The Five Rules of Writing Flashbacks
Please welcome author Stuart Horwitz with a guest post on writing flashbacks.
“Flashback” is a term that we are all familiar with, even if its definition has grown a little vague. We sense that a flashback is something that happened before…but happened before what? Where we are now?
In other words, what are we flashing back from? This is where I think it is useful to introduce a companion term to flashback, the reading present. The reading present is the main narrative throughline, the most commonly visited time period, the one whose beginning and end most closely mirrors the beginning and end of the book as a whole.
There are good reasons to leave the reading present: by flashing back we can deepen characterization, create suspense, or introduce other characters and events that will eventually matter a great deal to our outcome. But there are also bad reasons to use flashbacks—not morally bad reasons, of course—just whoops-I-painted-myself-in-a-wicked-corner bad reasons.
To assist with this quandary, I offer the following five rules of writing flashbacks:
- The first rule of flashback is just that, when we flash back, we do so for a reason. And—get this—we reveal this reason to the reader. This reveal can be subtle, but readers need to be able to make some kind of connection to why we just went there or they will feel lost.
- We don’t leave the reading present for so long that readers lose their bearings upon our return. In other words, don’t fall in love with another time period and dally there, favoring it over the reading present. The reader will wonder if that is when your story really takes place, and perhaps everything else has been a flash-forward, which gets confusing (see rule #5). Readers need exactly one reading present. However the narrative is framed, wherever it jumps around to, the reader’s expectation is that they will be returned to the reading present in which they feel most at home to find out what happened.
- We don’t flash back for too short a time, such as a few lines or a paragraph, which is really more like presenting a memory. It’s better to stay in the reading present in that case and recount the past events through a character’s thoughts. When we do flash back, it should be for an entire scene, with all the benefits that a scene brings: dynamic action, a change in the state of affairs, development of the theme. This doesn’t mean a flashback should be only one scene; it can be longer provided readers aren’t lost upon their return (see rule #2).
- If you are going to use multiple timelines, present each timeline chronologically. Help a reader out: if we are flashing back from a throughline that takes place in 2002 to a throughline that takes place in 1993, make sure the events in 1993 take place sequentially: June, 1993 in one flashback; July, 1993 in the next flashback, October 1993, etc. We need to feel the narrative driving forward at all times.
- Flashbacks work, but flash-forwards don’t usually work. Flashbacks work because they correspond with our psychology: when we have a problem, we think back to an earlier time when something else happened, and then we figure out something about ourselves or our world (this is how therapy works, I think). Flash-forwards—jumping forward in narrative order—usually don’t work because the human psyche is not constructed that way. If someone asks about your past, you can discourse on it rather freely, even though you might end up changing the subject. If someone asks about the future, all but the most reckless souls will admit they don’t know yet.
For a great example of the reading present (or the viewing present, in this case) and some fabulous use of flashbacks, watch the film Slumdog Millionaire. The reading present here is the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The main character, Jamal, answers each question successfully, much to the surprise of all involved, by flashing back to specific events in his past and coming back to the viewing present with the correct response. There is even a third timeline—a lot to ask of today’s movie-going public—of Jamal being interrogated by the police. But it works because each timeline in presented in chronological order.
When we talk about flashbacks, the reading present, chronologies, and multiple timelines, we are talking about the general category called order, right? And I say that if we’re talking about order…then we might as well have some!
About the Author: Stuart Horwitz is the author of Blueprint Your Bestseller. He’s the founder and principal of the editorial firm Book Architecture based in Boston, MA and Providence, RI. For over fifteen years, he has helped authors revise, polish and successfully publish their work. His clients have become New York Times bestsellers and have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and The Tonight Show. An award-winning poet and essayist, Stuart has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds Masters degrees in Literary Aesthetics from NYU and East Asian Studies and Medieval Japanese Buddhism from Harvard.