The Right Way To Do Flashbacks?

by Sarah
(Canada)

Question: All right, so, I'm about to start writing my latest novel. To introduce character building and development, as well as to gain insight into my character's backstory, it is important that there are multiple flashbacks into his childhood.

I haven't worked with direct flashbacks very much, but I do know from reading experience that often, tons of flashbacks can break the flow of the story. The last thing I want is for my readers (bearing in mind that I'm fifteen so 'readers' might be a stretch) to think that the story hasn't made any actual progress.
The flashbacks are very important to the story's plot; essentially (in an indirect way) his past comes back to haunt him. In the beginning they give the main character a back story and help explain his motives, and then eventually, they lead him to come to a startling conclusion, employing a huge plot twist later on.
So far, I have planned out to begin with a sort of prologue/anecdote, not strictly a flashback, but just enough to set the subplot in motion.
At one part of the book, my character is enduring a long, grueling climb on a mountain. I plan to introduce the flashbacks at times when he is at his weakest or when things happen that would directly remind him of his past. (I want them to feel triggered by his weakness or what is going on around him, not as if he is merely reminiscing. I also want him to feel, to the readers, as a driven, dedicated soul haunted by memories, and not just some preachy old guy who recollects far too much.)

Also, if you have any suggestions, just some general questions:
How can I employ flashbacks in my novel so that they don't take away from the overall story or feel tedious? How can I use them to keep my readers on the edge of their seat? Any practical hints?

Thank you for your time, sir.

Answer: If you want to make the flashbacks a worthwhile experience for the reader, make the past experience an important event in itself. Give it a dramatic structure just as you would for a short story, with its own beginning, complication, crisis, and resolution.

In fact, it might be a good idea to first write this past event as a stand-alone story from beginning to end, making sure that each part leaves the reader anxious to find out what happens next. When you insert it into your larger story, you will then have logical places to switch back to the present story.

It sounds like this flashback may be the starting point for your main character's throughline. If you think of your main character's inner conflict as progressing through four stages or signposts...

1. Who he is when the story begins.
2. How he is pressured to change
3. His ultimate decision whether to change or not.
4. Whether his decision leads him to a good resolution.

... then the flashback may be concerned with the first signpost. It could be an event which left him with an emotional wound or caused him to make a decision that may or may not still serve him, etc.

Although these four signposts chronologically appear in order from 1 to 4 in the main character's life, you can tell the story out of sequence. For instance, the novel may first show the main character's second stage. That will create a little mystery because the reader won't know why the main character behaves as he does, why he resists the pressure to change.

You may then interweave the current pressure with his first signpost as a flashback series that explains what's going on and why his personality is as it is. And the evaluation of that past may enable him to make his ultimate choice at the climax (resolve his personal crisis).

The trick is to play fair with the reader, so the flashback doesn't seem like something you pull out of a hat at the crisis just to make the MC's resolution more difficult. The flashbacks should explain just what happened to this guy to make him the person he is. I think it's a good idea if the mountain experience gives him a reason to look at or re-evaluate the past.

An example of this type of playing with the MC signposts is the classic film Chinatown (warning: it's rated "R"). In it, the main character, a detective named Jake, is haunted by an event from his past. When he was a young policeman, he failed to protect a woman because he didn't understand what was really going on in the underworld of Chinatown. Consequently, in the present story, he is driven to try to protect another woman who is also a victim of dark undercurrents. In the film, we don't actually see Jake's first failure, but a brief mention part-way through the film is enough to explain what drives him.

Comments for The Right Way To Do Flashbacks?

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Dec 31, 2012
Thanks a Bunch!
by: Sarah

Thank you so much! (And you answered so quick! I'm truly impressed.)
As I mentioned before, I haven't formally used this technique before, but this really helped out a ton!
I'm far more confident now that I'll be able to make the flashbacks a worthwhile experience for the reader. It was really a big deal to me because this is a technique that I feel must be done right or not at all.
Thanks again.

Sep 02, 2013
Piggyback question
by: Genesis

Thank you for your answer. I'd like a little more info though. My main character "flashes back" and I'm having a little trouble making it understandable for my readers. When she's thinking back and when it's present time tends to get fuzzy even though I clearly write that she's thinking or "brought back to the present by a crash of lightening." I tried using time stamps but I don't really like that. Any advice?

Sep 02, 2013
Response
by: Glen

It does make a difference if you are simply explaining what happened (telling) in the past or actually transporting the reader back to the past (showing).

In the latter case, you probably want a section break of some kind (either a chapter break or a blank line) to make clear there is a jump in time and space.

For shorter flashbacks, you may want to underline the text (to indicate italics or a different font).

Sep 02, 2013
Thank you!
by: Genesis

Thanks so much for the quick response! I'll try your suggestion! :)

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