Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flashback Folly

This reminds me of that time, shrouded in the mists of memory...Had enough?

There are some mixed feelings on flashbacks.

Flashbacks Suck Because They:
-break the narrative flow
-slow down the action
-are a sign of lazy storytelling. See also Dream Sequence, Prologue

Flashbacks Rule Because They:
-give backstory depth
-can double the impact of the climax

I've been studying a few books that do flashbacks well, Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker, Fire by Kristin Kashore, and The Sword Edged-Blonde by Alex Bledsoe.

I wrote this post, and then decided a summary at the top would be helpful. Details from the books are below.

  1. The information must be extremely important to the main story. No distracting the reader!
  2. Don't flashback until the reader absolutely is dying to know what happened to caused the character's present situation.
  3. Anchor the reader in place and time. Be very clear when you leave the present time.
  4. Be smooth. Use details form the present to carry the reader into the flashback.
  5. Once the necessary information has been presented, get out!
  6. Flashbacks can be more effective if the story arch of the flashback and the main plot climax at the same time.
My example books present flashbacks differently, but all are well done.

In Fire, Lady Fire is a Monster, a person with bright, unnaturally red hair that draws people in like moths to a flame. Her father, Cantrell, was also a Monster, and he used this power to control the king and nearly destroy the kingdom. As a result, Fire's history with her father is very involved, affecting the way people in her present time interact with her and how she makes decisions. This is key. You can't have flashbacks just to have them. They have to matter to the reader in the present moment.

In Fire, these flashbacks were integrated into the narrative, little chunks anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages in length. Kashore always set up the reader with hints, miniflashes and hooks that prime the reader.
Remember, lead the reader to ask questions, then answer them just enough in the flashback.

Here's an example of how to lead the reader into a flashback from The Sword-edged Blonde:
Eddie LaCrosse, a sword jockey with a lot of facial hair, is asked to investigate a missing persons case in the country he voluntarily exiled himself from twenty years previous. Eddie doesn't yet know what the case is about, but he's been brought to a castle and is being ushered to an audience with the king when one of the guards at the gate "started to say something, then stopped and stared as if I'd grown another nose. Then he turned to Anders. 'Is that--?'
'Yeah,' Anders said quickly"... "'And we don't want to keep the king waiting.'
Then they assure Eddie they'll take good care of his horse, and adds, "Sorry about that 'fuzzy' crack. No harm done, right?" and the door is shut behind them.Then Eddie turns to his guide, Anders and says,
"What the hell was that about?"
"They knew who I'd been sent to fetch. People stil talk about you here."
"They do," I repeated. My stomach fell into a pit and I was suddenly queasy. "What do they say?"
A spark flared to life in the darkness, and then a torch burst to life. Anders held it at arms length while the harsh residue burned away. "They talk about that day at the lake, when you fought all those guys," Anders said as he waited for the flame to settle. "Whenever someone's facing odds like that, they call it 'getting LaCrossed.'"
"I can think of a few better words for it." Failure came to mind.

Okay, none of this is a flashback, but it's raising questions for the reader. There are repeated mentions of that day, clues about how he failed, but we don't get the larger picture until page 147, and we don't the full picture of why Eddie left Arentia until page 197, right at the climax of the book.

In "Possessing the Secret to Joy", a woman is haunted by the life she left behind in Africa. She's a broken woman, and the reader can guess pretty early in the book that some terrible tribal initiaion ruined her, but we don't know what happened, not exactly. Walker writes in first person, and shifts between Tashi, her husband Adam, plus some scenes from his son by another woman, and the other woman. Then Walker also shifts back in time, although the flashbacks are mainly in Tashi's POV (if not all; I've already returned the book to the library so I can't double check that. Sorry!)

This is a lot for the reader to orient to, and Walker does some interesting things to help. She labels each chapter simply with the perspective character's name. No chapter title, just the name. And she is very careful to hook the reader at the end of the present scene, then use that hook to pull the reader into the flashback. Like with a chicken that Tashi is terrified of. She paints the chicken on the wall and collapses. Her psychiatrist and husband have no idea why she's painting this bird and they talk about how they're stumped. So the reader wonders, too. Then you see what happened from Tashi's eyes. It's a great technique, because it makes the past seem so real.

I learned a lot studying these books, but I want to throw a word of caution out here. "Possessing the Secret of Joy" was a tough tough read. I was depressed for a few days afterward. It was that awful. Not that Walker was out of line, it's just such a disturbing topic and she made it feel so personal. Also, I caution sensitive readers that "The Sword-edged Blonde" is not a church book club nominee because of the ribald humor and some sexual situations. It's well-written and funny, and the flashbacks are amazingly well done, but if that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable, then I'd keep looking. There. I'm done.  

Anything to add? Any other great flashback books?

Happy writing!


  1. I can understand why you're studying flashbacks, because I really don't think there's any way to tell your novel without them. Thanks for sharing these insights, and good luck with the last of our revisions!

  2. Hey Krista- I tried to tell it linearly, but Lara goes from Eden to this world, and the difference in tone was jarring when she changed location. Plus when Eden was all a big chunk in the beginning, it was misleading because the rest of the book is romance, and you just can't get that in a world populated entirely by unfeeling women;)

    I'm reading this and it doesn't seem very intelligible, but that's the best I can do right now! Thanks for reading, both the blog and for your crits.

  3. Nope. No more suggestions. As usual, you've drawn some very nice information from the books you've read. Now. I have some reading to do . . . ;-)

  4. Teresa, I am shocked. NOTHING to add, my friend? Thanks for stopping by, and I really liked your blog on editing and the example.

  5. PS Teresa- I give you credit for pointing me to two out of three books and pointing out many of these tips to me. Thanks for sharing your wisdom so I could share it here!