Category Archive: Flashbacks

Make your flashback the best it can be

Twisty clock

Back in time

Pulling off a flashback takes finesse. The danger of cliché looms large, and you may overlook other ways to accomplish the effect you are shooting for, explain your backstory or give us insight into your character. A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

When faced with the questionshould I or shouldn’t I?” ask yourself:

  • Will the information I am about to impart by flashback come out regardless during the course of the story? If so, then leave it. Don’t be in a hurry to get it all out in the open on the first page. In fact, letting your readers piece it together for themselves will only heighten the suspense.
  • Does this flashback stem naturally from what flashes through my character’s thoughts? If the answer is yes, then chances are your flashback will seem a lot less contrived. Think of a trigger – a strong image or powerful event – that will bring your character’s memories to the surface.
  • Can I use some other, more immediate method to accomplish what I have in mind? As a replacement for the flashback, consider the “back flash” – in which crucial information emerges about your character in the present, preferably in the form of dialogue.

A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

Mechanics:

When writing your flashback, beware the pluperfect. You may experience the temptation to narrate the entire flashback using “had” before every verb. Doing so will rob your flashback of power and immediacy. Just one or two at the beginning should do the trick, and, if necessary, one at the very end.

Consider:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara had been when she had disappeared. It’d been an ordinary day at the mall when she had let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete had spent endless hours grilling the police, who had slowly given up as the months had rolled on. Pete had left her when, he had said, it had become an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as Sara left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

Here the writer (OK, it was me) leads us into the flashback with a trigger – the girl on her toy motorbike – but then has us slog through the tedium of repeated complex verb forms, reminding us over and over that, yup, it’s a flashback. This may be grammatically OK, but we never really let go of the “now” of the story, never get out of Iris’s car.

It reads more smoothly and seems more immediate without as many pluperfects:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara when she had disappeared. It was an ordinary day at the mall when she let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete spent endless hours grilling the police, who slowly gave up as the months rolled on. Pete left her when, he said, it became an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as she left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

The passage is hardly perfect (a but showy and infodumpy) but is illustrates that  just one pluperfect fills the bill, instead of nine. Since I use the same trigger (traffic activity) to end the flashback, there is no need for even one more pluperfect at the end, to signal that the flashback is over. Without all the “hads” we can exit the “now” of Iris’s car and fully enter the past, and this effect only increases as the flashback gets longer.

Bottom line: Overall, make sure to incorporate flashbacks into you writing both rarely and well.

 

 

Permanent link to this article: http://goldenkeyscribes.com/blog/make-your-flashback-the-best-it-can-be/