Tag Archives: flashbacks

Jumping Back in Time: How to Write Flashbacks in Fiction

Flashbacks are scenes that occurred prior to the present story. They can have a powerful impact on the main story and can be a useful tool when writing. Not all stories move from points A to B to C. Some stories must take a look at a previous event to gain deeper insight into the characters, plot, etc. This is when flashbacks become handy.

Let me quickly differentiate between flashback-300x225exposition and a flashback. Information about the past can be given in one of three ways: (1) a character tells another character through spoken dialogue about something that occurred in the past, (2) exposition is used, where readers are told about a character’s past – in both (1) and (2) readers are told something – or (3) readers are shown a character’s past via flashbacks.

Are flashbacks necessary? No, and if a story can be told completely through the main story then that’s great. However, some moments in a character’s past may have had such an influence on the character that there is no other way to have readers understand the gravity of the situation unless shown it.

When using flashbacks, you must:

  • Have the flashback triggered by a present day event. More so, a flashback should come after a strong scene. There has to be a good reason as to why a flashback is being used. By connecting it to an important present day event the transition into the flashback isn’t jerky. There’ll be a natural flow to entering the flashback. One of the last things you want to do is jolt your readers out of the story. This leads into the next bullet point.
  • Orient to space and time. Make sure it’s clear that a flashback is occurring. It’s never a good thing for readers to be halfway through a flashback and not know if the scene is a flashback. Anytime readers are unsure of something, they pause, and chances are they are pulled out of the story. (Also, just as you made sure readers know they’ve entered a flashback, make sure they know when they’re returning to present time.)
  • Get your readers interested first. A story shouldn’t begin with a flashback. It should start with the present day plot, and then continue with that plot long enough to get and keep readers interested. Remember a flashback is a deviation from the main plot. It disrupts the plot no matter how well situated within the story, so use a flashback after the first two to three chapters and during an exciting part in the story, which will make readers want to keep reading to find out what’s happening in the present day action.

An example of a well-used flashback would be in “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, where she uses a flashback to provide crucial backstory on Katniss and Peeta. These two characters are vital to the plot, and how they met is extremely important. It shapes their actions between each other. The story wouldn’t unfold how it did if these two never met in the way they had.

In “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien flashbacks occur to provide a clearer understanding of current actions and increase intensity. J.R.R. Tolkien’s present day plot is so intricate that flashbacks are necessary for readers to comprehend why things are the way they are.

A different style of flashback would be in Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” The story begins with an interview taking place between the vampire and a reporter, but as the conversation continues the vampire begins speaking for longer and longer periods. Eventually the reporter’s voice virtually disappears and it’s only the vampire’s voice readers hear, as the vampire delves into his past. The vast majority of the novel is flashback with the vampire telling his life story.

What do you think of flashbacks?

(Photo courtesy of Muse Medicine.)

Narrative Structure: Diving Off the Deep End

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “narrative structure?”

For some of you, you probably equate it with a novel’s plot. I tend to like separating out the plot and narrative structure. With plot, you have the main events of a story. Point A leads to point B. Point B leads to point C…you get the idea.

But with narrative structure, you shake up the chronological points of a story. You manipulate the sequence of events to create a better novel.

Why do this?

Because not all events within a story are equal.

Some parts of your story will be critical, pieces that define your characters or that raise the stakes up to an almost unbearable amount of tension. Other scenes will still be important, but they won’t have the same emotional punch that the key scenes will.

Say you have a scene where a car explodes in the middle of a highway, and your protagonist is only three cars away from the explosion. What are you going to focus on? You might give a brief bit of information before the explosion, like your protagonist fiddling with the stereo (better yet, your protagonist just had a horrendous argument with her fiancé and she went driving to cool off), but your focus will be the moment of the explosion (or rather, the moment the protagonist is first effected) and the moments directly after the explosion – the chaos, the effect this event has on your character, your character realizing what happened, the thoughts she has, the decisions/actions she makes, etc.

In it’s essence, narrative structure controls time.

It foreshadows, deals with exposition, flashbacks, and shuffling the novel’s chronology around.

Foreshadowing: warning or indicating future events. Foreshadowing gives glimpses of what’s to come by providing hints. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the line, “The leaves fell early that year,” foreshadows an early death.

Foreshadowing is important in fiction because (1) it fosters tension and reader anticipation and (2) everything in fiction happens for a reason.

Exposition: introduces background information (the backstory). Exposition doesn’t advance the plot in the same way action does, but its role is vital. Without exposition it would seem like characters were born on the first page of a novel.

Writers rely on exposition to connect readers to their characters and their story. The essence of a novel lies not only in what will happen, but in what has happened before the novel began.

Flashbacks: a scene in a novel set in the past. Flashbacks accompany backstory and exposition. But while exposition is best given to readers in small pieces, flashbacks are for the moments in your character’s past where a few lines won’t be enough.

Flashbacks are dramatic. They’re the Broadway lights screaming at readers to pay attention because this past event had a monumental effect on the present state of the character or story.

Manipulation of Plot Chronology: Instead of having a novel’s events ordered from A to E, you can mix them up. Have E come first, or have B first. Playing with a novel’s chronological order can create a more interesting story. It can sometimes reveal more of a story. That being said, you don’t want to mess with chronology if you don’t have a deliberate reason for doing so.

Have fun with a novel’s narrative structure. Play around with it. You won’t know your novel’s full potential until you do.

How do you change up your novel’s structure?