Tackling the timeline: Flashbacks
Last week, I went over writing with a chronological timeline and how to incorporate things like flashbacks and foreshadowing with it. Today, I’m going to go into a little more detail about flashbacks because they’re common. Really common. They’re what writers love to use to incorporate back story. They also open doors and answer questions, reveal secrets, explain a character’s insecurities or lack thereof, and so many more things. But, some writers overuse them, and they can sometimes be a mistake.
Why use a flashback
First, remember that a flashback doesn’t carry as much tension or intrigue as the story itself. You’re going to be “pausing” the story to backtrack and tell the reader something that already happened. So don’t think your flashback makes the story more interesting. It doesn’t make it bad, but it doesn’t necessarily add a moment of awesomeness because you peeked in your character’s past.
It can add to your story, though. Sound like a contradiction? It’s not. I promise. The flashback itself won’t be as interesting because your reader wants to know what’s happening in the current time. It’s not immediate. Your character already knows the ending. But, if the flashback is an absolute necessity, or if there’s something that can only be revealed or explained with a look into the past, use a flashback. You’ll know if your flashback is necessary by answering this question: What happens to the story if I don’t have it?
If your book will end and readers will still wonder why he hated his sister so much or how on Earth some woman couldn’t bring herself to call her own daughter, a flashback might be necessary. You don’t want to end a book with questions that can be answered unless that’s the type of writer you are (in which case, I don’t want to read your book. I won’t like you for a few weeks.), so you just might need a flashback. Ask that question.
Where to use a flashback
I’ll say this first: Don’t place a flashback at the beginning of your book. Just don’t. I know some movies start off that way, but books shouldn’t. Why? Because a reader wants to know where they are when they start a book, and it’s quite frustrating to get into one storyline only to find out you haven’t reached the beginning of the story yet. It’s like being forced to read a prologue.
Reason number two: Your reader won’t often remember that small flashback they read in the beginning because they don’t know why it was relevant. If your MC starts out as a five-year-old who almost drowns and the story jumps forward ten years and the kid is scared of the water, you also just destroyed the question by providing the answer in the beginning. If your story
Reason number three: If your MC starts out as a five-year-old who almost drowns and the story jumps forward ten years and the kid is scared of the water, you also just destroyed the question by providing the answer in the beginning. Readers thrive on tension and suspense and unanswered questions. If you have a flashback at the beginning, you also just took away a question by spoon-feeding your reader.
So, where do flashbacks belong? They should be where the answer is needed. Some books have a mirror flashback sequence where they, as a child, go through an event and they, as an adult, go through a similar event. So it’s meant to play out as if the current time period’s character is remembering their past, only to learn the same lesson they didn’t see before as a child. I wish I had an example for this, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head and that “mirror flashback sequence” is a made up phrase. I can’t Google it and get what I want. If you know what it’s called or have an example, let me know and I’ll throw it in here.
When to use a flashback
Your character might not need the answer when your reader does. Keep that in mind. Whenever you decide you need your reader to know something, you also need to decide whether your MC does, too. If not, you need to use someone else as a medium or keep your main character from understanding the point. It’s easier to do this when you are writing multiple perspectives, but things like dream sequences or authority figures that your MC disrespects/ignores . . . yeah, those work, too. You have many options. Get creative!
Formatting a flashback
If your flashback is sudden or a chapter starts with flashbacks (common with nonfiction where chapters begin with past events. See A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer or All of Me by Kim Noble. They don’t absolutely have to be italicized, but it’s an option if you want to separate the two.
Don’t use quotes unless it’s in dialogue. Italics are your best bet if you think it should be separated. Don’t bold and don’t underline. If you have a good transition, you might not even need italics. You know your story better than I do, so look hard and think hard. But, this brings me to my next point . . .
How to transition to a flashback
Before I get into it, I’m going to start with my least favorite introduction to these subtopics. Don’t do this. If you try to go a roundabout direction with the flashback in the beginning by putting your character in a lonely spot while they contemplate life, stop it. Your MC doesn’t need to be introduced thinking back on that one day or remembering the moment that changed his life forever. I’ll give you two reasons for this, too. One: If that’s so interesting, why is his current moment necessary? Why are we talking about his story and not just sticking with that timeline where his flashback exists? Two: Your main character is immediately boring. His/her past self is interesting and damaged and you have just introduced your character as a solemn nobody. I say “nobody” because we still have no clue who they are or what type of person they have become. Don’t think your readers “just need to keep reading. They’ll see what the character is like.” Don’t say that because I’ve already put the book down after reading that flashback. I got my question answered. And, maybe, so did your other readers.
That was a fun lecture. Not really. But, you have thousands of ways to transition to a flashback. Well, not thousands. But plenty. I talk about it a little in my post about chronological timelines. Triggers are common because something ignites a memory. Kind of like when you see your kid on their phone (or spouse or friend or dog) and realize you left yours at home. Or when a little girl reaches for a shirt and simply touches it, which makes you remember hiding in the clothing racks as a kid or touching every piece of cloth you passed by because it felt soft and cool. You don’t always notice it, but flashbacks don’t just pop in your head. There are triggers.
Even when things seem random, there are triggers. You can be typing, which reminds you of the sound of a woodpecker, which reminds you of fire because of the word “wood,” which reminds you of that boyfriend/girlfriend you had who burnt their hand on the stove two months ago because they didn’t know the fire had just been turned off. How did we get from typing to burning a hand on a stove? Triggers. And that just made me think of chiggers . . . I hate those things.
So, use those triggers to start a flashback.
Samuel squinted, his eyes following the squirrel as it climbed higher into the tree. It stopped on a branch then jumped across to the one next to it. He smiled a little when it hopped back to the first branch then looked down at him.
“I’m not going up there,” he said as if it understood. “I’m too old.”
The squirrel didn’t move, and he knew it would stay there a while. It had been Samuel’s spot for a long time, so he knew just how comfortable it was. After digging post holes, it was the only place he could sit where he had shade and a perfect view of Sarah’s backyard.
That’s a bit boring of an example, but you get the point. Find the trigger? Do it your own way. Get creative, have fun, and let me know if you have any questions or comments. I’ll be here!