How to Use Flashbacks Right
Sat Apr 09 2016
A while back, a client sent me a manuscript that used a lot of flashbacks. I mean, really a lot. And I tell you, there's nothing like seeing a technique used over and over to sensitize you to the nuances of what works and what doesn't.
Today I thought I'd share my observations on the use--and misuse--of flashbacks. Because across the spectrum of manuscripts I see, I do have to say that I see them misused more often than not.
What is a Flashback
A flashback is nothing more than a non-chronological presentation of the chronological events of a story. It's a literary device in which the reader experiences events in a different order than the characters experience them.
You might do this within a single scene or chapter. You might do this at the scope of a whole novel. Whatever the scope, changing the order of presentation also changes what information the reader has as they read different parts of the sequence.
That is either a powerful tool or dangerous business to be messing with, depending on whether you understand how that effect plays out.
Consider these two brief vignettes, both of which involve flashbacks:
Sonja stumbled up to Mole's Inn, breathing raggedly. That was a close thing, getting here,she mused, as she pulled open the rough wooden door and stepped inside. Almost didn't make it. The unmistakable savory, yet mildly rancid aroma of Mole's infamous stew filled her nostrils. Its pungency assaulted her with a ferocity she could not recall from previous visits.
But no matter. She was here now, safe, and that was all that mattered. Or as safe as anybody could be in Mole's place, anyhow. There was food here. She would eat every scrap and ask for more, no matter how vile, until her hunger fled. Then she would rest in one of Mole's flea-infested rooms, and sort out what to do about having been bitten. She turned her collar up to cover the bite mark.
Mole waved half-heartedly as she entered. "Ay, lass. In't seen you in a turn. Gimme two shakes an' I'll bring ya a bowl."
Sonja slung the pack off her shoulders and sat at a wooden table. She nestled the pack down close to her feet, and thought over how she had come here.
She didn't know how long she had been unconscious, at that little hut in the woods after the old woman turned wereling and bit her. Five minutes? A day? But she had woken buzzing, every muscle and sinew vibrating with a strange energy.
The old woman was gone, but nothing in the hut appeared to have been touched. Her first thought had been for her pack. She tore through it, frantic with worry, until she found the folded oilcloth pouch still tucked safely in the bottom.
She made her way back to the forest path and resumed her journey. The going was easy. She walked faster and faster, but her legs would not tire. If this was how it felt to be a wereling, it was no wonder they were so hard to kill.
Not they, she realized. We. A sick sense of revulsion swept through her and she heaved, her empty stomach clenching in knots.
She pushed herself even faster, into a run, but still her legs would not tire. Her lungs did not burn with the effort. Haven. When she reached Haven, she told herself, surely she could find a healer or a thaumatist who could help. She needed only to hold herself together until then. And if this strange energy could get her there faster, so much the better.
Until she came around a bend and was struck like running full force into a tree, though nothing blocked her way. She collapsed to the ground, drained like an empty urn. Unable to move a single muscle. Not even to breathe. Her heart slowed in her chest, barely able to continue beating.
Her lungs burned now, desperate for air which she could not supply. Sparkles covered her vision, and then blackness. Too much., she thought. Too fast. Then she thought no more.
She woke to a carrion bird pecking at her hand. She managed a raspy cry, and the bird startled away. She still felt empty. Hollowed out. But at least now she could breathe and her heart beat steady.
Her limbs, her body, even her fingers felt leaden. She forced herself to hands and knees. No, worse than leaden. Every movement was like shifting boulders. Summoning supreme effort, she crawled forward one pace. Then another. Her throat was parched, and her stomach ached with a cavernous hunger like she could eat for days. The strange were-energy was gone, spent, and she did not know if it would return.
Onward she pushed herself, through an endless labor of shifting arms and legs. Her trousers hung loosely around her waist, and she realized her body was consuming itself to keep her going. She needed food, and food was at Mole's Inn. She dared not rest, for fear the hunger would burn her alive while she slept.
At last Mole's thatched roof and bent chimney came into view. Somehow, she got herself upright and lurched to the door.
That's a pretty straightforward flashback. Start somewhere, then jump back to show how we got there. Now take this one:
Sonja rolled over on her sleeping pallet. A piece of straw poked through the mattress and into her cheek. Moving did not hurt. Her limbs felt almost normal. She sighed in relief. A slight tingle, just a faint echo of the were-energy that had nearly cost her life the day before, ran through her.
She would not push herself too hard again. The were-energy was power, but it would exact its own cost if misused. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up to greet the morning.
My pack! It was not at the foot of the pallet where she had left it the night before. In a flash she was on her feet, spinning around, scanning the spare room. Nothing.
She ran out the door and into to Mole's common room. A grizzled looking man stood talking to Mole. Several days' whiskers greyed his face. Sonja's pack hung from the man's shoulder.
Him, she thought. She pointed and yelled, "Oy! That's mine! Give that back." Her pack. All her worldly posessions. And the pouch. She could not let him take it. She cursed herself for not taking better precautions. She should have known he'd try something.
The man had come into the common room after her, the evening before. She had been slowly eating her third bowl of Mole's awful stew. She knew she needed the food, but even so, gagging the stuff down was near impossible. She had rummaged in her pack for a salt from her spice kit.
The man had seen her do it. She had caught him watching her, as he took his own table across the room. She'd shot him a look, willing him to leave her alone. And he had. He neither approached nor spoke to her while she salted her stew and finished the bowl.
The hunger had abated, but was not gone. Fearing what might happen if she did not banish it entirely, she had asked Mole for yet another helping.
"Scrapin' the kettle clean," he said, "but as ye like."
She salted and ate the fourth bowl, and all the while the man watched her but said nothing.
Only when she handed Mole a few coins and hefted her pack to leave the common room did the man nod at her. Just once, and so slightly she almost missed it. She kept her eye on him until she was out of the room. He did not move, but only watched her go, his face void of expression.
Now he stood, bold as brass, wearing her pack. He must have jimmied the latch on her room in the night. Or maybe just that morning. Had she truly slept so hard? Normally, she slept so lightly a mouse scurrying across the floor would wake her. Another reason to mind how she used the were-energy.
"No," the man said. "I don't think I will." His stance was easy. Relaxed. But held in readiness just the same.
"Mole," Sonja said. "Do something."
Mole shrugged. "Sorry, lass. In't my business."
The tingle in her muscles was faint, but there. Was it enough? Did she dare use it? Sonja growled softly and took two steps towards the man. "Put it down and step away."
The man shook his head. "Mine by right of might, now."
Thought and action flashed through her mind as one. Her hand drawing the knife at her waist. Body lunging forward. Step here. Twist there around that chair. Knife up.
Sonja found herself nose to nose with the man, her left hand gripping a knot of the man's tunic. His eyes snapped wide. She gripped the knife now buried hilt-deep in his gut. "Mine," she spat at him, "by might and law."
The tingle coursed through her, stronger now. She forced the were-energy down before it overtook her. She nabbed her pack from the man's shoulder as he slumped to the floor and slung it on her back. She wiped her bloody knife clean on his clothes then turned to leave.
"Oy!" Mole barked at her. "He in't paid me for 'is breakfast yet."
Sonja shrugged. "Sorry, Mole. Not my business."
My business, she resolved, is getting to Haven.
Now: which one did you like better? The first one, or the second one?
If you're like most people, you're going to say you liked the second one better.
Those two vignettes illustrate two common flashback structures. On the surface they may look very similar, but they have one critical difference, diagrammed as follows.
In these diagrams, time as experienced chronologically by the characters moves to the right. The colored arrows and arcs indicate how readers experience time. The black curve indicates rising action leading up to a climax (the apex of the curve), followed by the cool-down of the climax's aftermath.
The first structure I'll call the Simple Flashback:
- The structure starts at the climax and shows the immediate aftermath.
- The story jumps back in chronological time to the beginning of the events leading up to the climax.
- The flashback catches up with the climax.
The second structure I'll call the Hop-Forward Flashback:
- It starts during the steep rise to the climax, but stops immediately before the climax itself.
- The story jumps back to the beginning of the events leading up to the climax.
- The story catches up to just before where we started.
- The story hops forward over the material readers already saw.
- And finally shows the moment of the climax and subsequent aftermath.
The Critical Difference
Think again about the two example scenes. The first one uses the simple structure, while the second one uses the hop-forward structure.
See that little hop right there at the end? That's the magic part. That's how you resolve the tension that has been building in readers minds during the catch-up phase: by suddenly jumping them forward over the part they read first so they can finally learn how the whole thing turns out.
The first example flash back didn't have a hop. It couldn't, because it began with the climax moment and immediate ramifications, leaving nowhere to hop forward to. The second one starts a little earlier in the trajectory of events but flashes back to the beginning just before reaching the actual climax and immediate aftermath.
Why? Because the climax and immediate aftermath is the payoff of the whole arc. It's the punchline of the joke. The resolution of whatever mystery the arc held. The simple structure begins by telling the punchline or solving the mystery, then setting up the joke or establishing the mystery. No wonder it falls flat. Who cares about the setup for the joke or how a mystery came about if you already know how it ends?
By contrast, the hop-forward structure tantalizes readers with the payoff. Hints at it, but then withholds it for as long as possible to build anticipation.
When to Use Flashbacks
First off, don't use them all the time. Flashbacks are non-chronological, so by their very nature they are cognitively harder to process than a linear presentation. Readers have to hold more chunks of material in mind until they've got all the pieces, then must mentally re-arrange those pieces into a coherent narrative. Chronological presentation doesn't impose that cost on your readers. So if you're going to use a flashback, doing so had better be worth the additional cost. Be selective.
In my view, a flashback is worth the cost when:
- You know there's a gripping climax moment coming,
- and the events leading up to it aren't necessarly riveting on their own,
- but those events are in some way indispensable from the story so you can't skip over them.
If that's the case, you're stuck looking for a way to sell your readers on the value of those lead-up events. You need to rev-up their sense of engagement in the story in order to help sustain their interest during the lead-up, and giving readers a sneak-peek at the the moments just prior to the climax moment can be just the thing.
On the whole, I think the flashback is misnamed, giving the impression that the secret is in the flashing back. But it's not. The secret is in the hop-forward at the end.
Whatever you do, don't forget the little hop at the end. Whether your flashback lasts only a scene or occupies your entire story, it's the little hop that makes the whole thing work.