Writing Memories / Flashbacks

by Mitch
(Los Angeles, CA)

Question: What is the proper way write memories or flashbacks in a novel?

While I am unsure of how to integrate a flashback into a story, I am more unsure about my choice to use a flashback over a prologue. As a reader, I have always had an aversion to prologues (particularly those that depict an event from the MC's childhood, regardless of its future significance) because I am eager to meet the MC as he will be for the duration of the novel. So naturally, as I attempt to write a novel, I find myself with a plot that hinges on an event from the MC's past and face the difficult choice of how to present this crucial event to readers. Unfortunately, this is an event that has been forgotten (via trauma) and won't (more like 'can't') be remembered by the MC until a couple chapters into the novel. Do I use the dreaded prologue so I can tease readers with the information well before its significance can be understood, or do I use a one-time flashback only when its insight becomes absolutely necessary to the plot?

Do you recommend the use of a memory/flashback over a prologue? Can it be used even if you are writing in the 3rd person?

Answer: The kind of event you are describing is often the inciting incident for the story, which is why it's important for the reader to learn about it. (If it's not important, why include it at all?)

This event is the first in the story, chronologically. Dramatica would call it the first driver, because the first act of the story is a reaction to the inciting incident.

Putting the inciting incident into a prologue is often done when
there is a significant gap in time between it and the start of the main character's throughline.

The flashback option is often used to create a little mystery. In this case, the story opens after the inciting incident, so the reader wonders what happened that everyone is reacting to in the first act. Only at a later point in the story does the reader discover what the inciting incident was.

Of course, the flashback is not the only technique you can use to reveal the inciting incident. In a murder mystery, the detective might deduce what happened near the story's crisis. In other stories, the main character is told what happened by another character. You could also use a device such as a diary or video footage to expose the truth - or, as in your story, a recovered memory.

One thing you have to ask yourself is whether you want to create a mystery about what the inciting incident was. For instance, you could start off showing the reader a woman who is screwed up for some mysterious reason and then later have her recover the memory of the trauma that affected her.

With a prologue, there is no mystery about what happened - although you could hide the connection between the inciting incident and the main character until later. (i.e. Who was the baby girl who was traumatized? Was it the main character or woman X?). But generally, the prologue is designed to make the reader anticipate what will happen rather than wonder what did happen.

You may have to try writing it both ways to see which is more effective for the story you want to tell.

P.S. It shouldn't matter whether you're writing in first or third person

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