Writing the Flashback in Fiction
Flashbacks are tools for the fiction writer to add depth and interest to a story, as they can be a part of any piece of writing in any genre and type. Flashbacks are important for the drama in the story, because they bring the reader into the life of the characters on an emotional level and let him enter the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and expectations.
The main obligation of the flashback is to take the readers back in time when that time or place in the past matters greatly to the storyline and to the present and the future of the characters. By the same token, the flashback has to aid the reader’s grasp of the story. The reader’s grasp usually matches the writer’s understanding of his characters and their situations. If a writer has not fully fleshed out his characters in his mind, the flashbacks may run the risk of being irrelevant to the story.
Let’s say, in a very short story, a character named Mike eats a quart of ice-cream in one sitting and remembers, in flashback, his mother serving him ice-cream. Then Mike goes to his job with the CIA and discovers his best friend is a mole. After a few incidents, he proves who the mole is to his bosses. Here, the ice-cream incident and the flashback that come with it have nothing to do with the discovery of the mole, so it shouldn’t be included in Mike’s discovery-of-the-mole story, even if the writer may imagine it helps to bring out the soft side of this character.
One way to bring flashbacks to a story is to give them in total in the beginning as a prologue, an introduction, or an introductory chapter. The advantages of the total flashbacks are:
o Total flashbacks allow the telling of the story without stopping the action.
o They give the story a chronological order.
o During the storytelling, the critical backstory data serves to give depth to the story.
o Writing the total flashback is easy on the writer. After he is done with the backstory in flashback, telling the real story becomes uncomplicated.
The disadvantage of the total flashback in the beginning of a story is that it can bore the reader with the long past, instead of pulling him into the story’s action and the story’s present time.
Another way to insert flashbacks in a story is to give them in several large chunks inside the story. The film industry can use cut-aways for this; however, in writing straight fiction, large chunks work better only in slow-moving stories. If the writer is telling a fast-paced story in any genre, he needs to avoid the large chunks of flashbacks.
In addition, this type of flashback is best used by signaling its beginning and end in some way or possibly putting the flashback in italics. As to the dialogue in a large chunk of flashback, it can be summarized, if possible.
A third way of inserting the flashbacks in the story is to insert small pieces of flashback, possibly in one or two sentences wherever they are needed. The advantages of this technique are:
o The writer has flexibility in telling the story, as to how to tell it and how much he will let the reader know.
o The writer can weave in critical information and background material at any time he wishes.
o He can use it to increase suspense or to attract the reader’s curiosity
o He can create layered characters during the writing of the real story.
On the negative side, if not handled well by the writer, this technique may cause the reader to confuse the past with the present.
A few points to pay attention to while creating flashbacks are:
o The contents of the flashback should not be more exciting than the real story.
o A flashback works better if it follows a strong scene.
o The writer should orient the reader at the start of the flashback in time and space. If the transition of the flashback is not adequately written, past and present may become a jumble in the reader’s mind.
o During the revision process, it may be necessary to leave out the least important incidents in the flashbacks and trim down the existing ones.
o As to usage, the writer may want to make use of the verb tenses to signal a flashback’s beginning and ending. If the story is told in the present tense, the entire flashback can be in the past tense. If the story is told in past tense, the flashback may begin with past perfect to signal the change, then the flashback may continue with the past tense again, in order not to overuse the weighty past perfect. Then the ending of the flashback can be maneuvered into past perfect again before continuing the story with the past tense.
Some caveats concerning flashbacks are:
o The writer should not make the contents of the flashback more interesting or longer than the real story.
o The writer should not introduce the flashback as the first real scene in the story. This doesn’t always work.
o Flashbacks within flashbacks run the risk of confusing the story and the reader who is reading it, unless the writer is as highly experienced as John Updike.
o Too many and too long flashbacks tend to turn a story into an epic. If that is not the intention and there is a limit to word count, the writer must be careful with long flashbacks.
o It works better to use flashbacks sparingly and with discretion since they do tend to slow the pacing. An experienced writer will not use flashbacks past the three-quarters of the real story.