Friday, June 21, 2013

Effective Use of Flashbacks: Backstory - Part II

By Karen Albright Lin

In my last post I addressed that trickiest of challenges, the flashback. Tricky because using one can bring to a screeching halt your dramatic action, enlightening narrative, or compelling dialogue. But if done well the benefit of using a flashback outweighs the sacrifice of immediacy.

  • Getting across backstory through dialogue would be cumbersome or unrealistic.
  • “Show versus tell” makes narrative less appealing.
  • It is unobtrusive and allows front story to press ahead.
  • You enter the flashback at the last possible moment and leave as quickly as you can.
  • You’ve made the reader want to know the past, especially if it relates to a desperate goal.
  • The reader absolutely needs certain information from the past.
  • Your current plot is to some degree the product of events that came earlier.
  • You keep it short.
  • You only put it in where you integrate it into the current story and where it informs reader about current actions. (Ex: If we see a man performing an exotic ceremony before killing his daughter, we’ll want to know what that was all about.)
  • It is fascinating to the reader apart from the information being conveyed.
  • The flashback is in first person or deep third person and from the perspective of the character who has the most to lose.
  • A story element is gracefully worked in. (Ex: starting with a murder then jumping ahead two years to Jim’s probation hearing would be clumsy.) And usually it is a cheat to use a prologue to sneak in backstory.

Used with skill, flashbacks can be rather long (even whole chapters), but you are less likely to compromise the momentum of the story if you keep them SHORT AND SWEET. One way to get across a lot without stopping the current story in its tracks is to break it up into smaller chunks. For example: in my novel, Mu Shu Mac-N-Cheese, we learn that the protagonist‘s grandfather‘s ashes are in her coat closet and that she doesn’t want her visiting mother-in-law to know that. As the story unravels the reader learns about the Chinese reverence for the ancestors through brief flashbacks. The first glimpse of her fear of exposure creates the mystery.

Regardless of why you use a flashback, it is important to KEEP THE TIME SENSE CLEAR, the different gradations of the past:

If the story is told in past tense à when going into the flashback use past perfect (“she had…”) to clue readers into the time frame in the past (one or a few sentences as a transition into and out of past tense again in the case of a long flashback) then return to à past tense again clues the reader in.

If the story is told in present tense à when going into flashback use past tense to clue readers into the new time frame à then return to present tense when the flashback ends.

Regardless of the tense you use, TRANSITIONS will make entry into flashbacks more clear. Using an object to trigger one is helpful. Example: She squeezed the rough sleeve of her shirt and closed her eyes.  Suddenly she was ten years old again.  Her Dad threw her favorite shirt into the fireplace….

Flashbacks are a complicated topic; there’s plenty more to consider. Next time I’ll discuss how to successfully add flashbacks, when they don’t work, and what to do if you are told to get rid of them.

Come back next month for Part III of Karen's Backstory series.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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