How to write flashbacks in fiction + story updates


flashbacklogolt

Hello hello! Welcome, on this stifingly hot and sticky September day, to my monthly round-up of news, including the latest on Million Eyes and the Million Eyes Short Stories. And this month I also come bearing tips for writing flashback sequences in fiction—not as easy as it sounds!

I’m being interviewed on Spaced Out Radio!

Last month I was contacted by Spaced Out Radio in Canada, who want to interview me live on one of their shows and get my take on conspiracy theories and the paranormal! It’s currently scheduled for 25th October, and as soon as I know more re times and topics, I’ll announce it here.

New story published – The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller

Last week I announced the publication of the second Million Eyes Short Story, after Who is Rudolph Fentz? was published in Scribble, Issue 68 last winter. The story is called The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller and appears in Tigershark Magazine, Issue 11, which can be downloaded for free here.

The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller was actually written in early 2015 and entered into the Rushmoor Writers Fullbrook Competition. It received good feedback and was subsequently submitted to a number of short story magazines and competitions. It was retained by Mystery Weekly magazine as a very close contender for publication. The editor of Mystery Weekly asked me to flesh it out a bit, but ultimately rejected the newer version. She said it was far superior to the previous version but wasn’t right for their readers at that time (which could mean anything—perhaps they already had a story that was similar).

So, at long last, The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller has found a home at Tigershark. As mentioned in my previous blog, the story’s main character is a real person—Irish filmmaker George Clarke, who specialises in horror and zombie movies. It follows his discovery of something out of place in a bonus feature on a Charlie Chaplin DVD, which sparked a media storm and 21st-century urban legend.

Clarke has read the story and given me his approval, and is now plugging the story on social media.

Here’s his original hit YouTube video, the inspiration behind the story.

I’ll be interviewing Clarke in a future blog!

Million Eyes progress

The finish line is in sight. As you know, I’ve been reading the first book in the Million Eyes Trilogy to Rushmoor Writers. I now have less than 50 pages left to read. The feedback has been great, which means everything—story and character-wise—is falling into place.

I’ve also found a new writers’ retreat in Dorset that I think might be a perfect venue to get started on my final edit pre-submitting to agents. Planning a trip there in January/February time.

Publication announcement coming soon…

Another Million Eyes Short Story is about to be published… More details soon. 🙂

How to write flashbacks in novels and short stories

Sometimes writers need to insert flashbacks into a story. It might be to explain a plot point, develop a character or clarify their motivations, or give the reader some background information. It’s important that you can identify why your story needs a flashback. If you can’t, don’t use one.

Generally it’s better to use flashbacks sparingly. This is because flashbacks stop stories from moving forwards. They take readers away from the main story to show them an event that is, by definition, already over. Now, it may be that the flashback event is really useful, engaging or insightful to the reader, but it’s still a diversion from the main story the reader’s invested in.

However, flashbacks have built-in advantages too. They may lack immediacy as scenes, but a flashback scene is a much better way of explaining a character’s background or motivations than inundating the reader with exposition and boring description. Show, don’t tell. Exposition tells, flashbacks show.

And they can be done really well. Consider the TV show, Lost, which is famous for its flashbacks and has been endlessly imitated by other TV shows since (to inferior effect). All of Lost’s characters were walking enigmas—part of the story’s appeal—and the flashbacks showed us pieces of their backstory in a way that was relevant, directly or indirectly, to what was happening to them in real time (usually anyway). Lost-style flashbacks in other shows since (like The Event, Revolution and Scandal) aren’t nearly as effective because they feel unnecessary. They come across as padding. They’re doing exactly what a flashback shouldn’t do—slowing down the story for no good reason.

Now a novelist or short story writer isn’t likely to pad out a story with flashbacks for the sake of it, in the same way a TV network will in order to fill its runtime and number-of-episodes mandate. Nonetheless, it’s still possible to overdo them.

So try not to use too many, and don’t make them too long. If you can bring the information to the reader’s attention without a flashback, do that instead. Plus, a little mystery is sometimes far better than a tell-all flashback.

When you do need a flashback, it becomes a question of how best to formulate it. Flashbacks can take the form of a short chapter or a few paragraphs. They might even be a single line. For example:

Chloe stared out across the garden. For a moment, she was nine-years-old again, doing cannonballs in the pool while her mother watched and laughed.

If you’re writing a more lengthy flashback scene, there are a number of ways of doing it that I’ve observed. Some, I think, are better than others.

Line or chapter breaks

You can take your reader back in time using a line break or a chapter break, as long as you have a ‘frame’. Your frame indicates to the reader that you are about to transition to flashback mode, i.e. one character is about to tell another character a story, or something has triggered your POV character to experience a memory. Without a frame, your reader will think they’re still in the present and the story’s still moving forward.

Changing tense

If you’re writing in the present tense, it’s easy to transition to a flashback scene. You simply start writing in the simple past tense for the duration of the scene, then revert back to present.

If you’re already writing in the past tense, you need to transition to the past perfect tense by using “had” in front of your verbs. For example:

She had arrived in London that morning and had checked into a hotel. It was then that she saw him. They exchanged pleasantries and got down to business. 

Notice that I’ve only used the past perfect tense in the first sentence. You only need to use “had” a couple of times to indicate a flashback, otherwise it becomes clumsy. Once your reader is aware that you’ve nipped back in time, you can revert to simple past.

You then come back out of the flashback into normal time by using the past perfect tense a couple more times. You might even consider using the word “now” to signal your return to the present…

Now, as he drove home, he couldn’t help wondering if he’d done the right thing.

Italics

I’m reading a book at the moment—The King’s Deception by Steve Berry—that uses italics for flashback scenes. Here’s an example:

Neither he nor Pam was happy. That much they both knew. And the leap from unhappiness to anger was one Pam had easily made.
             “Will you ever be satisfied?” she asked him. “The navy, then flight school, law school, JAG, the Billet. Now this sudden retirement. What’s next?”

Now I’m personally not a fan of this method. So far I’ve been forced to read pages upon pages of italics whenever there are flashback scenes, which are frequent. And italics used in this way kinda scream: DEVICE! It’s not a natural or inconspicuous way of inserting flashbacks. If Berry had used “she had asked him”, then reverted to simple past, he wouldn’t have needed the italics. We’d know we were reading a flashback.

Plus, if you use the “had” method, you can draw in your reader more. They get invested in the flashback and are more likely to forget that it’s not happening in the here and now. If the whole flashback is in italics, the reader is fully aware the entire time that the main story has stopped to tell a side-story or give some background.

Sometimes Steve Berry uses line and chapter breaks as well, but still insists on using italics. Some of the ‘flashbacks’ are scenes set in Tudor times, which means they’re not really flashbacks. The story is simply nonlinear, taking place in different times and out of chronological order. So Berry really doesn’t need italics for such scenes. A chapter break with a heading indicating when the chapter is set would suffice.

In Million Eyes, I do employ occasional flashbacks, using the past perfect tense to indicate when I’m transitioning. But I try to use them in moderation. Generally it’s to bring life to a character’s backstory instead of giving reams of exposition. I also have scenes set in the past, but they’re not flashbacks. They’re part of the novel’s nonlinear narrative.

So, writers—how do you use flashbacks? And what method do you employ to insert them into your narrative? And readers—what flashback method works best for you?

Next week: What’s this? Hillary Clinton has been replaced by a lookalike/clone/body double??

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