Flashbacks in Fiction

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.

Back Story

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss back story. It turns into a very public mentoring session!

SYDNEY –
Back story is that part of a character’s history that explains why they do the things they do in the present of the novel. Back story, when used properly, deepens and enriches a character and our understanding of them.

backstory 1Back story can be introduced or gestured to in a variety of ways. My favourite is when the drama in the present of the novel replays a drama in the character’s past. The character got it wrong back then. They made the wrong decisions and lost something, a relationship usually, that was of enormous value to them. The present of the story is their chance to replay that ancient drama and get it right. For example, in The Killing Lessons, Saul Black’s terrific debut crime novel, Valerie Hart, San Francisco police detective, was almost destroyed by a case she was working on three years ago. This was the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage girl. Valerie was so traumatised that she ruined the relationship that mattered most to her, with Nick Blaskovitch. Three years later, another man is abducting, torturing and murdering women. In particular, he has kidnapped Claudia, an Englishwoman working illegally in the country. Valerie has the chance to replay that old drama and this time rescue the woman. In addition, Nick has come back into her life, he has forgiven her and offers her a chance to start again.

But these replays don’t go smoothly. The killer is hard to find, and someone on her team is trying to wreck any chance she has of getting back together with Nick. The important thing to note in this replay is that you don’t have to go into a lot of detail with the back story. All you need to do is give enough information for the reader to understand this is a replay drama and the present of the novel will do the rest.

JENNY –
backstory 2Well, this is certainly a salient topic for me. I’m halfway through my new manuscript, and am dealing with the fraught issue of back story. How to introduce it? How much is too much, and how soon is too soon? I want to add in my character Taj’s history, and significant events that happened to him before the start of the book. The story behind the story, so to speak. Introducing it subtly and seamlessly is hard. Too often I’ve seen writers fall prey to the dreaded information dump. Big slabs of history slow stories and bore readers.

There are four main ways to add back story. By flashback (a worthy blog topic by itself, I think, Sydney), by dialogue, by recollections or by a narrative summary of the past. This last one is telling, not showing, but it’s the way I’m currently doing it―drip-feeding instalments of my character’s history. I’m unsure about it. The big reveal, showing the connection of past with present, will happen with dialogue―a deep and meaningful between my two main characters. But I want to lead up to it with a few short passages of exposition, scattered through previous chapters. What do you think, Sydney?

SYDNEY –
It can be tricky to know the best way to deal with a complex back story. Some writers think there are hard and fast rules about it―no flashbacks, for example. I tend to think a novel will have its own ideas about how best to introduce back story. You just have to listen to what it’s telling you.

But if the novel isn’t speaking intelligibly on the subject, the best thing to do is try out different ways of doing it and see which one works best. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

backstory 3You and I have talked about Taj, Jenny. It seems to me his back story is vitally important to the reader’s understanding of this character, why he’s ended up where he has and why he has the special gift he possesses―a gift that has an enormous impact on the other main characters in the story. Since he’s isolated in the first chapters and unable to tell his back story to Kim, the main protagonist, then the story has to step in and tell it in the form of flashbacks. Yes, it is a topic all by itself. The clue to doing flashbacks well is to tell a parallel story through them, one with a protagonist who has a goal to pursue and a problem to overcome. It seems to me that you’ve got some of this with Taj. Making the flashbacks tell a story will hook the reader in. That’s what stories are meant to do. If it doesn’t, then I suggest the problem is with the hook, not with the story itself.

I think writers can get tangled up with the idea that back story happened at a time before the present of the story opens, and therefore, that it has only a tenuous link with the present. It’s true that it does take place outside the time scheme of the main plot. But if the back story is too big to be dealt with in a bit of exposition here and there, then you need to approach it in a different way.

If you think about it, when a novel has several POVs, each of those POVs tells a story. Put all these stories together and you get a complex novel. For example, The Killing Lessons uses several POVs: that of ten-year-old Nell, of Angelo, a man grieving for the loss of his wife, Valerie Hart, a detective on a serial murder case, Xander, the killer himself, and Claudia, to name most, though not all of them. The story doesn’t slow down when it shifts POV. The reader is vitally engaged with all of them. All these POVs has a story to reveal, and all are loosely connected one way or another to the main plot, the hunt for a serial killer. A big back story that can’t be summarised in a bit of exposition is like that―it’s part of the tapestry of the whole novel, it’s connected to the main plot, it involves one, sometimes, more, of the important players in the larger story.

So when a writer has a big back story to reveal, the first thing to do is think of it not as a problem but as a storyline. There might be a problem with your back story, Jenny, but the problem isn’t that it’s back story. The problem is structural. Where do you place the scenes before the big reveal?

Also, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, Jenny, try not to think you have to do a big reveal. You don’t. You can write the scenes, place them in the order you think works best, and see where that gets you. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You’re still working through the first draft. Allow yourself to experiment. If after you’ve done that you still think a big reveal is important, then you’ve got everything you need in order to bring it about. All you have to remember is that Taj’s back story must obey the rules of front stories―that is, they have to show a protagonist working on a problem in pursuit of their goal.

As a mentor, I get a lot of people telling me they don’t know how to do a thing―how to weave in different POVs, for example, how to shift time levels. The problem isn’t really of craft. The problem is that the writer tells themselves, I can’t do this. Or they tell themselves that what they want to do breaks the rules of narrative, but they know they have to do it. Putting in a lot of back story is supposed to break the rules of narrative. It doesn’t. All you have to do is change the way you think about it and you’ll find a solution.

JENNY –
Wow, Sydney, that is such fantastic counsel! I don’t have a problem with Taj’s back story. The way I’m weaving it in works. My problem is just as you say―I’m concerned it breaks, or at least stretches, the rules of narrative. Taj has a fabulous story to tell. Instead of second-guessing myself, it’s time to get on with telling that story the best way I know how. I’ll evaluate my method later.

Thank you so much, Sydney. I feel completely liberated by your advice. Guess that’s what good mentoring is all about. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from my own post! 🙂

BB14