the events. This is particularly effective during openings of chapters and scenes where you can objectively set the scene before you zoom in on your character(s).
The early years of the 1960s were static years for dairy farmers. Milk prices stayed steady, varying only by a few cents. Prices for feed and equipment held fairly steady as well. For Clare those years were static in ways that had nothing to do with prices.
Who would want to go back in time and dramatize the information about dairy farming and milk? And yet the story takes place in a farm milieu, and Clare's circumstances have been affected by those facts. Better to drop in the data and quickly segue into how Clare's life feels as a result.
Clare wasn't sure she had many friends anymore. Her girlfriends from high school bored her with their talk of dates and clothes and who was getting married or having another child.
She wished sometimes that…
~From Vital Ties by Karen Kringle
3. Characters in present-time scenes talk about past events in real time. They discuss the events, disagree, and have conflict regarding what they believe happened, and ponder why. With this technique, there's no need to go back and do a fully rendered scene. Written effectively, this feels like present-day forward movement. Written badly, however, it can sound like characters blabbing about past events to quite obviously inform the reader, so be careful of your tone and execution. If you do it right, you may have the advantage of very clearly comparing and contrasting past situations with the present as well as showing character motivations and desires.
"I'm disturbed that there was any shooting at all. I understand it, but it still disturbs me. Wasn't there any other way?"
4. Write alternate chapters with Current Events to start, then Older Events in subsequent chapters, then Current Events again, etc. Or you can also create a "bookend" style or "frame" story where you start in the present and the events there prompt a new chapter that takes the reader into the past for most of the rest of the narrative. Whole books have been written where the entire middle is made up of the bulk of the story and only the beginning and ending occur in present time. You could even start in the past and take the story periodically into the future - in a sort of flash-forward - if that serves your story.
"What would you have done?"
"I don't know. I don't have any experience with situations like this."
"And you think I have?"
"You were in the war."
"I was a courier, not a soldier who shot at the other side."
Faith's eyebrows raised. "You hunted down and killed the men who attacked you, and you got shot once more before that."
"I only killed one of them, and he was trying to shoot me. The others were already dead or dying. Those men were vermin."
~From The Clash Between the Minds by Nann Dunne
An example of the alternate chapter style is my own Snow Moon Rising where the events begin in Chapter One during 1989, then drop back in history to 1919. Periodically a chapter comes back to the characters in 1989 then returns to the past for the earlier narrative to gradually move chronologically forward through time.
An example of the bookend/frame style occurs in Jane Vollbrecht's In Broad Daylight where opening chapters relate events of 2005, and then the story goes back in time to 1956 for most of the middle of the book, returning to 2006 to complete the storyline and resolve the mysteries of the center sections at the end.
Avoid having flashbacks within flashbacks. The reader can get lost inside that structure. Inserting additional scenes from the past within a flashback scene also tends to make the entire structure longer than you need. The shorter and more punchy the scene can be, the better.
Take advantage of powerful present-day scenes, but don't eclipse them. Any time you use a flashback, make sure it occurs after a strong scene filled with drama and activity. If you put a flashback in the middle of an action scene or where the action is emotional or climactic, most readers' eyes tend to glaze over. But by carefully placing it in the aftermath of a powerful scene, you can utilize the natural pacing of your story. The flashback can provide a natural breather for the reader - a momentary "rest" - before plunging back into the present-day drama.
Avoid having a flashback in your first scene. If you simply cannot avoid starting in the past in the opening, long before the main events of the novel or story occur, then consider dating that first chapter or scene before providing the fully rendered drama of the past. (Some writers label this the Prologue.) Then you can shift forward in time to the present-day of the novel. If you can avoid doing that, however, I strongly suggest it. Above all, do not start your book in the present and drop right into a flashback in that first chapter. In the early going of the story, flashbacks just will not do the job to characterize or to replace dramatic scenes. I know some authors have gotten away with it, but I don't advise it at all.
Don't use italics to highlight your flashback! I know that many authors have used italics this way, but as a reader, I just hate it. Italics are more difficult to read, and they look cheesy. No need to use them at all if you just follow the next piece of advice.
Signal your shifts. Use obvious transitions to make sure you signal the reader that you have shifted in time. This isn't so difficult in first person narratives because the viewpoint character can segue in and out of past and present with a fair amount of ease. But for third person, the task is trickier. One way to signal effectively is to use verb tenses to indicate the transition.
Typical First Person Story - Signal the start of the flashback by putting the first few verbs in past perfect tense which uses "had."
I walked past an enormous man, his head fuzzy and ghostly in the dense fog. My skin crawled when I saw his crazy eyes and the seeping pock marks on his face. I remember another time when I encountered an apparition so frightening that I'd fled in panic. He had followed, screaming incoherently. I fell once, scrambled to my feet, and plowed forward, gulping air and unable to call for help. So terrified I thought my heart would burst from my chest, I finally found my voice and screamed. The police station wavered in front of me, and I'd plunged through the doorway shrieking so loud that a cop pulled his weapon.
Third Person Story Told in Present Tense - Use Past Tense to signal the shift from present time to the past. (You won't see present tense like this so much in commercial/genre fiction, but in literary novels and stories, you see it quite often.)
I was nowhere near a police station now. I took off in a blind run.
Colleen walks past an enormous man, his head fuzzy and ghostly in the dense fog. Her skin crawls when she sees his crazy eyes and the seeping pock marks on his face. She remembers another time when she encountered an apparition so frightening that she fled in panic. He had followed, screaming incoherently. She'd fallen once, scrambled to her feet, and plowed forward, gulping air and unable to call for help. So terrified she thought her heart would burst from her chest, she finally found her voice and screamed. The police station wavered in front of her, and she'd plunged through the doorway shrieking so loud that a cop pulled his weapon.
Third Person Story Told in Past Tense - Signal the start of the flashback by putting the first few verbs in past perfect tense which uses "had."
Nowhere near a police station now, Colleen takes off in a blind run.
Colleen walked past an enormous man, his head fuzzy and ghostly in the dense fog. Her skin crawled when she saw his crazy eyes and the seeping pock marks on his face. She remembered another time when she had encountered an apparition so frightening that she'd fled in panic. He had followed, screaming incoherently. She fell once, scrambled to her feet, and plowed forward, gulping air and unable to call for help. So terrified she thought her heart would burst from her chest, she finally found her voice and screamed. The police station wavered in front of her, and she plunged through the doorway shrieking so loud that a cop pulled his weapon.
The changes are quite subtle, but readers are adept at taking in the shifts and staying on track with the time shifts if those subtle signals are included.
Nowhere near a police station now, Colleen took off in a blind run.
When returning to present day narrative, use words and phrases that redirect the reader. Particularly useful ones: now (which was used above), and now that, after those events, in the present day, once that passed, etc. Anything that will help the reader circle back to the present is useful.
Keep careful track of your use of flashbacks. Make a timeline to ensure that your chronology and flashback usage makes sense and that you aren't overusing the tactic. In fact, if you find you have employed a substantial number of flashbacks throughout your text, you may want to consider restructuring your novel so the events begin earlier in time.
You wouldn't think that something as simple as providing backstory would be so tricky, but it often is. If you utilize flashback techniques carefully, though, your reader will have no trouble following your narrative, and you will be able to add new layers of information to your storyline.
© 2010 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.
Back to Article