Once the reader’s interest is caught, after the storyline is firmly established, the reader may want to know that past history that brought the character to where he is today. If a girl’s going to slap a boy’s face, then he in turn knocks her down, let the reader see that first before you explain the background of their quarrel.
WAYS TO HANDLE FLASHBACKS:
1. Recollection. The character goes briefly into a memory within a couple of sentences or a paragraph.
2. True Flashback—A trigger—a song, a smell, something reminds the character of something or someone and sends him/her back into the past. Then trigger the character back into the present (the song ends, someone asks a question, etc.)
3. Introspection. Be VERY CAREFUL. It should be exceptionally quirky or an exceptional reason to write this way. Make introspection a small percentage of the novel.
4. Summary. A way to introduce back story. Example: The Book of Ruth, Jane Hamilton, gives a tour of the town, giving little tidbits of info about places & people.
5. Prologue. A haunting incident or piece of info that continues through the story.
6. Dialogue. You can explain past action in a short discussion. Again, don’t start the story with it. See if you can figure out a way to show the event itself, instead of having people talk about it.
7. Memory. You can use an inner monologue to take a short trip down memory lane. Example, from Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist: Just when the reader is fed up with Macon’s bad-tempered dog Edward, Tyler lets us know why Macon insists on keeping the dog. The dog had belonged to his son Ethan, who had been murdered the previous year. “Once upon a time, Ethan had brushed him, bathed him, wrestled on the floor with him, and when Edward stopped to paw at one ear, Ethan would ask, with the soberest courtesy, ‘Oh, may I scratch that for you?’ The two of them watched daily at the window for the afternoon paper, and the instant it arrived, Ethan sent Edward bounding out to fetch it—hind legs meeting front legs, heels kicking up joyfully.”
8. Frames. Only two flashbacks, one at the beginning and one at the end. For example, an older person introduces the story, then we leave her and go directly into the main story—that of the 20-year-old. Then you end with the older person again. It’s kind of a prologue and epilogue form.
To Think About:
• Look at your flashbacks.
• How often are you interrupting the forward flow of your story?
• Do you have flashback at more than one level—flashbacks from flashbacks?
• If you spend a lot of time in the past, take a look at each flashback individually. If it were cut, would the present story be harder to follow? Or, can you rewrite it into a more present, or real-time scene?
Cheryl St. John is the author of Write Smart Write Happy, How to Become a More Productive, Resilient, and Successful Writer Che...
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