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Flashback -- The Rules

Sometimes, especially when a story takes place over a period of years or has its origins in a long-ago event, flashback is a useful tool in story-showing.

Flashback is not simply a character recalling what happened. A true flashback takes the characters and the reader back in time to the event, so we see the scene as it really was and hear the actual words (not the characters’ memories of what was said)--just as we do when describing present-day action.

Before using flashback at all, consider whether it’s really necessary. Flashback seldom moves a story forward. In fact, it slows the action of the main story and can bring it to a dead halt from which it will never recover. Flashback does not develop character; while it can illustrate character by showing past actions, that’s important in only a limited number of stories.

A flashback is not appropriate if the author’s intent is simply to insert the character’s history. In that case, a one-sentence reference to the past may be more effective in accomplishing the purpose than is a lengthy flashback.

Flashback should be used only if the past action illustrates motivation for the main story and if it is necessary for the reader to see that action occurring in order to understand the present-day story.

Because we’re using narrative within the flashback, it’s sometimes confusing to keep time straight and make it clear to the reader just what time period of the story we’re in at the moment. But there are techniques to make this easier for the reader.

The rules of using flashback

bulletWarn the reader of what’s coming; make sure she knows she’s about to enter a flashback. You can do this by using past perfect tense during the shift from the current story to the flashback, then changing to past tense for the body of the recollection, and returning briefly to past perfect to finish the flashback and return to the current story. In many cases, a sentence or two of summary at the beginning and end of the flashback are necessary to set the scene and establish place and time.
bulletMake sure the transition from present to past is logical. Memories don’t come out of nowhere, so just sitting still with time on her hands probably isn’t enough to send the heroine into a torrent of recall, particularly if the memories are unpleasant. What brought the past event to mind? What’s making her think about it right now?
bulletBe certain the placement of the flashback makes sense. Does the character have time for the luxury of memory? While the heroine’s being chased down the street by the bad guys, she’s not likely to be reconsidering her life. If she’s holed up in a closet, holding her breath and hoping they’ll overlook her, she might.
bulletDon’t use flashback too early, and never start a story with a flashback. Get the present-day story well-established first. By focusing on the main story, you’ll build sympathy for your characters and reader interest about what happened in their past. There’s plenty of time to fill in the background. If you’ve done a good job of making your characters sympathetic, by the time you take your reader on that journey she’ll be happy to accompany you.
bulletBreak large flashbacks into smaller portions. If your story has a great deal of important past action, it’s a good idea to feed it to your reader in small chunks, returning to the present at intervals--even if for only a few paragraphs--in order to reestablish the main story.
bulletAlways finish a flashback by returning your reader to the place and time she was when the flashback started, and make it clear that the side trip is now finished and she’s once again on the main path.

How to handle flashback

In my book PROMISE ME TOMORROW, the hero and heroine have a vast amount of shared history, including an unplanned pregnancy, a marriage of convenience, a miscarriage, and a divorce. All of that is important because it affects what happens to them in the present-day story, and it’s important enough that the reader needs to see the events happening and be allowed to judge for herself what happened, rather than seeing the events through the much later and more mature interpretation of the characters.

But to have put all that powerful history into a single flashback would have overwhelmed any book, no matter how carefully it was handled. By splitting the past events into a half-dozen segments scattered throughout chapters two, three and four (not chapter one!)--the flashback becomes a powerful secondary narrative, almost a subplot.

In PROMISE ME TOMORROW, one flashback is introduced when the heroine, after encountering the hero for the first time in several years, is alone at night in her bedroom, looking out the window at a shadow which might be a prowler.

Don’t be a fool, she told herself. You know perfectly well there's nothing out there. But you'd rather face the bogeyman in the dark than your own memories, tonight.

Then the flashback begins, using past perfect tense (for example, had been, had had) to indicate a time long past, then sliding into past tense (for example, was, said) as summary gives way to action.

Reid had been as good as his word that night; it had been almost midnight when her work was done, and he had still been sitting patiently in the booth....She had had a couple of hours to think... and....she was considerably calmer.... "I've clocked out," she said. "I'm finished for the night."

The body of the flashback is in real time narrative and present tense as we watch the characters interact, but as it draws to a conclusion we return to bits of summary mixed in with the dialogue and description, and then to past perfect tense.

She swore to herself...that someday she would pay every penny back... She did it, too--as far as she was able. Last May she had finally finished at the university....

And then we return to the present-day story, using word clues and a reference to the scene as it was before the flashback started to tell the reader that we’ve brought her back to the main story.

The moon was high now...and the shadow out on the lawn...stayed solidly in place.

From PROMISE ME TOMORROW Copyright 1991 by Leigh Michaels. All rights reserved.

read the complete flashback scene

read the entire book

This exercise is copyrighted material and is offered for the individual's own use. Further distribution or sale is not permitted without permission of the copyright holder. Copyright 2013 Leigh Michaels.

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