Dramatic Strategy: Flashbacks

Suspense writer Robert Crais created a stoic tough character named Joe Pike. You may have read Crais’s novels. If so, you’ll be familiar with Pike, who has arrows tattooed on his upper arms. The arrows point forward. They are to remind Pike to always look forward, never back.

Same thing with plotting. Most readers of adventurous, plot-driven stories want to go forward. They want to follow a story’s progression from start to finish. They want to see the next scene of conflict, experience the next rush of action and plot twists. They want to get on with it.

Inexperienced writers, by contrast, want to look back. They have pages and pages of background, history, and explanation that they feel readers should know first in order to understand what’s happening when the story begins.

Resist this urge.

Wise Walter Writer–a seasoned professional wordsmith–knows that it’s best to align a story’s plot with what readers want.

That’s why you’ll seldom see Walter Writer crafting a flashback at all, and he’ll never insert one early in a story.

In the middle of a book, however, Walter may want a subplot to come in or he may want to deepen characterization. If he presents background for his protagonist, he knows that dramatizing a portion of it in a scene will be more effective than a dry summary in narrative.

In such a case, the flashback serves an effective purpose.

Writers should signal clearly that the story is jumping to a past event. Use a space break and write obvious transitions, such as

Thinking back to that summer day three years ago, Julie remembered how she’d been stirring supper in a skillet on the stove when Steve walked in. “I want a divorce,” he said. “You can have the house. I’m taking the car and the dog. That’s it. I don’t want to discuss anything.”

The scene can then play out, with Julie and Steve in conflict. At the scene’s conclusion, another transition should indicate that we’re leaving the flashback–the story’s past–for the story’s present.

After Steve left, Julie stood there, sobbing while the hamburger and onions charred in the skillet. That night, she’d packed a suitcase and fled the house, never to return … until now. As she drove slowly up the gravel driveway and parked, she knew the years of absence couldn’t buffer her from what was coming next. Getting out of the car, she stared up at the dusty windows and sagging porch, her memories still colliding between pain and a steely determination not to be hurt again.

Now, let’s consider an author who relies heavily on flashbacks to illustrate character back story. Jennifer Chiaverini’s highly successful series of Elm Creek quilting novels are character-driven. However, because her focus is on the inner arc of change in her characters and because the resolutions of her books hinge on the story people coming to grips with their pasts, the flashbacks become more like plotlines. They work for the kind of inward story Chiaverini is creating.

For most straightforward plots dealing with external conflict, limit flashbacks to one or two key points in the story’s progression. For plots derived primarily from character growth, flashbacks can be used much more heavily to enrich the unfolding drama.

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