In this post, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I debate the use of flashbacks in fiction.
SYDNEY: A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me! I thought of all the books that use that literary technique.
Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left. Moreover, if you reassembled events in their chronological order, they would lose the mystery and terrific vitality that the flashback structure invests the story with.
More recently there is A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, which relies on flashback so extensively that without them, the reader would understand nothing about her main characters. The novel is flawed, in my opinion – deeply flawed. But that is not the fault of the flashbacks.
The Killing Lessons, a crime novel by Saul Black, published in 2015, uses flashbacks to uncover why the killer does what he does. Crime fiction in general uses flashbacks through dialogue to uncover the sort of information that will help the detective understand the murder victim and who might have killed them.
Flashbacks are a way of revealing back story, that drama from the past that drives the main characters in the present drama. There are other ways of revealing back story. But it has to be disclosed in some way, or in a variety of ways, if the main characters are to achieve psychological and emotional depth. Back story helps the reader invest emotionally in the main characters. Even commercial fiction benefits from a strong back story, and if done correctly, that benefit can be conveyed through flashbacks.
JENNIFER: I wonder if that fellow writer was me, Sydney. It may have been, because I am wary of flashbacks. They’re a useful device, but their drawback is they bring the momentum of the main narrative to a screaming halt. Flashbacks differ from exposition, where you tell readers something about a character’s past. A flashback is a fully dramatised scene.
My advice is never to use flashbacks in the first fifty pages. Wait until a story is well-developed and has built up energy. If you can wait until half-way through, that’s good. Three-quarters of the way through is even better. Flashbacks reveal information and motivation, and detract from the mystery. Readers will no longer be curious about why a character behaves in a certain way. In my latest novel, Journey’s End, I have a protracted flashback in the final act. If that scene came any sooner, it would prick the balloon of narrative tension. Keep them guessing, I say.
SYDNEY: No, it wasn’t you, Jenny, though I can see why you think it might have been! I hold a different view from yours entirely. I think discovering motivation late in the drama is a mistake, usually – although I can conceive of occasions when it’s useful. If the character has depth, then uncovering motivation won’t dispel mystery. There should be plenty more to learn about a character – including about their motivation. Nor do I think flashbacks bring a narrative to a grinding halt. Does Wuthering Heights scream to a halt when Mr Lawrence reads Cathy’s diary? Does it scream to a halt every time Nellie tells him more of the story of Cathy and Heathcliff and the Linton family? When done properly, flashbacks deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. I’m not that interested in linear narratives. I read them but I do like a narrative that jumbles things up. Plenty of novels and short stories are built on a switching back and forth in time and benefit enormously from it.
JENNY: I think of novels such as Wuthering Heights as “flashback novels”, exceptions to the general rule. Almost the entire novel is told in flashback. If a book begins with a woman on her deathbed, for example, the majority of the novel could be her recalling her life story. The flashback fundamentally becomes the novel’s main narrative, and the present day story is little more than a framing device.
I still maintain that flashbacks in more conventional novels slow the pace and risk losing readers. It’s something writers should be aware of. That said, I have published six novels which all contain flashbacks because, as you say, they do deepen narrative and enrich characterisation. Flashbacks are worth the risk. These are my tips if you decide to use them.
- Use appropriate starting points. Memories are triggered by objects or our senses: a photograph, the scent of pine needles, a magpie’s morning chorus. Use these devices to transport the character back in time.
- Hook the reader into the main story first. Give them a reason to go with the flashback. This means not using one too early, and choosing an exciting part of the story to insert it in. You want the reader to care enough to dive back into the present day narrative.
- Make it completely clear that it is a flashback. There’s nothing more annoying than reading about a character in present-day Sydney and suddenly you’re back in 1970 Sicily without quite knowing how you got there.
- I signal the transition with a break, and by changing the verb tense. My stories are usually in past tense, so I write the first two sentences of the flashback in the pluperfect. For example: ‘He had studied German at high school. It had been his worst subject.’ This grammatical change is necessary to tell the reader that they’re going back in time. After two sentences I go back to simple past tense: ‘He hated his teacher, that was the problem. Frau Goetz was a sadistic cow.’ On transitioning back to the present, I do the same thing in reverse. Two sentences in the pluperfect, break, then back to the simple past tense.
SYDNEY: These are good tips for the transition between present story and flashback. For me, the most important thing is to give the reader a good reason to go with them. That means setting up a mystery surrounding a character which can only be answered by flashbacks. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is a good example of that. Much as I disliked Jude, the main character, I wanted to know about his past, the one he refused to tell his friends. Thus, by withholding it and describing symptoms of his psychological disturbance, Ms Yanagihara sets up a mystery that is then solved in long flashbacks. The reader is in a privileged position — the story unveils to the reader all Jude’s secrets while keeping them hidden from the other characters. That privileged communication is one of the most powerful devices a writer can use.
As to ‘flashback novels’, I think you have to ask yourself why the writer chose to use flashbacks instead of stripping away the framing device and simply presenting the story in chronological order. There will be a very good reason for it, a reason that can’t be served by a linear narrative. Linear narrative is the most popular out there, but there are times when it impoverishes a story.
Also think of all the commercial fiction that uses different storylines involving separate casts of characters — George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, for instance. Although these different storylines are not flashbacks, they demand that the reader jump from one story to another, which is what flashbacks do. Does that multi-story structure alienate the reader? No. Think of the novels written with two or more timelines involving different sets of characters. For example, Green Darkness, by Anya Seton, a commercial historical novel set in modern-day England and in the Tudor period. Again, these are not necessarily flashback stories, but they demand that the reader jump from one storyline to another. Does that alienate the reader? No. Plenty of commercial women’s fiction uses the multi-story structure. Again, while these might not be flashbacks, they ask that readers leave one storyline and commit to another, which is the objection to flashbacks.
So, whether to use flashbacks or not, consult your own taste. Do you like flashbacks? Whenever I come upon them, I go with them. Since I like them, I disregard the so-called rule that prohibits them. But hey, call me an outlaw.
If you don’t like them, don’t use them.