Craft: flashbacks

Our workshop tutor gave us a handout on flashbacks as we finished up on Monday afternoon - it's a leaflet he's done up for his undergraduates, so it's fairly basic stuff, but there's never any harm in revision, so here it is in summary.  All credit not to me, but to him.

Your story shouldn't rely entirely on flashbacks or explanations of the past.  Readers want to live through experience alongside their main characters. On the whole, the most impactful material in your story will be shown in a scene that happens in the story's present.  If too much of your story is in flashback, it will feel like it's all explanation, and nothing is actually happening 'now' in the story.

You can use flashback for setting the scene in the beginning. 
  • This is an explanation used to orient the reader.   Don't let it drag on or you'll find yourself in info-dump territory, and you'll ruin the flow of the story.
  • The way you write this explanatory set-up can establish the tone of voice of the story - witty, scary, etc.
  • It lets you set up hooks or questions in the readers' minds that make them keep on reading.
Flashbacks are also good for explaining key decisions in the 'now' of the story.
  • Only use this when the reader needs it - when the present prompts it.
  • These flashbacks shows us why the hero behaves as he does - the present decision or action wouldn't make any sense if we didn't have the context of the flashback.  The flashback is necessary here.
Things to avoid when you're using flashbacks:
  • Overdoing it.  You'll end up with a story that's all memories and pondering past events and no real present action - dull.
  • Constantly going back to the flashback, or making it too long. You'll labour the point or get repetitive.  Especially in a short story, be spare.
  • Flashbacks within flashbacks.  Very hard to get right, confusing, and it can seem like you're deferring the 'real' story.
The gist, really, is to ask yourself if the flashback or summary is necessary.  What would happen if you showed the story in chronological order instead - developed the flashback event as a fully imagined scene in chronological order?  Make sure your decision to mess with the time-scale - or to leave it alone - is justified, and that each section of your story is working as hard as it can to tell the best possible version of that story.   


Jenn Ashworth said...

I love stories that over-do flashbacks. I love the mechanics of what happens to narration when you have a character recalling events and only understanding the true significance of them months or years later. I love the way narrators remember unreliably, in the wrong order, to prove a point the memory does not prove at all. Some characters spend most of their present remembering and this is not dull.

Otherwise, this is a good handout.


Valerie O'Riordan said...

Oh, you pesky rule-breaky rule-breaker.

Jenn Ashworth said...

it's not only me... :) although whenever you come up with a set of rules or recommendations for writing, there's always some clever dick who comes up with a list of brilliant books that break that rule.

I think the think about flashbacks is to keep some narrative tension and forward pull going so that readers want to carry on with the present narrative too, when they get back to it. Waiting to do a flashback until the reader really wants to know about the contents of it (and what an ugly sentence that is) is exactly excellent advice, I reckon.

Jenn Ashworth said...

oh - and I really like flashbacks within flashbacks too. I find it odd that you're being advised not to do something partly because it's tricky to get right.

It's all really tricky to get right, isn't it?

I am properly, seriously going to shut up now.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Yes! And to make sure that something is happening in the present moment, that the whole entire story isn't in the past - so that something's being illuminated by the flashback, rather than the present being a pointless frame for the real story in the past.

A Kind of Intimacy is a good example of flashback; every time we come back to Annie, having seen more of her past, we think 'ah-ha' (and now I sound like Alan Partidge...) - and the weird hints she drops about her past totally prompt the flashbacks.

Go, Jenn!

Flashbacks within flashbacks - well, he was aiming this at the undergraduates, really, so I think it was a question of encouraging them to walk before they could run.

Jenn Ashworth said...

That's true - and often I say things in my beginners classes that I know I totally contradict myself in when I'm doing one on one teaching and mentoring of advanced writers. I suppose the writers who I really admire who give excellent flashback are not just putting that information in for the sake of it either, but they're using the form and structure of the novel to talk about how we remember things and how the circumstances in which we remember colour nostalgia and recollection. That isn't something you can do without slinging in the odd flashback.

Hooray for the flashback!

(says Jenn, whose just finished another half-and-half novel)

Jenn Ashworth said...

P.S Alan Partridge should be mentioned in polite conversation at least thrice daily. True fact!

Valerie O'Riordan said...

It depresses me that I worked for the BBC for five years and I didn't get Monkey Tennis on telly once.

Jenn Ashworth said...

we've all got our crosses to bear :)

Lexi Elizabeth said...

Have you ever read the novella Badlands? It's pretty much all flashback. And it's absolutely amazing.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Ooh, no - who's it by, Lexi?