Writing Techniques: Part III – using flashbacks

January 15, 2009 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

flashbackWhy flashbacks?

When I planned my fantasy novel the first time around, I had included quite a few flashback moments, where the reader would find out more about a character’s past, his or her motives for doing things, reveal a couple of shocking secrets – essentially what flashbacks are generally used for.

The flashback is definitely preferable to the basic narrative summary that just dumps the information on the reader because it actually takes the reader back in time, so it’s as though whatever happens in the flashback is happening in the present.

The trouble with flashbacks

However, when I actually had a deeper think about it, I started having a lot of trouble figuring out just how I was going to transition back and forth in time.  It really wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  I knew if I was going to do it, it would have to be done seamlessly.  It would also have to be done at the right time in the storyline.  Otherwise it would just look clumsy and kill the momentum.

So I started looking around online on how to use flashbacks effectively.  Strangely, I couldn’t find all that much advice (please tell me if I just don’t know how to use the Internets).  The most common advice was: avoid them.  And if you just have to use them, make sure they are absolutely necessary.

They say this is because flashbacks break the reading experience, and when they aren’t done well, it pulls the reader out of the story.  Readers generally want to find out what happens next, not what happened before.

Okay, so I went and cut out some of the flashbacks that I thought weren’t needed.  But there were still a few left.  In particular, I had wanted to reveal bits of information about the antagonist through a series of flashbacks.  I still want to do that.  I feel strongly that it is necessary.  But still, how to I do it?  What technique or tool can be used to facilitate that seamless transition I was looking for?

Ways to transition between time

The first thing that I considered was how they do it in the movies.  They always have flashbacks in movies and they usually work well.  For example: make the screen go blurry for a while then have a caption telling the audience it’s another year; change to colour to black and white or sepia; change the make-up, hair, clothes and props; get a younger actor and have everyone call him/her by the same name etc.  However, these weren’t exactly tactics I could use in my writing.

And so I looked for more advice online.  A lot of them were obvious, but potentially useful.  Like simply telling the reader at the start of a chapter by telling them the time or year or how old the character is (I recall The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger did that, which was interesting but at times confusing).  Some preferred to use alternative methods, such as bringing flashback material to the foreground – for example, by revealing details of the character’s childhood through a conversation or thought.  This way, backstory is revealed while remaining in the present.  Others were a little cliched, like making the flashback happen in a dream;  or downright silly, like using 3 asterisks to break the page then go straight into it using italics.

My verdict

I started to think about some of the novels I have read in the past, and it occurred to me that a large number of them used flashbacks in some way or another.  When it is done well, you don’t even tend to realise how it’s been done – you just follow the author’s words naturally as you travel back in time.  I’m going to have another read of some of those books to see if there were any particular tricks employed, but I think I’m just going to stop thinking about it until I have to.  As long as I can guide the reader to where I want to take them I should be fine.

PS: In fact, just reading over some of the stuff I’ve written, it seems I’ve already used a mini-flashback.  Only a very short scene, but I hadn’t even noticed that I had done it.