How do you write a flashback without confusing your reader? Aren’t flashbacks bad? Don’t they screw up your story? Or can they make your story better?
Alexa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How can I write a flashback scene of my protagonist without the reader getting lost?Thanks in advance
Randy sez: Knowing how to write a flashback is crucial for every novelist. But knowing why to write a flashback may be even more important.
Aren’t Flashbacks Bad?
Some people say that flashbacks are bad and you shouldn’t write them. It’s worth asking why anyone would say that.
A flashback is a scene that you show in your story in real-time, but which happened in the past. The fact that it’s shown in real-time is good. You’re not showing it in narrative summary or exposition. You’re playing it out like a movie in your reader’s head.
So where’s the harm? Why would anyone complain about that?
The only real issue is that a flashback is part of the back-story of your novel. So you’re stopping your front-story cold so you can tell some other story that happened in the past.
That’s a problem if your reader doesn’t yet care about the front-story. Then you run the risk of boring your reader. She might close your book. She might never pick it up again. Then she loses out on finishing your story. And you lose out on a reader.
But if your reader does care about the front-story, it’s a whole different game. When your reader cares about the front-story, she’s willing to stay with you through a bit of back-story, as long as it’s directly relevant to the front-story.
And back-story is often very relevant to your front-story. Your characters don’t just plop into the world on page 1 without any history. They’ve spent their whole lives preparing to live this story you’re telling. They’ve learned things. They’ve built up a personality. And they’ve been damaged by other people.
Any of those could be relevant to your front-story.
A flashback gives you, the author, the opportunity to let your reader experience that back-story in the same way that your character can experience it at any time—as a memory.
So a flashback is good, and it’s often the very best way to inject that back-story into your reader’s brain.
But you just want to be careful to make sure your reader is truly hooked on the front-story before you spring a flashback on her. A common rule of thumb is to not show any backstory in the first fifty pages of your novel, although you can violate that rule if you’re good enough.
So How Do You Write That Flashback?
A flashback has three parts:
- The segue out of the present and into the past
- The backstory scene itself
- The segue out of the backstory and into the present
Those two segues are the key to solving the problem Alexa asked about. You’ll confuse your reader for sure if you just switch straight to the backstory with no explanation.
You have a lot of options on how to do that segue. In the Harry Potter books, for example, Harry experiences a number of flashbacks involving other characters when he looks into the Pensieve, a magical device that holds people’s memories. The Pensieve is the link on the way into the flashback and on the way back out. That was a very effective way to do it.
The more usual way to do it is to have the character begin remembering something. Then have a scene break and switch to showing the memory as a flashback. At the end of the flashback, have another scene break and return to the character.
As an example, here’s how Ken Follett starts a flashback in The Man From St. Petersburg, a historical suspense novel about a Russian anarchist in the summer of 1914 who’s been sent to London to kill a Russian envoy. He knows that the envoy is negotiating an alliance between England and Russia that will drag Mother Russia into the coming war, and he wants to prevent it.
Our hero is Feliks, and we meet him about twenty pages into the novel. He’s on a train to London, admiring the view. Feliks has loads of attitude, and we pick up that attitude quickly. And then we segue smoothly into a flashback from a few weeks earlier:
And in Geneva, he had made the decision which brought him to England. He recalled the meeting. He had almost missed it…
There’s a scene break, and then the flashback begins with the phrase: He almost missed the meeting.
The flashback tells about a meeting of anarchists who’ve learned that Prince Orlov has been sent to England to negotiate an alliance that will get millions of Russian peasants killed in a stupid and senseless war. The meeting goes on for quite a while, with all sorts of suggestions. At the end of it, Feliks tells the group he knows how to prevent the war. He’s going to London and he’s going to kill Orlov.
The scene ends, and in the next chapter, Feliks is in London. Ken Follett doesn’t even need to segue back to the present, because the end of the chapter signals the end of the flashback. There’s no confusion.
The key phrase is the two-sentence transition just before the flashback: He recalled the meeting. He had almost missed it…
Those two sentences, plus the scene break, tell the reader to expect a flashback.
This flashback is very recent and it’s critical to the story. It explains why Feliks has come to London. And it radically reorients the story…
The first twenty pages of the novel have introduced us to Lord Walden, the Englishman who will be hosting Prince Orlov and negotiating for the English. So up till the point where we meet Feliks, we’ve had a rather conventional story about a dull political negotiation. Once we meet Feliks and see his flashback, we have a much more interesting story, because we see that this dull political negotiation is about to get millions of innocent people killed. And the only man who can stop it is a Russian anarchist. That’s a nice twist and it makes a great story. It becomes an even better story when you learn that Feliks knows the wife of Lord Walden. Or rather, he knew her when she was a young and wild Russian aristocrat growing up in St. Petersburg. He knew her very, very well, until the night he was arrested and she was married off to an Englishman. All of which the reader will learn through a series of vivid flashbacks.
So if you need a flashback, it’s simple: Write a sentence or two of transition, then do a scene break, then write the flashback, and then do another scene break. If you need another short transition to get back into the present, write one.
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