You know what it is. That moment when a scent, a voice, a word triggers a memory, a forgotten moment, a flashback. All becomes fuzzy, ripply, hazey, whichever you prefer, and then clarifies on the revealing scene so very crucial to your plot.
I read somewhere that flashbacks should be avoided at all costs. DO NOT USE THEM. I freaked out, because my WIP at the time was riddled with them. It was why I was researching flashbacks. Aak! I kept researching, and my regular breathing returned.
Yes, while it is true flashbacks should be used sparingly, if done the right way they can play an important part in moving your story along, drawing the reader in, and providing insight into your characters. In choosing a re-created flashback over narration of a past event, we actually invite the reader to experience the past firsthand. In the book, Manuscript makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, by Elizabeth Lyon, I found some helpful guidelines about re-created flashbacks:
- Don't tell about the past until the reader is interested/worried about the present. Readers need to be invested in your protagonist and the story before you put the story motion in temporary reverse.
- Narrative flashbacks are the least effective. Re-creating the scene has more impact than just describing it. A mixture can be done as well.
- Study other novels that use flashback as you have used it, Does yours work as well?
- Don't get stuck in a "flashback within a flashback' cycle. You could end up in the Dark Ages. Unless your story is in the Dark Ages. Then you could end up in the Mesozoic Period. I guess.
Making sure your reader understands that a flashback is taking place is paramount. If you fail at this, confusion will ensue. As I found out from my writing group when they read my first draft.
- Don't start out a chapter with a flashback.
- DO set the flashback up with something like this:
She remembered the day her mother had come across that painting. They were running errands in the tourist town of Bigfork, north of the lake. Her mother had dashed into an antiques store for a quick perusal and Alisen had followed after her, watching as she browsed intently.“What are you looking for?”“I’ll know when I find it.” ...and the dialogue and re-created scene continues. A little narration at the beginning leads to the actual experience.
- DO make sure your reader knows when the flashback has ENDED.
Alisen came out of her reverie, her arms wrapped around herself. She got up and walked over to the painting, brushing a little dust off the frame. “What am I looking for this time, Mom?”She tilted her head to the side, as if expecting to hear an answer.
- When discussing things of the past, especially in flashbacks, we often use past perfect tense. It is easy to think this is something we have to use to make sure our reader understands we are still having a flashback. Example:
A few moments later, her mother’s hand had reached out, as if it had known all along, and brought back with it the painting of the cherries.
“There. I found what I was looking for.”
“How did you know?” Alisen had been amazed.
Her mother had looked mysterious and excited. “I didn’t.”
The clerk at the store had wrapped the painting in brown paper, and Alisen had sacredly held the bundle all the way home.
Then, her mother had surprised her further, by ceremoniously walking up the stairs with the painting held in front of her. As she had continued towards Alisen’s room, Alisen’s eyes had widened, and she dared to hope. Her mother stopped, and motioned for her to open the door. She had swept across to an open wall, took out a nail and putty knife from her back pocket, and, using the handle of the putty knife as a hammer, installed the painting on Alisen’s very own wall.
They had sat on the edge of the bed and surveyed her handiwork.
“Sometimes, when you don’t know what you are looking for, that is when you find exactly what you need,” her mother had mused. Then she leaned into Alisen’s ear. “But, you have to be looking.”
Alisen had grinned, and her mother had caught her up in her arms.
My, that is a lot of "hads" and it worked. Time and time again the reader was reminded that this was a flashback, and was prevented from being caught up in the moment. When I read flashbacks done well, I find it a pleasant thing to be pulled back into the present time, as if I've lost myself in a layer underneath, and now will be pulled back up, hopefully having a deeper understanding of or curiosity about the present goings on. In the above example, I highlighted the "hads" I removed from the ms. In a flashback, we only need them at the beginning and the end, and some where it sounds right. This provides the "memory haze" or "time shift ripples" like Garth used in Wayne's World. *doodly doodly doodly doodly*
Go back and read it through, skipping over the red "hads". Do you see?
One final note. Elizabeth Lyon suggests a couple occasions where re-creating the past are ideal:
- In a prologue or as a first scene in Ch.1, often followed by a flash forward (ala Sweet Home Alabama).
- As a primary story in a frame structure (ala The Notebook- I know I'm using movie examples, but you get it, don't you?).
What are your favorite flashbacks in literature or cinema?