How to Handle Flashbacks

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.

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?


Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

You questions to think about I believe helps keep the flashbacks and story in sync.

Margaret Fieland said...

Heidi, thanks for the information and great list of questions. I've read some novels (a couple of sci fi/fantasy novels come to mind) where past/present action is interleaved. The book I'm thinking of did it well, but I found it irritating even so.

Heidiwriter said...

I'm conditioned not to write flashbacks (or backstory), except in brief memories, but if done right, it should read seamlessly and not bump you out of the story.

VS Grenier said...

Great post and on a topic I know I find myself asking a lot when I'm writing.

Aileen said...

Awesome post, Heidi. Thank you!

Martha said...

Very informative. Thanks

Kathleen Moulton said...

Heidi, I was wondering about #3, introspection. Do you say this because it loses the reader?

Thanks for some great info!


Heidiwriter said...

Kathleen, yes it is. If you spend too much time in someone's head, there's less action and readers get tired or bored easily these days! A lot of ruminating and mulling and questioning gets old, especially if it happens more than once on the same issues.

Karen Cioffi said...

Thanks for the flasback tips, Heidi. This is a writing area that can be tricky. I think a combination of strategies can work to make the backstory seamless.

Kathleen Moulton said...

Makes sense. Thank-you!


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