Two Brother Press

Writing Tips

Here are links to other writing tips from Two Brothers Press...

Description: the red meat of the story

Dialog: the elements and art of creating dialog

Fastest Gun in the West: the need to provide enough detail for readers

Narrative Voice in Fiction: choose a point of view and stick with it

Novel Openings: It was a dark and stormy night

Flashbacks in storytelling
Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback!

thinkerThe art and use of flashbacks in a story can be a very effective way of filling in the information gaps of a story that will inform the reader of a character's past, give background for the current situation in a story, or provide insight about the how and why of a character's motivation.

But, what is a flashback?

Think of it this way. In a story, we have what is going on in the present, the unfolding of the plot, where we have action, dialog, and narration. A flashback might be considered a back story, what unfolded before the present moment, where we had action, past dialog, and narration. What is happening now vs. what happened before now. Also, however, think of a flashback as occurring in a character's mind. It is not just narrated history. That doesn't really qualify as a flashback. A flashback involves a particular character's memory that suddenly becomes triggered by an event, a place, or a statement by another character.

That flashback momentarily takes the character out of the conversation, the present action, or other event in the present moment of the story. For this reason, flashbacks shouldn't be done when the action of the story is at a crucial point. Readers will not like the interruption and a long-ish flashback at such points will feel false. Here's a quick illustration of an inconvenient, irritating, and false flashback:

The car in the oncoming lane was careening toward him so fast it was seconds away from hitting him head on. He remembered another time, when he had argued with his father, Jim—not his real father—about something. He couldn't remember, and he had run out of the house, fiddling in his jeans for his car keys. He would show his stepfather he couldn't be pushed around. No, Sir! He had ripped open the door to his Mustang—a car he had paid for with his own money from mowing lawns and delivering papers on his route. It had taken years. No, Sir! His stepfather was not going to dictate to him. And, just like now, he was speeding along the freeway...When the other car hit him, he almost fainted, but the impact was slight enough that he quickly regained control of his car.

This flashback would be completely illogical in the flow of the moment—the careening car about to make impact—and the longer it is stretched out, the less urgent the present action might seem. No doubt in real life we get instantaneous flashback images in the present about a past event that is similar, but we wouldn't go into an overly long contemplation if the present action is more urgent. It is also not a good idea for a character to go into a flashback in the middle of a conversation, although many novice writers make the attempt so that a dialog response by the character who went into the flashback comes five paragraphs later than the other character's statement.

But let's say a character is returning to his hometown for the first time after having been away at war, or the character is returning home in the middle of a successful modeling career, and she feels obligated to help her ailing mother. In either case, there would be several triggers to a flashback for both the coming home soldier and the coming home daughter, perhaps as soon as they hit the outskirts of their hometown. It would be completely logical and fitting for either character to recall events or people in their hometown as they drove through. The soldier might recall his group of friends on the way to a football game; the model might recall how she was not as pretty as the other girls and would flash back to an incident of cruelty by someone—and part of the flashback for the now successful model would involve the irony of the cruelty. I made it, she would conclude after a flashback involving the other girls who had been mean to her. And, in the present, during her stay with her mother, she might contemplate visiting those who had never left. See what they thought now.

As we can see from these two potential flashbacks, we would be getting background stories on the soldier and the model as they move through the present of the story.

How to get into and out of a flashback

If the present of the story is written in the immediate past tense (see writer's tip on "Narrative Voice"), then to get into the flashback, the writer should either use phrases like, "she remembered how the girls had surrounded her that day..." or momentarily switch to the past perfect tense, which uses "had," "had been," the distant tense that happened in the past and ended in the past. Once in the flashback, the writer can switch back to the immediate present tense: "There was a band playing on main street when the explosion happened, and everyone ran forward to see what it was..."

Once the flashback has ended and the writer wishes to return to the present of the story, as in the case of the model who recalled the other girls surrounding her, making fun of her dress, makeup...whatever, the writer once again uses the past perfect tense, "...and so she had run all the way home. Now, as she drove past the school, she wiped a tear from her eye, thinking about her mother's illness...and feeling guilty that she hadn't called her more often."

Hey, who's in here with me? This is my flashback

Now, this is a strange logical error that novice writers make, and the longer and more detailed, the more likely it is to occur. Remember that all of us have flashbacks. But they are in our heads, pulled from our memories, and invisible to those around us. No one else can intrude in our memories of events; so, when a character goes into a flashback, the only thinking part that can occur in the flashback is that character's. Yet, I have had writers forget that they're in a particular character's head in the flashback.

Frank remembered that day, when he and his best friend Jim were heading to the ball game. It was a warm spring day with just a hint of a breeze that would soon give way to a little more heat, once the ball game got underway. Frank had thought, I think I'd rather ditch the game and go down by the creek. But Jim thought, I'd like to go to the sporting goods store for a new catcher's glove. But neither of them had made it. They didn't see the tractor-trailer rig coming around the corner, until it was too late...

Ok. This is Frank's flashback. Maybe he's passing the place where the truck hit and killed his best friend and his flashback has been triggered. Note that in Frank's memory, the writer has given Jim a thinking part. That is impossible. Although Jim is definitely in Frank's memory, it is Frank's memory, so it is impossible that Jim would have a thinking part. So writers should be aware that a flashback belongs to only one character at a time.

A companion error to this singularity of a flashback belonging to just one character is that in the present moment of the story, another character reacts to the flashback. How does she do that?

Frank remembered that day...flashback...return to the present.

"Yeah, that was a bad time for you, wasn't it, Frank?" Brenda said.

As bizarre as this sounds, novice writers also let other characters in on the content of the flashback and have them react to it. It just doesn't work, unless the other character is a mind reader, but that's a writing tip for another time.