From the Technique section of section of my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells: “Flashing back.”
Flashbacks are risky. You chance losing readers (like me) who really, really, really want to know what’s going to happen next which, if you’ve done your job, is exactly what they should be interested in.
When should you use flashbacks, if at all? Editors and agents see scores of manuscripts with openings slowed to a halt by the weight of flashbacks and explanatory exposition.
Some say to never use them, and that’s possible. But there are times a flashback can enrich a story, adding depth and meaning that would otherwise not be there. There are times when, without knowledge of the past, a character’s actions will seem unmotivated, and thus not credible.
So when and how do you use flashbacks? I advocate using them only when the knowledge revealed in the flashback is absolutely critical for understanding what’s going on in the story’s present. Beginning writers need to be tough on themselves here. They’ll feel like a reader needs to know things about a character that, truthfully, are not necessary for understanding the NOW of the story. It’s the NOW that readers want to be immersed in.
Another reason for flashbacks is necessary characterization—an example is coming right up.
We pause for notes on how to create a flashback that works.
- Weave it as seamlessly as possible into the action. Words such as “remembered” and phrases such as “thought of the time when” are bright red flags that signal to many readers that coming soon to a page near them is a part to skip. Transitions are key.
- Make the flashback a true scene with action, dialogue, tension, and all the storytelling elements that you use to keep a reader engaged. Avoid telling a past event, show it (unless it can be done in one brief, crisp paragraph). Readers want to experience what’s happening, not just receive information. A good flashback, for the moment, becomes the “now” of the story.
Here’s an example of slipping from the present to the past and back in order to give the reader necessary information about a character. Note: in the story, lledri refers to an energy these people can manipulate like magic.
Graeme had been so full of life the day they strolled through Central Park . . . if only she hadn’t said, “I thought the Met’s new sculpture exhibit was excellent.”
Graeme had shrugged. “Perhaps.” He gestured at the people who plodded through the park. “But there’s little else of excellence from that sorry race.”
Ailia’s contrary side had reared its head at the unfairness of the bias against the lessi that Graeme inherited from his father. “There’s plenty of good in them, and you know it.”
“I do not.” He surveyed the people around them. Dozens wandered, for it was a sunny day. “See their colors, Ailia. Is there kindness or good will anywhere?”
She had looked, and the lledri auras around their heads writhed with the nasty burgundy of hostility, the bilious color of lies, the ash-violet of depression, and the bruised red of violence. That, of course, only served to rally her resistance. “Perhaps not here, not now, but there are many good-hearted lessi.”
He made an exaggerated moue and said, “A wager?”
She picked up the gauntlet. “Yes.” She pointed down a curving walk. “I say we’ll find a worthy lessi that way.”
She ran her hands over her breasts and down her belly.
Oh, that smile of his. He said, “It’s a bet.”
She congratulated herself on her good luck when they came upon a woman pulling a two-wheeled shopping cart; her aura radiated a rosy gold, the rich hue of caring. Perhaps sixty years old, the woman was stout, anchored to the earth like an oak tree. She stopped before a trio of homeless men who sprawled on ragged blankets.
When she opened a brown paper bag from her cart, Ailia caught the aroma of bologna. The woman took a sandwich from the sack and handed it to one of the men. He sat up and attacked the food.
Graeme spread his arms in surrender, lifted his gaze to the heavens and said, as if to a higher power, “Why have you once again given Ailia victory over your poor servant Graeme?”
She poked him in his ribs and said, “I believe you owe me.”
He pulled her into his arms. “I’m ready.”
His body let her know that he was indeed ready. Her pulse had quickened, and she had wanted to take him by the hand, find a cluster of bushes, cast a shadow illusion for concealment, and make love. But she had pushed away and said, “If we’re so advanced, we should help.”
Oh, if only. . .
He had laughed, and then put on a thick French accent. “But of course, ma cherie.” Stepping to the woman’s side, he gestured to the sack of sandwiches and said, “May I?”
She smiled and nodded, and Graeme took a sandwich from the bag and thrust it at a whiskery man whose bristles made him look like a wild boar.
The boar man scrambled to his feet, digging into a pocket. Too late Ailia saw in his aura the acrid tornado of colors that meant madness. He pulled a knife from a pocket, flicked it open and thrust it into Graeme’s chest. Graeme collapsed as if he were a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Ailia had dropped to her knees beside him and plunged lledri into his chest to heal the wound with touch—but his heart had been sliced almost in two. There was no way she could mend him. She had looked into his eyes and seen terrible fear . . . and then an even more terrible absence.
If only she hadn’t . . .if only. . .
The “if only she hadn’t” bookends the flashback to ease you into the past and back to the present. Connective tissue such as this can help move your reader into and out of a flashback and help tie its meaning to the story.
This example, brief at it is (just two manuscript pages), expands the reader’s understanding of why the character is depressed and suicidal, yet it has conflict and tension.
Later, to deepen the reader’s understanding of the other primary protagonist, this novel uses a mini-flashback to plant the seed for a longer one that added to characterization later. First, the mini-flash:
Gabe had never found a word for what he saw when people lied. Aura? But it wasn’t a glow so much as streaming sparks of translucent, luminescent color that he could “see” even with his eyes closed. He’d never heard of anyone else seeing them. People would probably think it was a good thing, being able to tell when people lied. But he hated it. He’d felt . . . outside since he was seven and perceiving the color of lies in action had cost him his best friend.
The character’s feeling of not belonging is a powerful motivator for later action, and this brief glimpse needed expanding—but not at this moment in the story. The full history wasn’t needed for understanding, but his ability to use lledri needed to be introduced and explained, along with planting the seed for a flashback that later expands the experience that motivated his feelings.
His son has inherited his ability, and the effect on the boy resembles autism, which is something the father needs to understand. So, eighty-five pages later, when the other protagonist says to him, “You know the effect that possessing this ability can have on a child, don’t you?” this is Gabe’s response:
Oh, yeah, Gabe knew how seeing a weird color in the air can affect a kid. In second grade, he’d seen Marty Simmons swipe an oatmeal cookie from Heather’s lunch sack. It was scorched on the bottom like all the cookies Heather’s mom made. When Heather noticed Marty eating it, she accused him of taking her cookie.
He had told her his mom had baked cookies yesterday and that Heather was crazy—and a nasty greenish color had flickered around his head. Gabe studied the other kids at the table as they watched Marty tell his lie. Their eyes never shifted and they never reacted to the color swirling around Marty’s head, not even when Heather started to cry.
They just couldn’t see it. Gabe had decided he wasn’t crazy because he knew what he saw was true, but he felt . . . outside, as though he was across the room from everybody else. Gabe had wanted to ask his mother about it, but he’d been afraid she would look at him in that scared-angry way that said he was nuts . . . strange . . . weird.
Soon he’d had no friends, and it wasn’t until his mother moved and he changed schools that he was able to make himself pretend he was like everybody else and be friendly again.
Both the “mini flash” and the longer flashback were tied directly to the action in the scenes, and the longer one briefly summarizes a scene complete with action and conflict.
My advice: keep flashbacks to a minimum, and avoid, if at all possible, launching into one within the first few pages of your story. A flashback in the wrong place can be a momentum-killer.
For what it’s worth
© 2011 Ray Rhamey