One way writers inform their audience of a relevant past event is through a flashback. That is, they insert a scene about an earlier event into the ongoing story. But because flashbacks interrupt the timeline of a story, writers should use them only when they contribute significantly to the story, and even then, the flashback should be brief, used sparingly, and never near or at the climax of the story, when all the action must move the story forward.
The flashback is written like any other scene, but a few conventions signal that the chronology of the story has been disrupted. The sentence before the start of the flashback should indicate how the memory of that earlier event is triggered. Was it a familiar smell, song, or time of year? In ROMANCE by Ed McBain, the color of the squad room walls and the question of how to describe it to Sharyn triggers Kling’s recall of his date with her. Flashbacks often end when a jarring sensory event such as the ringing of a phone interrupts the recollection.
The first sentence(s) of the flashback should be written in the past perfect tense rather than the past tense. But beyond the first sentence or two, the past perfect tense can sound clumsy. Nevertheless, Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) in FATAL INVERSION begins her flashback with the first four sentences in the past perfect tense:
There had never been another summer like that one. Nineteen eight-four had been good but not as good as that. The night had been warm, too, not just the daytime, and even after sunset the temperature had not seemed to drop much. They had driven home arguing about which night was Midsummer Night.
Perhaps she uses the past perfect tense in the first four sentences because, having interrupted her flashback, she wants to emphasize that she is back again in that past event. Another cue is her mentioning the year 1984 and implying that the event of the flashback took place prior to that year.
Brief flashbacks can be separated from the ongoing story with a double space at both the beginning and the end. Longer flashbacks may require a separate chapter with a cue in the first line of the chapter that the chronology of the story has been disrupted. For example, in Lawrence Block’s IN THE MIDST OF DEATH, the flashback, which takes up all of Chapter 3, begins with: “It had started two days earlier, on a crisply cold Tuesday afternoon.” Once again, the writer cues us with both the past perfect tense and explicit mention of the two days earlier. In the flashback, the reader learns about Matthew Scudder’s past and why he, as a freelance detective, is willing to take on Jerome Broadfield’s case.
Still, don’t forget to consider some less intrusive ways of informing your audience of a significant past event. Characters can through conversation or their own recollections communicate such an event to the reader. Moreover, diaries, letters, and newspaper articles can do the same. But the flashback is especially useful for revealing a complex character like Matthew Scudder’s motivation. In any case, remember that if the past event has little or no significance to the ongoing story, leave it out.
WANT TO SHARE THIS TIP? TWEET THIS:
🐦CLICK TO TWEET🐦 #Authortip from @BookDailycom: Tips for Writing Effective Flashbacks www.bookdaily.com/authorresource/blog/post/1994938 #amwriting #editing
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
June Trop and her twin sister Gail wrote their first story, “The Steam Shavel [sic],” when they were six years old growing up in rural New Jersey. They sold it to their brother Everett for two cents.
Now associate professor emerita at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she devotes her time to writing historical mysteries with a connection to early science. Her heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, is based on the personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.
June lives with her husband Paul Zuckerman in New Paltz, where she is breathlessly recording the story of her plucky heroine’s next life-or-death exploit.