Saturday, November 26, 2016

Looking Back to Go Forward

When it comes to flashbacks, there are two trains of thought. Some writers say no, no, no, don't ever use flashbacks, they distract. There are others who simply shrug and say go for it. Both types write excellent novels.

Flashbacks are used to convey valuable plot information and insight into character motivation, to build tension or create mystery before the current story action. A flashback can be almost like the author is whispering a secret into the ear of the reader, revealing something of importance about a previous event, or hinting at something yet to occur. Flashbacks are perfect for foreshadowing what is to come.

 Flashbacks are often introduced by a character's memory trigger, such as a smell, sight, sound, an event, a person. Triggers aren't always necessary, but the flashback must always be relevant in some way to the current story scene.

Just as with any other literary device, there are rules for using flashbacks.

A flashback must seem necessary and relevant -- it must propel the story forward while looking into the past. The placement of a flashback should follow a strong scene of the current story, you should never just drift into a flashback.

Reader confusion seems to be the number one complaint about the sudden intrusion of a flashback. Always orient the reader as to time, space, and characters' ages if necessary. If your character is 42-years-old today and your flashback takes him back to childhood, get the information across quickly.

(I've just finished re-reading It, and was amazed at how easily and clearly Mr. King continually moved the children of 1958 into the adults of 1985 without any confusion whatsoever. Early events meshed smoothly with current happenings and yet stood out as individual scenes without a bump. Of course, he is Stephen King.)

The mechanics of opening a flashback scene are the same as any opening literary hook -- the first sentence should be strategic. Whether smooth or jarring, that first sentence must be intentional, and used to full advantage.

If the story is being told in past tense, begin the flashback in past perfect (had said, had dressed, hadn't seen), and continue using past perfect for about the first five sentences, then move into past tense. When the flashback is coming to a close, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs to signal the end. If the story is being told in present tense, then the flashback should be told in straight past tense to differentiate between past and present. 

Very short flashbacks, a paragraph or two, can be written into the current story as a quick memory. Many writers who use flashbacks use italics as a way of setting it apart from real-time story. But if you are including a long flashback passage, whether you use italics or not, it is always best to give it its own section, separated from the body of the current story.

Just as a person often considers his past in order to understand his present, so, too, can literary flashbacks shine light on a current situation. It's just a matter of looking back in order to go forward.

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