Flashback in Fiction

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We are at the letter F in our series on “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

If you’ve read the previous posts on the subject, you’ll recall that the eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – are blogging on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.

This week, I’m going to talk about Flashback.

What is a flashback?
It is a scene narrated in the present timeline but it pertains to something that happened in the past – something that took place before the current story started.

A flashback refers to an event so compelling and powerful that it sits in the character’s memory – and has contributed to make the character who she is.

How can you tell if your story needs a flashback?
Does your story span across generations? Does it straddle two widely separated time periods? Is your plot dependent on some critical emotional moment in the character’s past?

If yes, then you might want to consider a flashback – you might need to insert a reference to that past event so that readers get a glimpse of the factors that drive your character to behave in a particular way.

If, however, your story moves seamlessly from one event to the next, with each scene arranged in chronological order and covering a reasonably narrow time frame, and the scenes contain all the information that the reader needs to know, then you don’t need to use this device.

How does a flashback differ from an exposition?
Exposition literally means a description or an explanation. In fiction writing, it is a detail from the past which is ‘exposed‘ to the reader at a strategic point in the story so as to explain something. Exposition is often done through dialogue, or is stated upfront so that the reader is informed about the backstory, the setting, or the context of the story. In that sense, you end up ‘telling’ the reader rather than ‘showing’.

A flashback (also, incidentally, a form of exposition, as Ruchi Singh describes in her post on “E is for Exposition”) is a past event seen through the character’s eyes – it differs from other forms of exposition in that it stems from her memory – with flashback, you’re ‘showing’ the reader something through a dramatic scene culled from the character’s memory.

A flashback, as the name suggests, is sudden and brief, and allows only a tantalizing hint unlike an exposition which can expose quite a lot of the backstory.

An example might help one appreciate the difference:
In the book “Take One Fake Fiance”, Tanay Devkumar is being quizzed by Mita Ramphul’s mother and at one point he admits ‘I am a detective, Mrs. Ramphul.’ This is exposition – the reader now learns something new about Tanay Devkumar, something that has been exposed through dialogue.

Mrs. Ramphul’s inquisitiveness might be interpreted by Tanay as mistrust. As the author, I may choose to show that he resents being questioned. A flashback inserted at this point could have him recall his childhood – how he had felt rejected and had been rebellious and angry growing up – and how he still hates being interrogated all these years later. Mrs. Ramphul’s questions could trigger the flashback and give the reader a broader insight into Tanay’s backstory.

There are disadvantages to using flashbacks
They break the continuity of the ongoing narrative, thereby distracting the reader and perhaps even dismaying her enough that she loses interest in the current story.

This is particularly true when the flashback is lengthy and detailed. If you need to inform the reader of a lot of stuff, better to do it through narrative exposition than through flashback.

Unless a flashback is introduced properly, the reader may confuse it with a currently occurring event.

Tips for an ideal flashback:
Make sure that the flashback adds to the plot – it should draw attention to the factors that influence the character’s subsequent behavior and that shape the rest of the story. If it doesn’t add to the plot, consider avoiding it altogether.

Make it short and snappy – a single conversation or a single scene.

If possible, insert the flashback after a memorable scene so that, once the flashback ends, the reader has no difficulty returning to the current story.

Let the reader get to know the character first before flashing back to the character’s past. Reader’s are hardly likely to be interested in the past of a character whom they don’t yet know. Thus, never start with a flashback and don’t have one until well into chapter three of the story.

Let the reader know early that the scene is a flashback. Either overtly throw in the year that the character is flashing back to, or mention how old she was at the time. Do consider including cues that it happened during a different time frame – draw the reader’s attention to the differences, say, in clothes, language, music or the people and settings of that time.

Pay attention to the tense in the flashback and be consistent about it. The tense helps us see when the action took place: in the present, in the past, or in the future. If you wish, you can distinguish between current events and flashback events by using different tenses for the two.

A suggestion: simple past tense for the story (Tanay glared at Mrs. Ramphul) and past perfect (He had been abandoned at birth) for the flashback.

If the flashback is long, then using past perfect for a whole lot of action can be jarring. In that case, introduce the flashback with past perfect, then revert to simple past tense. Just before the end of the flashback, come back to past perfect again (He had spent years in anger and in rebellion). After the flashback ends and you’re in the current story, start writing in simple past tense and give an additional clue to indicate that you’re in the current time (Now, after years of therapy, he was able to control his anger much better).

If the flashback needs to be longer than a scene or a paragraph, consider giving the flashback its own stand-alone chapter. You can then state the time and the setting clearly right at the beginning of the chapter (Kolkata, January 2001, Mrs. Ramphul’s drawing room).

Need more information? Check out the following:
How to write a flashback scene: 7 key steps
3 Tips for Writing Successful Flashbacks
How to Handle Flashbacks In Writing
What is Flashback in a Story?

So, tell me – do you enjoy it when authors use flashback in their writing? If yes, name a book that you particularly remember for the exquisitely crafted flashback scenes…

Read other posts related to Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

2 thoughts on “Flashback in Fiction

  1. Adite

    Great tips, Reet! Although flashback is frowned upon, I love to use flashbacks in my story. As you have pointed out, they help in giving insights into your character. However if you are not careful it can apply the brakes on the momentum of the story!

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