Integrating Flashbacks into Your Story

Here’s a post from Jane Friedman’s blog: Weaving Flashbacks Seamlessly into Story

That caught my eye because of the way I put flashbacks into Suelen’s story. I fundamentally do appreciate brief flashbacks that are integrated with the story present; the kind that maybe take up a paragraph or two, sometimes only a sentence or two. I use very brief flashbacks like that on occasion, although I don’t think I do it very often. I believe I more often have the protagonist think, in story present, about past events. I think that’s easier to integrate into the story.

But in Suelen, there are two important flashback scenes. In this particular story, I didn’t integrate the flashbacks seamlessly; I set them off with chapter breaks. There are two. Both are relatively extended. Both take place at the same time, the day before Suelen crosses the river. One covers part of his interview with Aras and the second covers another part of that same interview. Let me see if the linked post has something to say about that …

Ah! It does. This post gives guidelines for integrating flashbacks into story present and then adds that these same techniques can be used even for flashbacks that are set well apart from the main story. What are those guidelines? Here they are in condensed form; I’m paraphrasing and condensing.

— something in story present is directly relevant to and sparks the memory, leading into the flashback.

–general memory of the past leads to concrete details and a specific remembered incident.

–the protagonist returns to story present in some clear way that the reader can’t miss.

–the flashback causes the protagonist to act in story present in some way congruent with that memory.

Okay, yes, provided I’ve accurately summarized this post, I think that’s right. That is what has to happen no matter how the flashback is presented, whether it’s as a paragraph with no line breaks or a chapter set off from the main narrative.

Here’s another post about flashback: What Is a Flashback? Definition and Examples of Flashbacks

Flashbacks can either be quick dips into the past or a larger narrative thread within a story. Taking readers out of the present time to learn about an earlier event can help a writer tell a story in a non-linear style. Approaching short story or novel writing in this way can make the narrative more interesting. Flashbacks have several other important functions in literature.

Those functions are:

–character development

–adding interest to the plot — I have to say, if your chronological narrative lacks interest, not sure adding flashbacks is going to solve that problem, but whatever.

–increase reader involvement with the protagonist. This seems like part of character development to me.

–explain the current conflict.

That’s all very well — in fact, I think the linked post is good, not least because it offers examples of flashbacks from literature: Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, and Harry Potter.

owling begins her first Harry Potter book just as Harry turns eleven years old. It’s been ten years since Lord Voldemort murdered his parents and Harry was left with his less-than-welcoming relatives, the Dursleys. Rowling uses a series of flashbacks to hint at Harry’s unique abilities by recounting the strange things that happened to him before the story takes place. For example, when Aunt Petunia makes Harry get a haircut, he wakes up the next morning to find his hair has grown back to where it was. Rowling uses these flashbacks to foreshadow what we soon find out—that Harry has inherited wizarding powers from his parents.

That’s using tiny snippets of flashbacks, a good technique.

One more use of flashbacks that isn’t mentioned by either post, but is highly relevant:

–A flashback can be added just because the author enjoys it and expects the reader to enjoy it.

That wasn’t the only reason I put flashbacks in the narrative in Suelen, but it was a biggie.

I could have summarized Suelen’s interaction with Lord Aras. Or I could have started the story there, with that interaction, and then said, “The next morning, Suelen crossed the river.” That would have put all the events in the story in chronological order. Instead, I put that interaction into two chapters, widely separated in the narrative, because I enjoyed writing the story that way and I expect the reader to enjoy those flashbacks. Let me see if I can delineate all my important reasons for structuring the story the way I did. Okay, here:

–It was just fun to show this interaction, in an extended scene and in its own story-present. I enjoy watching Aras be all authoritative. Surely many or most readers will also enjoy that. But besides that:

–I wanted to start with Suelen already across the river, committed to his humanitarian mission, and

–Breaking the story-present narrative increases tension by pausing the scene, particularly the second time, where I pause the action at a high-stress moment.

–Inserting these flashbacks also allows Aras to appear in every book of the Tuyo series, which I specifically want. That alone would have made me put in these flashbacks. In fact, that was probably my first motivation to write the narrative that way. It’s something that helps tie all the books together.

–As it happens, this interaction does deepen characterization — not just for Suelen, which it does a little, but for Aras. We get a tiny glimpse of a private doubt he does not like to discuss. That, by the way, is likely to be something that is built up later, in Tasmakat.

Lots of reasons to use flashbacks, either as tiny snippets scattered unobtrusively through the narrative, but also as scenes in their own right.

I’m going to return to the first linked post to add:

For the love of all things narratively holy, flashbacks aren’t set in italics or a different font. 

That made me laugh. Yes, as a general rule, I don’t advise setting flashbacks into italics. Too jarring for little snippets, tiring to read for long sections, and it’s impossible to make the shift in verb tenses and things like that work subtly if you try to throw flashbacks into italics.

Regardless, the linked posts are pretty good; by all means click through if you’ve been thinking about how and why to integrate flashbacks into a story.

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