Saturday, June 27, 2020
The Flash Flashes Back - Using Flashbacks
I have waded through books that have so many flashbacks the story is lost. I have enjoyed stories that the author used flashbacks so well the story flowed. How does one use flashbacks well, and when should one not use any?
Let's have a lesson in flashbacks.
A flashback can bring information needed for a reader to understand a character or plot better, or one can overwhelm the reader with too much information. Too many flashbacks disrupt the story line and confuse the reader.
Let's look at tips for writing flashbacks:
1. Know if and when your story needs a flashback (and use seldom). A flashback must be an essential part of the story. Never use a flashback in the middle of an action scene.
2. Look at examples of flashbacks in stories. (see sample)
3. A flashback must focus on a single event or experience.
4. Never make a flashback the first or even the second scene. Have it follow a strong scene.
5. “Signal” a flashback’s beginning and end. Let a character’s words or actions lead the reader into the flashback and then back out.
Example: Craig’s mind wandered back to Vietnam, the battle that destroyed his life.
Example: Marion smiled as she remembered that meeting.
Example: With an oath, John strode to the window. He stared, not at the yard below, but back to that fateful day.
Example: With a shudder, Craig mentally shut the door on the horror and answered the ringing phone.
Example: Her thoughts returned to the present.
Example: “Nothing can change what happened, nothing.” He turned from the window to face the woman sitting on the sofa.
One method to start a flashback is using objects or senses to trigger a memory of a past scene are precisely the devices you should use to trigger flashbacks in writing. Say that you want a character to remember something about his mother… Make him find her old apron at the back of a drawer. Make him see a stranger who reminds him of his mother.
6. Verb usage should lead into and out of a flashback.
If you write the story in past tense, you avoid the use of “had” as a helping verb most of the time to avoid passive voice. To begin a flashback, use “had” as a helping verb for the first sentence of or two to transition from the main part of the story to the flashback. Then return to simple past tense until the last sentence or two. For the last sentence or two of the flashback, use “had” as a helping verb again.
If you write in present tense (which I personally don’t prefer because it limits what the author can convey), you still handle the flashback as described above.
Below is an example, a sample of a flashback:
Marion’s head snapped up. “That would devastate Roger.” She frowned. “But, but, can you even do it?”
“Yes, I can do it. There’s nothing legal standing in the way. I just allowed him to take over more and more until I was just a ... a bystander.”
“Oh, my dear. When we first met, and you were so sure we should marry, I knew we faced problems, but I never thought they would last this long.” She laid her head back against her husband’s shoulder. “I had no idea that we would face something worse.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw you. So beautiful and still are.”
Marion smiled as she remembered the meeting that changed her life.
David had gone to town to pick up a load of barbed wire and posts. The fencing around the north pasture had to be replaced, but David hadn’t wanted to take the long trip to town. The wagon couldn’t take a shortcut across country but had to stay on the road that meandered another ten miles than the route a horse could take.
“A wasted day,” he muttered as he flicked the reins over the backs of the horses. “The old man could have sent one of the hands. No! He wants me to go.” The young man pounded a gloved fist on the seat beside him. “Had to leave before dawn, drive all day, load the stuff, and not get home until after dark. Wasted day.”
As he wove the horses and wagon through the crowded streets of Guthrie, he cursed the job, the crowds, the need to be in town. Then he spied the tall, slender woman standing on the wooden walk beside the dirt street. The breeze stirred her blue skirts, teasingly showing the tops of her laced shoes. One hand gathered the wind tossed strands of black hair and tried to force them back into place, but the wind just whipped them away. A wizened woman stood beside the younger one. Piles of bundles occupied space around both women.
David pulled the wagon to the side of the street, stopping beside the women. “Howdy, ma’am, miss.” He tipped his hat. “May I help you ladies?”
The younger woman blinked in surprise, her eyes a startling blue in the pale tan of her face. “I, uh, I think perhaps you ... ” She turned to her companion in confusion.
“Thank you, sir, for offering your help,” the old woman began, “but you’ll be better off if you aren’t seen speaking to us.”
David frowned. “And why is that? You seem decent ladies.”
A tall, grizzled man in buckskins joined the two women. “You are right, sir.” A southern drawl tinged his speech. “My mother and daughter are good, moral women, but the people of this town hold it against them that my father was half Cherokee.”
“So what?” David replied. “Most of us around here have some Indian in us.”
The man laughed. “You are rather naive, sir. Your parents would be shocked to know you spoke to us.”
“My parents do not tell me who I can talk with. They don’t control my friends.” David’s eyes narrowed. “I’m my own man and make my own decisions.”
The older man studied the younger for a few seconds. “I do believe you.” He stuck out his right hand. “I’m Henry Thunderhawk. This is my mother Margaret and my daughter Marion.”
David grabbed the other man’s hand, feeling the sinewy strength. “Glad to meet you, sir. May I help you load your things?” He motioned toward the bundles on the walk.
“I just discovered that the wheelwright can’t get to my wagon.” Henry Thunderhawk shrugged. “The wheel rim broke. And oddly there isn’t a wagon to buy, rent, or steal in town.”
“Well, if you’ll let me get my load on first, I’ll come back and pick you and your things up.” David glanced toward Marion. “It might be a bit tight fit, but if you don’t mind ...”
“Perhaps I should refuse your offer for your sake,” Henry suggested, “but I don’t want my mother and daughter exposed to any more hatred.” He shook his head, his longish hair flapping against his neck. “At least you won’t have to go but about a mile out of your way.”
Thereafter, David insisted on making trips to town for supplies. Each trip, he stopped at the Thunderhawk homestead, both going and coming. Each stop, he managed to spend at least a few minutes alone with Marion. One evening, as she walked to the wagon with him, David took her hand, pulling her to a stop.
“Marion, I, uh, I wonder if you’d mind if I talked to you dad about us?” He studied her face in the darkening light. “Or have I spoke too soon?”
The white of her smile shone through the twilight. “No, not too soon. I just hope you know what you’re asking.” She lightly brushed the side of his face with cool fingers.
“I know I want you for my wife. That’s all I need to know.” He ducked his head and brushed his lips across hers.
“Don’t promise something if you can’t keep it, David. I couldn’t stand that.” Marion had tried to smile again, but quivering lips wouldn’t allow the smile to form. “If you promise never to leave me, and then you did ... I couldn’t stand that.” She had lowered her head. “I would prefer that you never promise.”
Her thoughts returning to the present, Marion asked, “Remember when you promised you would never leave me? Your parents made it hard for you to keep that promise.”
A flashback can be a useful tool for a writer to use, if used correctly.