Is flashback a dirty word?
Everything you put in a novel-- this goes double for a short story--must either move the plot forward or shed light on character. Preferably, it does both at the same time.
Many people say flashbacks should be banned from fiction because they are-
a) "merely" backstory,
b) take the reader out of the moment and remind him he is reading fiction,
c) do nothing to advance the plot and seldom reveal character in a way that would be impossible to achieve in regular forward-moving narrative.
One of my writing heros, Anne Tyler said "My private feeling is that a flashback is a sign of failure. It's bad storytelling..."
Recently, I was working on a novel with a protagonist haunted by her past. For months, I struggled to avoid flashbacks, but still reveal her complete story and highlight her concerns. After all, Anne Tyler could do it (not that I'm comparing my writing ability to hers). But if I couldn't ban the flashback my story was a FAILURE!
Sure, I'd learned how to construct an efficient flashback from some of the very best writing teachers. But everywhere I turned I was told prose filled with flashbacks is DOOMED. Finally, I went back to the source of my fears. I own nearly all of Anne Tyler's novels, but I hadn't looked at them for awhile as I shifted my focus to children's literature and my own writing.
When I opened the page I made a stunning discovery.
Anne Tyler may hate flashback but her writing celebrates them.
Breathing Lessons is one flashback after another, connected sometimes by the thinnest line of forward moving narrative. And it's gorgeous. It more than holds the reader's interest. It captivates.
This is what I decided- poorly constructed flashbacks, or flashbacks put in the wrong place are awful. But to tell the truth, a writer who doesn't know how to write a good flashback usually has other weaknesses. That's not the only thing wrong with his story.
Great flashbacks are easy. Don't be afraid. Let your characters remember the past when it impacts their present. Your story will be ten times richer. Flashbacks are one of the major elements in story that create texture and realism.
1) Time it right. Don't think of a flashback as backstory, stuffed in to explain or introduce. DO NOT fill your first chapter with a bunch of flashbacks to bring your character and their problem on stage. A flashback should be a spicy streak through your narrative, added because the action of the moment demands it. A woman walks by a gift shop and remembers it would have been a beloved relative's birthday... a family drives down a winding road and the point of view character remembers a horrible car wreck around a particular curve. Human beings have memories and eliciting those emotional memories in your work is good-- very very good. So rule one don't just plug in backstory and call it a flashback.
2) Jump in, do your work, and jump out. Flashbacks don't need to be long. In some cases an entire novel is told in retrospect, making it technically a flashback, but often all you need is a sentence or two. Summon up a wisp of memory. Let it fill that character's car, or house, or brain with its essence. Don't grind the memory into the ground.
3) Use good technique. When I was preparing notes for this post I saw instructions for flashbacks in a couple places that were completely misguided. They said something like this- "Let your reader know you are entering a flashback. For example- 'John sat back and remembered last Tuesday when he...'"
NO NO NO Do not ever do that. There is nothing- absolutely nothing that will pull a reader out of the dream of a story quicker than a writer telling them "John remembered" thus and so. If the reader is engaged in the story they know they are looking at the world through John's eyes. Let them assume, since you are exhibiting perfect control of point of view everywhere else, that they are STILL viewing the scene through John, this time through his mind's eye.
But if you don't say "John remembered blah blah blah" how does a reader know it's something that happened in the past?
There's a tense for that. It's called Past Perfect (John had driven) and Past Perfect Progressive (John had been driving).
"It was nice to be in a car again but John had driven down this road with Sam. Then the car skidded..."
The verb to have tosses the reader out of the regular past tense you probably use as the default tense in your narrative and throws him into the character's past. Just use it once, maybe twice. Then proceed with the flashback in plain old past tense.
Here's a gorgeous example from one of the best books I've ever read,
The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt.
You really need to run out to your bookstore and buy a copy of this book today. But first read this bit from page 188.
At the base of the old tree, Puck sat just in front of the opening of his den.(forward moving narrative) In these past several days he had (here we go with the flashback) accomplished three important things: finding a place to sleep, filling up his belly, and recognizing the moon.(Hey that’s a beautiful summary too- go back to yesterday’s post) But despite these small victories, he couldn’t shake the mistake he had made (jumping back out of the flashback) when he broke the rule about the Underneath. Mistake was all around him, right here in his mud-caked fur, heer in this patch of sunlight, here in the trees looming overhead.(wow are we tossed right back into forward moving narrative!) Mistake, mistake, mistake. (remember the power of finishing a line with short telling phrases to act like a period and emphasize your point?)
Don't fear the flashback! But like other writing techniques, use it wisely. Use it to move the story forward by providing context, or to give the reader information about your character and his or her perspective that they couldn't understand otherwise. The results won't be a failure, I promise. It will be beautiful.
Come back tomorrow. I'm going to use words to STOP TIME.