Midweek Writer-Rummage - Flashbacks

As a reader, I don’t mind flashbacks, so long as they are handled well, and don’t appear in practically every chapter.  As a writer, I have used flashbacks, all the while aware that they work best when used sparingly.

Flashbacks aren’t vital, and many stories manage quite well without them, especially those that start at point ‘A’, and progress in a linear fashion right to the end.

It’s the stories where the past is incorporated into the present that sequentially structured storytelling cannot work.

The only way for there to be any sense to the story is via the use of flashbacks.

They work best when the reader needs a pertinent piece of information to increase his understanding of the plot, or when there is no other way to explain a character’s motivations.

A few things to remember when negotiating a flashback:

  • Never start the story with a flashback. Without knowing who any of the characters are, the reader will not be invested in any of them, and so will not care what’s happening to them now, let alone in the past.
  • Make sure you ‘show, don’t tell’. This rule is all-important in a flashback sequence. Always show what’s happening instead of summarising in a dull piece of narration.
  • Clearly signpost any jump to the past and, again, the return to the present. This is almost always done using verb tenses. When telling your story in the past tense, switch to past perfect for the flashback sequence.

Examples of flashbacks:

In this straightforward flashback from ‘Revolver’ by Marcus Sedgwick, even as Sig imagines the gun in his hand, he is thinking back to when he was mystified as to how a bullet could do so much damage …

It was as if the gun were calling to him from the store room, and though it was ten feet away in a closed wooden box, Sig could feel the cold weight in his hand, smell the metal and oil and even the delicious waft of the burnt powder after it had sent its little parcel of death spinning through the air …

It had sometimes puzzled Sig why a bullet did so much damage, how a small thing like that could kill so easily, even if it didn’t hit your heart or your head, until Einar had explained how the enormous force held in the bullet rips open a cavity in whatever it hits as large as a fist, maybe bigger …

Sig stared at Wolff, but didn’t see him …

In ‘ Of Mice and Men’, John Steinbeck’s use of flashback is masterfully done.  He sets this particular one in the ‘now’ of the story, but that it is rooted in Lennie’s past is obvious.  I won’t go too much into the flashback sequence as it does contain spoilers, but this snippet demonstrates a different way of using a flashback …

He turned his head and looked at the bright mountain-tops.  “I can go right off there an’ find a cave,” he said.  And he continued sadly, “–an’ never have no ketchup – but I won’t care.  If George don’t want me … I’ll go away.  I’ll go away."

And then from out of Lennie’s head there came a little fat old woman.  She wore thick bull’s-eye glasses and she wore a huge gingham apron with pockets, and she was starched and clean.  She stood in front of Lennie and put her hands on her hips, and she frowned disapprovingly at him.

And when she spoke, it was in Lennie’s voice. “I tol’ you an’ tol’ you,” she said.

“I tol’ you, ‘Mind George because he’s such a nice fella an’ good to you.’ But you don’t never take no care.  You do bad things.”

And Lennie answered her: “I tried, Aunt Clara ma’am.  I tried and tried.  I couldn’t help it” …

Three-quarters of ‘The Good Soldier’ is nothing but a flashback, with the last part set in the story’s present.  Ford Madox Ford has produced a skilfully written novel by anchoring the story, and deftly framing the non-chronological flashbacks. 

The first chapter in part one:

When we all first met, Captain Ashburnham, home on sick leave from an India to which he was never to return, was thirty-three; Mrs Ashburnham – Leonora – was thirty-one.  I was thirty-six and poor Florence thirty.  Thus today Florence would have been thirty-nine and Captain Ashburnham forty-two; where I am forty-five and Leonora forty …

The first chapter in the fourth and final part:

I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze.  I cannot help it.  I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing, between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes …

At any rate, I think I have brought my story up to the date of …

When it comes to incorporating flashbacks in your story, there are really only a couple of questions that need answering first – can you convey the information that’s needed in any other way?  And can you pull off a flashback sequence masterfully?