Contributed by children’s author Linda Wilson
A flashback is a literary device that momentarily departs from a story to a scene in the past. A flashback can be as brief as a sudden thought, a dream, or a memory. Flashback can help give your story depth, and make your main character more interesting. As Diane O’Connell, author of The Novel-Maker’s Handbook, put it on her blog, “Used wisely, flashbacks can add richness, emotional resonance and depth to your novel.”
“Flashbacks can thicken plots, create dynamic and complex characters, reveal information otherwise left unspoken, or surprise the audience with shocking secrets. A large part of a character’s essence can be found in the past and the memories which resurface over time.” https://literaryterms.net/flashback/ (Helpful examples of flashbacks can be found on this site as well.)
“Using flashbacks wisely” is the key. If you’d like to try using flashback in your story, follow these tips and read the articles suggested at the end of this post, and you’ll be good to go.
The Good News First
When a flashback scene enhances your story:
A scene that depicts an incident from your protagonist’s childhood could shed light on her current situation and help your reader understand her better.
An incident that occurred before your story began, in a far-off time and place, could enhance your story present.
What has driven your character to act? Something that happened to her in the past? Flashing back to that incident could help explain her motives.
Now for the pitfalls:
The biggest disadvantage of flashbacks is that they happened in the past. Not in story time.
Flashbacks need to be done effectively to avoid removing your reader from your story.
Tips for Effective Flashbacks
Never start a scene with a flashback.
Have a flashback follow a strong scene.
Keep flashback brief.
Make sure the flashback advances the story.
Use flashbacks sparingly.
Orient reader at the start of a flashback, in time and space, and transition back to the story present.
Tenses: for past tense, use past perfect and simple past; for present tense, use present tense in the entire flashback, and resume story in present tense.
Transitioning: Make transitions clear. Use the above tenses to guide readers in and out of flashback.
The following flashback, as Nancy Kress wrote in her Writer’s Digest article, does a good job of transition. It’s from Thomas Perry’s mystery novel Sleeping Dogs. Protagonist Michael Schaeffer, a former hit man, has just come upon the site of a multiple murder:
All his old habits came back automatically. At a glance he assessed [everyone’s] posture and hands. Was there a man whose fingers curled in a little tremor when their eyes met, a woman whose hand moved to rest inside her handbag? He knew all the practical moves and involuntary gestures, and he scanned everyone, granting no exceptions. He and Eddie had done a job like this one when he was no more than twelve. Eddie had dressed him for baseball, and had even bought him a new glove to carry folded under his arm. When they had come upon the man in the crowd, he hadn’t even seen them; his eyes were too occupied in studying the crowd for danger to waste a moment on a little kid and his father walking home from a sandlot game. As they passed the man … (From “3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks,” by Nancy Kress.)
The opposite of flashback is a glance at the future, or the flash forward. Example:
The light flashed so bright, Emma had to shut her eyes. She couldn’t know that once she took even a peek, she’d be seeing a ghost.
Flashbacks and flash forwards might come more naturally to you than you might think. While reading a few chapters of my current WIP to my husband today, I was surprised to find a flashback, written before I did my research for today’s post. So, now that you know how to slip these literary devices into your own writing, if you haven’t tried them yet, you might experiment with them as a way to enhance your own writing. Just keep one guideline in mind: use flashbacks and flash forwards sparingly.
Please note: My post “Live Author Interviews,” Part II from last month’s post, “Tips on Author Interviews” will be appearing soon.
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Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 150 articles for adults and children, and several short stories for children. Her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, is hot off the press and will be available soon. Currently, she is hard at work on The Ghost of Janey Brown, Book Two in the series. Follow Linda at https://lindawilsonauthor.com.
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