Some stories behave conveniently for their authors: They take place in several consecutive scenes not very far apart in time, and everything the reader needs to know is contained in those scenes. Such stories are easy to structure. You start when the action starts, write sequentially to the end of the action and stop.
Then there are the other stories. The ones that take place all over the temporal map: scenes in the story’s present, scenes from the protagonist’s childhood that are needed to understand the story’s present, scenes from halfway across the country the Tuesday before the story began. All of these scenes, you have determined, are utterly necessary to the story. You can’t dump any of them. To create any sort of coherent structure for this story, you are going to need flashbacks.
Flashbacks offer many pitfalls. This is because even the best-written flashback carries a built-in disadvantage: It is, by definition, already over. The scene you are detailing in your flashback isn’t happening in story time. It happened sometime earlier, and so we are being given old information. Like old bread, old information is never as fresh or tasty as new bread. The flashback lacks immediacy.
But offsetting this inherent disadvantage are the several advantages a good flashback can bring to a story. It can make plausible a character’s motives, by showing what events in his past compel him to act the way he is now. It can fill in events that show how the story situation reached the exciting state it’s in now. And it can present crucial information that happened so long ago—years, or even decades, earlier—that there is simply no other way to include it.
Consider an example of the last case. Your story concerns the behavior of your protagonist, Gary, toward his teenage son, Jack, who has just been arrested for illegal possession of firearms. Gary’s own father was shot during a robbery when Gary was a child, and he witnessed the killing. This memory shapes all his behavior toward Jack. How do you convey to the reader what guns mean to Gary? You have three choices:
- Tell the reader in exposition, or have Gary ruminate about his father’s murder. The problem is that the scene is too vital and dramatic for either exposition or expository memory. You’d be missing a strong opportunity to make your story affect the reader viscerally.
- Start the story with the murder, then jump ahead 30 years to Jack’s arrest. This would be fatally clumsy. The story would seem to start twice, because the time leap is so long, and chances are very good that the reader would stop reading on the grounds that you don’t seem to know what you’re doing.
- Use a flashback. When a flashback is the best choice, it will still lack immediacy; however, you can minimize this drawback and maximize the flashback’s advantages by following three simple guidelines.
Time travel done right
- Your flashback should follow a strong scene.
This means that the flashback is never the first scene. It’s not even the second scene following a brief, sketchy, introductory “scene” like the following:
Gary stared out his kitchen window. Cold rain beat on the brown grass and bare trees. It took him back to that other rainy day thirty years ago, the day that had changed Gary’s life forever …
The reason this is not an adequate first scene to support a flashback is that it’s not really a scene at all. Nothing happens except weather. We have no idea who Gary is, so we don’t care about his past. Why should we? As far as we’re concerned, he doesn’t yet have a present.
A far stronger approach is to start your story with a scene in story time. It should be an interesting, vivid scene, which brings its character(s) to life for us. It should contain action pertinent to the story’s central concern, whether that’s a murder, a family argument or a personal internal crisis. It should also go on long enough to really get us into the story. Then you can use the flashback as your second scene.
What if your story contains more than one flashback? In that case, I hope it’s either a novel or a long short story. Most of what you write should actually occur in story time (with one exception, which we’ll get to later). If you do need two or more flashbacks, intersperse strong present-story-time scenes among them. Don’t go immediately from one flashback into an even earlier one. The reader will likely become either confused or irritated, wondering when you’re going to actually get on with your main story.
- Orient us at the start of the flashback in time and space.
The transition to some flashbacks are so clumsily written that the reader isn’t even sure until halfway through the scene that it is a flashback. Others let us know we’ve moved back in time, but not how far or to what place. A reader who is expending energy trying to figure out where and when she is now is not able to engage with your story.
The following flashback 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 …
There’s no chance here that the reader will get lost. The author tells us in the first sentence of the flashback that we have shifted in time. He tells us how much earlier we are now (when Michael was 12), where we are (in a crowd of people) and who is present that matters (Michael, Eddie and their potential victim). Make your transitions just as clear.
- Use verb tense conventions to guide your reader in and out of the flashback.
Conventions have evolved about using verb tenses to signal both the start and end of flashbacks. Although most readers don’t consciously notice these tense shifts, the shifts register below the level of consciousness to signal “Now we’ve moved back in time” and “Now we’ve left the flashback to rejoin story time.” Using these conventions is the best way to keep your reader from flashback confusion.
If your story is being told in the past tense, then write the first few verbs of the flashback in the past perfect and the rest in simple past. For example, in the above excerpt, Perry tells story-time events in the past tense (“habits came back,” “he knew,” “he scanned.”) To signal the start of the flashback, Perry puts its first five verbs in past perfect (“had done,” “had dressed,” “had bought,” “had come,” “hadn’t even seen”). After that, he tells the rest of the flashback in past tense (“eyes were,” “they passed,” etc.). The reason for this is that an entire flashback in past perfect would be cumbersome, especially if it’s very long.
When you’re ready to end the flashback, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs. Then use past tense to resume story time. This is the way Perry comes out of the flashback quoted above:
As Eddie hustled him away, he had heard people saying something about heart attacks and strokes. Bystanders had made way for them, apparently feeling sorry that Eddie’s little boy had seen some stranger at the moment when a vessel in his brain exploded.Schaeffer felt his pulse begin to settle down now.
What if your story is being told in present tense? The convention is even simpler. Put story-time action in present tense and put the entire flashback in past tense. When you’re ready to return to story time, simply resume present tense.
Framing your story
A “frame story,” which may be any length from a few thousand words to a long novel, is one which begins after all the action is over. Someone, protagonist or author, announces that he is going to tell a story. He may even give the entire outcome of the story ahead of time, as John Irving does in the opening to A Prayer For Owen Meany:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice?not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
And there you have many of the main events of the book. Why would Irving announce them ahead of time, thereby robbing his novel of any suspense about whether the mother will survive, whether the protagonist will recover his faith and (the frame is longer than I’ve quoted above) many other key events? He did it, presumably, because he thought he would gain more than he lost. Although A Prayer For Owen Meanyhas sacrificed some immediacy, it has gained the chance for the first-person protagonist to look back on these events and thus interpret them as we go along. We get two perspectives: the young protagonist to whom all this is happening, and the older person who can comment on what it eventually meant to him. The frame offers a dual perspective, and the book is richer for it.
Consider this structure carefully before you use it for your story. Do you have an interesting contrast between your youthful narrator and his later self? Interesting enough to sacrifice having your reader feel she is experiencing the story as it happens, instead of being told about it after it’s over? If so, try a frame. If not, save your flashbacks for use in the body of the work.
However you use flashbacks, they can add depth and interest to your characters. “The past is foreign country,” L.P. Hartley said. Flashbacks let us, however briefly, visit that country.
This article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.
Nancy Kress’ latest book is the novel Probability Moon, a science fiction novel about the balance between the good of a species and the absolute good of moral action. It contains flashbacks.