Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mastering the Flashback

There's something about a flashback that always draws a writer in. We love to use them. Sometimes too much. New writers will become dependant on them while seasoned writers will realize their value and use them wisely.

But how do you write a successful flashback? They're not easy. If we're not careful, the flashback can do more harm than good in a story. They offer more problems than solutions. Why? Because they are events that have already happened. They take the reader out of the story - if not written correctly.

So how does one master the flashback? There are ways to keeping your flashback from destorying your story. Keep the flashback as brief as possible. Make sure you don't slow the action, bog the pacing or lose our readers interest. If the flashback must be long (longer than a paragraph), then transition into and out of in ways that are clear to your readers. Use signifiers that will help the transition for your readers - like a phone call, someone at the door, being shuffled in a crowd, coping a feel at a party ... you get the idea.

Verb tenses are crucial in flashbacks. 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 use words like she knew, if she had to remember, she had thought ect. 

It's important not to confuse your readers, so Nancy Kress suggest that to signal the start of the flashback,  puts its first five verbs in past perfect ("had done," "had dressed," "had bought," "had come," "hadn't even seen"). After that, tell 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.

Here the most important piece to remember: 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.

Have you mastered flashbacks in your novel? Did they cause problems for you? Do you find it easier to master your flashback during the revisions? Do you even think about them?

P.S. if you are wondering why Richard Armitage is in this post - its cause I can't stop staring into his eyes ;)


Linda Gray said...

Excellent specific advice. I was just thinking about a flashback scene in my novel, and am going to go check my verb use to see if that will make it smoother, less like stepping back. thanks!

Anya S. Winter said...

I'm glad you you can use it! My editor kept bugging me to fix my flashbacks but I had no idea what she was talking about until I did some research!

Anonymous said...

That's really good advice. I'll have to bookmark this so I can refer to it later. Thanks Anya!

And I completely understand about Richard Armitage. He's a nice addition to the post.

McKenzie McCann said...

The point of a flashback is to progress the story. Sometimes you have to look back to move ahead.

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